Chalk improves the NCAA Tournament

Zion Williamson (photo by Keenan Hairston from Raleigh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (])

Last year, there were a lot of upsets in the tournament. UMBC famously beat Virginia in the first sixteen seed over one seed upset in history. Eleventh-seeded Loyola captivated the hearts of the nation by making an improbable run to the Final Four. With Sister Jean cheering from the stands, the Ramblers provided a fun story for the tournament. They were a unique team that provided fresh blood late into the tournament.

But once they got to the Final Four, Loyola lost by double digits to Michigan. UMBC lost in the second round to Kansas State in one of the least watchable games in the entire tournament. The Final Four consisted entirely of blow outs. It was boring to watch. All the exciting games happened earlier in the tournament. A lot of great teams lost early, so the games late in the tournament were lopsided.

Since 2010, there have been nine teams seeded sixth or lower that made the Final Four. Six of them lost in the Final Four, two lost in the National Championship Game, and one (UConn in 2014) won the National Championship. Cinderellas to make the Final Four went 2–6 against non-Cinderellas, with 3 of the losses coming by double digits. Cinderellas largely lost, and often the losses were not even close.

Both upset wins by Cinderellas in the Final Four came in 2014, where UConn beat Florida and Kentucky beat Wisconsin. UConn would go on to beat Kentucky for the national title. These games were exciting and memorable, unlike most Cinderella performances in the Final Four. But UConn was ranked 15th in KenPom that year, while Kentucky was 13th, making them the two best Cinderellas to make the Final Four since 2010. Both schools are also considered traditional basketball powers. They were Cinderellas in seed only.

When true Cinderellas made the Final Four, the results were predictable and boring. In 2011, Butler and VCU both made it, as an eighth seed and eleventh seed, respectively. Butler beat VCU in the Final Four in a game that non-partisans would be hard pressed to remember. Then Butler lost the National Championship game to a third-seeded UConn team in a game that is remembered for being one of the worst championship games in recent memory. The game was full of missed shots by both teams and ended in a 53–41 score. It was awful.

But when powerhouses make the Final Four, the results are incredible. The 2016 National Championship Game between first-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Villanova ended in a Villanova buzzer-beating game-winning three-pointer by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins. The 2015 Final Four featured a barnburner between first-seeded Kentucky and second-seeded Wisconsin, followed by a great title game between Wisconsin and first-seeded Duke. Most of the best Final Fours include matchups of powerhouse teams.

This season, there were no major upsets in the early rounds of the tournament. The only double digit seed to make the Sweet Sixteen were the Oregon Ducks, who are from a major conference, made the Final Four two years ago, and were ranked in the preseason AP poll. They promptly lost to top-seeded Virginia anyway.

The closest the tournament came to a major early upset was Duke’s second round game against UCF. That game came down to the wire before UCF had two potential game-winning shots come off the rim at the end. They came agonizingly close to winning. But they did not. The Final Four and Elite Eight will consist entirely of high seeds.

That is good. Fans still get to watch Zion Williamson, the most electrifying player in college basketball. The tournament will be worse off when he stops playing. The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight have been incredibly exciting so far. The Duke-Virginia Tech, Purdue-Tennessee, Purdue-Virginia, Gonzaga-Texas Tech, and Kentucky-Houston games all have been fantastic. There will only be more of those games, as there are only great teams left in the tournament.

Do not fret when all the Cinderellas lose early. Do not worry when the tournament lacks a major upset in the early rounds. Do not be afraid of a Final Four consisting entirely of traditional powers and high seeds. When this happens, the Final Four will be better. There will be a great Final Four and National Championship game this year. The clock struck midnight early for the Cinderellas. It did so to give fans a great Final Four.