There was one common thread among the four teams that won on Saturday and Sunday in the NCAA Tournament to make it to the Final Four in Phoenix next weekend.
Was it that they were all favored? Nope, North Carolina and Gonzaga won as favored #1 seeds, but Oregon and South Carolina advanced as underdogs. Whether your mode of determining favorites is to look at seed line or the Vegas spread, the result was a 2-2 split.
Was it that the winners had an easier game in the Sweet 16? This gets us a little closer, but not much. South Carolina was surely helped by its rout of Baylor, while Florida had to go to overtime to beat Wisconsin. But the same factor didn’t help Kansas (who blasted Purdue) against Oregon (who survived a last-second shot attempt by Michigan).
We can allow North Carolina’s win over Butler was easier than Kentucky’s over UCLA, but not by a lot. Gonzaga and Xavier each went to the wire in the Sweet 16, so that was a wash.
The commonality that Oregon, Gonzaga, South Carolina and North Carolina all share is this—they all played the early game of the Sweet 16. It’s worth asking the question—on a tight turnaround, where most of the Elite Eight games are played on weekend afternoons, is just a little bit of extra rest a determining factor?
We’d need a good five-year sample size to really evaluate a trend and with start time information not readily available on SportsReference.com, the research would be beyond the scope of what I’d want to do for a single blog post.
But I’ll tell you this—if I were a betting man (which I’m not) it would be worth my time to find out if there’s edges in wagering on underdogs who played early. If I were the NCAA, I’d want to find out if this factor is so significant that I’d need to guarantee the highest remaining seed always plays early (or at least come up with good excuses for why I’m caving in to my TV partners and letting them set the schedule).
Other notes from the last four days of regional basketball…
*In getting ready for the Oregon-Michigan game in the Sweet 16, I had in my notes that Jordan Bell needed to be an impact player. Talk about understatement—Bell went for 16 points/13 rebounds against the undersized Wolverines in a 69-68 win. Then he turned around and looked like the next coming of Bill Russell against Kansas.
Bell got 13 more rebounds on Saturday—including the biggest offensive board of the game that set up a clinching three-pointer when the Oregon lead was cut to six and he blocked eight shots. It was an amazing performance as he won the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
*Sindarius Thornwell has been the best player of the tournament overall, in carrying South Carolina to the Final Four. He went for 29/11 in the Round of 32 win over Duke. The numbers said 24/6 in the rout of Baylor and 26/7 in Sunday afternoon’s win over Florida. Thornwell is doing for South Carolina what Shabazz Napier did for Connecticut back in 2014.
*I was glad to see Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss play as well as he did in Saturday’s win over Xavier. It had been a tough tournament for a great player through three rounds. Williams-Goss is an NBA talent and hopefully Saturday’s game will be what he needs to get rolling.
*The Kentucky-North Carolina game was everything you’d hope for from a game involving such traditional programs. I know this won’t matter much to fans of either side, but for the Wildcats to only lose by two in a game where their three best players were all off—De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo combined to shoot 13-for-34—it tells you how good they really were.