Gonzaga v Southern

Does the first round score really matter?


I think Rob Neyer did a quick study like this not too long ago — and I’m sure many others have as well. But, well, you certainly know the famous story about writing a long letter, a story that has been attributed to many people. Somebody wrote a very long letter. “If I had more time,” Benjamin Franklin or Blaine Pascal or Woodrow Wilson or Mark Twain or someone else ended that letter, “I would have made it shorter.”

Well, if I had more time I would have looked up the other studies. Instead, I just tried to answer it myself.

The question is: Does it MATTER how much a No. 1 seed wins by in the first round* of the NCAA Tournament?

*And, oh yes, I will continue to call the Round of 64 the “first round” — let the NCAA sanction me if they want. Calling those play-in games the first round is, well, it’s certainly not the MOST ridiculous thing the NCAA has done in recent months, or even in the Top 100, but it’s plenty ridiculous and I won’t be a party to it. What, we’re now supposed to believe that SIXTY TEAMS get a bye in the first round? Dear NCAA: Stop it right now.

I started thinking about this again when Gonzaga beat Southern by only six points on Thursday. I wondered, “Does this mean anything at all?” Then I watched Kansas play a brutal game against a spirited Western Kentucky and win by only seven IN KANSAS CITY, a virtual home game. And I thought: This HAS to mean something.

Let’s go to the spreadsheet.

OK, so here’s the deal: Coming into this year, there have been 112 No. 1 seeds since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (and beyond). You’ve probably seen the lists, but since I have them right in front of me I’ll show you the teams that have been No. 1 seeds multiple times:

12 times: Duke
11 times: North Carolina
10 times: Kansas
9 times: Kentucky
5 times: Arizona; Connecticut; Michigan State; Oklahoma.
4 times: Ohio State
3 times: Georgetown; Illinois; Purdue; Stanford; UCLA; UNLV
2 times: Arkansas; Indiana; Memphis; Michigan; Pittsburgh; St. John’s; Syracuse

OK, in total there are 112 No. 1 seeds. And, as you know, they all won their first game — No. 1 seeds, including this tournament, are now 116-0 against No. 16 seeds.

What happened from there? Well, 48 of those No. 1 seeds won their region and went as far as the Final Four. That’s about 43%. Here’s the complete breakdown.

No. 1 seeds: 112
Lost in the round of 32: 13 (11%)
Lost in the Sweet 16: 20 (18%)
Lost in the Elite 8: 31 (28%)
Lost in the Final Four: 21 (19%)
Lost in national championship: 10 (9%)
Won championship: 17 (15%)

That probably lines up with you what you were expecting. Only 29% of the teams fail to reach at least the Elite 8. It’s a pretty nice setup, being a No. 1 seed. And it should be.

But, to get back to the point — does that first round score matter? Does it matter if you win by 50? By 30? By 2? Well, let’s break it down — remember, in total, No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four about 43% of the time and one out of seven win the national title.

No. 1 seeds that won by 40 or more points:

There have been 16 of these teams. Eight of them — exactly half — have reached the Final Four, and three have won a national championship. Only one of these teams — the stunned 1998 Kansas team — lost in the round of 32.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 30 to 39 points:

There have been 23 of these teams. Thirteen of them have reached the Final Four, so that’s almost 57% — even higher than the 40-plus group. Four have become national champions. Two of these teams — 2002 Cincinnati and 1992 Kansas — lost in the round of 32. At quick glance, it does not appear there’s much difference between winning that first game by 35 or 55, which shouldn’t be surprising.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 20 to 29 points:

There have been 37 of these teams. Eighteen of them — just a touch under half — have reached the FInal Four. Seven of these teams have won the national championship, and six have lost in the round of 32. So, again, not seeing much difference. But that’s about to change.

No. 1 seeds that have won by 10 to 19 points:

Um, well, now comes a big difference. There have been 23 teams that have won their first round games by 10 to 19 points. Only six of the 23 — barely more than a quarter of them — have reached the FInal Four.

The good news is that three of the six teams that DID reach the Final Four — 1994 Arkansas, 2002 Maryland and 2012 Kentucky — went on to win national titles. But the cutoff is pretty glaring. It seems that you want to win that first round game by 20 or more points. And it’s about to get worse.

No. 1 seeds that have won by fewer than 10 points:

Oh boy. Coming into this year, only 13 No. 1 seeds have won their first round games by fewer than 10 points. Truth is, it just doesn’t happen much. But when it does happen, it’s pretty telling. Just three of the 13 reached the Final Four. None won the national title. The closest was 1986 Duke, which finished runner up to Louisville. And that’s a long time ago. Since 1990, seven No. 1 seeds squeaked by their first round game by fewer than 10 points, and only one of these — 1997 North Carolina — even reached the Final Four.

Obviously, we’re not dealing with a huge sample size here … but these seem to be pretty clear results. Twenty points looks like a severe cutoff point. Teams that have won by 20-plus have reached the Final Four a little bit more than half  the time.

Teams that have won by 19 or fewer have reached the Final Four only a quarter of the time. And the less they win by, the less likely they are to reach the Final Four. Indiana and Louisville this year both finished above that 20-point victory line. Kansas and Gonzaga finished well below it. With a tournament as wide open as this one appears to be, I would have to say it’s a bad indicator for Kansas and Gonzaga.

I looked up one more thing. I wanted to see last the time a team — no matter what seed — won its first game by seven or fewer points (like Kansas and Gonzaga) and went on to the win the national title. And I found something pretty cool: It hasn’t happened in almost 25 years. That’s not the cool thing. The cool thing is that in the 1980s is happened ALL THE TIME.

— In 1980, Louisville needed overtime to beat Kansas State by two — and went on to the national title.

— In 1982, North Carolina — that incredibly loaded team with James Worthy and Sam Perkins and the freshman Michael Jordan — beat James Madison by just two points before going on to win the championship.

— In 1983, Jim Valvano’s N.C. State began its improbable run with a two-overtime 69-67 victory over Pepperdine.

— In 1984, Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown — and I guess I forgot this — barely held on to beat Southern Methodist in a 37-36 thriller. Yeah: 37-36. I think you know where this is leading.

— In 1985, Villanova beat Dayton by just two in the opening round of its magical run to the title.

— And in 1989 — this is the last time it has happened — Michigan beat Xavier by five, 92-87, and went on to the title.

I think it’s pretty obvious why this happened so often in the early 1980s: There was no shot clock (and also no three-point line). There is a lot of talk about how much more parity there is in college basketball now than ever before because of the NBA draft and national exposure to so many teams and so on. That’s probably true. But I would argue that THE GAME ITSELF does not cater nearly as much to parity.

Since the shot-clock has been introduced to college hoops, the national champion has won its first game by an average of 25 points.

In the six years leading up to the shot clock, the eventual national champ won its games by 2, 34 (Indiana), 2, 2, 1 and 2.

Just more fun stuff to think about as we head into the round of 32.

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.

No. 24 Cincinnati beats George Washington 61-56

Troy Caupain
AP Photo
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NEW YORK (AP) Troy Caupain scored 16 points, including the go-ahead three-point play with 1:38 to play, and No. 24 Cincinnati beat George Washington 61-56 on Saturday in the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic.

The fact the game came down to a three-point play was ironic as both teams took 22 3-point attempts and there were times it seemed a 3-point shooting broke out.

Caupain’s traditional three-point play gave the Bearcats (7-0) a 55-54 lead. After a missed 3 by the Colonials (6-1) Octavius Ellis, who chosen the tournament MVP, scored on a tip-in. Patricio Garino scored on a drive for George Washington with 29 seconds left.

The Colonials let the Bearcats pass the ball around and they finally fouled when Ellis touched the ball with 14 seconds to play. Ellis, a 56 percent free throw shooter, clinched his MVP award by making both for a 59-56 lead. Two free throws by Caupain with 6.1 seconds left capped the scoring.

Farad Cobb and Kevin Johnson both had 11 points for the Bearcats while Ellis had nine points and seven rebounds.

Garino had 15 points for George Washington, Tyler Cavanaugh had 13 and Joe McDonald 11.

The Colonials finished 11 of 22 from 3-point range, not bad for a team that came in shooting 27.9 percent (29 of 104) from there. The 50 percent doesn’t look so good when you consider the Colonials made five of their first six 3-point attempts and were 8 of 11 from beyond the arc in the first half. They went 16:42 between 2-point field goals but led 30-27 at halftime.

The Bearcats were 7 of 22 from 3-point range but their advantage came at the free throw line where they were 10 of 12 compared to George Washington’s 3 of 4.


George Washington: The Colonials beat Tennessee in the opening round and they were 3 of 15 on 3s. … George Washington was off to its best start since it was8-0 in 2005-06. … The Colonials finished 10 for 34 from 2-point range.

Cincinnati: The win gives the Bearcats a 13-1 all-time record against George Washington and this was their sixth straight. The last win came on Jan. 31, 1976. … Cincinnati is 7-0 for the fourth time in the last six seasons. … The Bearcats are 51-8 in and have won 24 of 25 in November under coach Mick Cronin. They have won 49 straight games when scoring over 60 points. The 60th point against the Colonials came with 6.1 seconds to play.


George Washington hosts Seton Hall on Wednesday.

Cincinnati hosts Butler on Wednesday.