Wichita State, whose team includes a Rockford kid, would be the least likely NCAA champs ever


Since celebrated political polling analyst Nate Silver is also a noted numbers cruncher in the world of sports, I’m inclined to pay attention to his slants on the NCAA college basketball tournament.

And since one of the teams in the Final Four, the Wichita State Shockers, has a freshman player who prepped at Auburn High School in Rockford (Fred Van Vleet, pictured above with the ball), I’m especially interested in how Silver rates their chances.

HERE‘s what he says:

The FiveThirtyEight model gave Wichita State only a 1.3 percent chance of reaching the Final Four before the tournament began, or about 75-to-1 odds against. Does that imply that the Shockers’ having reached the Final Four represents a once-every-75-year event – about as rate as Halley’s comet?

Actually, the math is a little bit more complicated than that. There are four regions, and in each one, there are a number of long-shot teams, so there are a lot of opportunities every year for someone to defy the odds. Instead, our pretournament model suggested that there was about a 16 percent chance (roughly 1-in-6) that Wichita State or any of the other 37 teams with under a 2 percent chance of reaching the Final Four would do so.

Some of the historical cases of teams that defied even longer odds are well-known. Pennsylvania, in 1979, overcame what we estimate were 500-to-1 odds against reaching the Final Four — while Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 was about an 800-to-1 underdog.

However, Wichita State’s accomplishment holds up well against some other Cinderella teams, including Louisiana State in 1986 and George Mason in 2006, both of which made the Final Four as No. 11 seeds. Wichita State was a No. 9 seed, and a reasonably good one. The problem is that being a No. 9 seed is probably more difficult than being a No. 11. A No. 9 seed will almost certainly have to defeat a No. 1 seed in its second game (as Wichita State did against Gonzaga) – eliminating the chance of getting lucky because the favorite gets knocked out early. In addition, Wichita State beat a very tough No. 8 seed, Pittsburgh, and a very tough No. 2, Ohio State — and the Shockers have made some of these wins look easy.

The issue, as is the case for Syracuse, is that the accomplishments for the other three Final Four teams have been just as impressive — and they began with considerably better regular-season résumés than Wichita State. So the FiveThirtyEight model gives the Shockers only about a 5 percent chance of winning out.

But what if they do it? The initial model gave Wichita State only about a 0.08 percent chance of winning the tournament, or about 1,200-to-1 odds against. If the Shockers win the tournament, they would probably qualify as the least-likely champions in history — displacing the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, who won as a No. 8 seed and faced a somewhat more favorable draw.


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