Expectations can be a funny thing. If I gave you a 3-point shot to win 100 million dollars, you would be pretty upset if, right before your attempt, I told you it had to be from full court instead. You might even forget that you are still better off than you were before I gave you the opportunity.
Tuesday afternoon, Syracuse learned that it will compete in the NCAA tournament without arguably its most important player, Fab Melo. Most Syracuse fans immediately felt like they had a multi-million-dollar opportunity snatched away, just when they were starting to believe they might be able to take it home.
It’s easy to forget that, even as a No. 1 seed, the Orange’s road to a national championship was not going to be easy. It’s also easy to forget that SU as a program is just four seasons removed from back-to-back NIT appearances.
While the Orange’s performance over the last four years has earned Syracuse fans the right to hold higher expectations, how high is reasonable?
Before Melo’s disqualification, Ken Pomeroy’s statistical model gave the Orange a 4.4 percent chance of winning the tournament. That’s right, less than 1 in 20. Perhaps that’s unfair for a team that spent the majority of the season ranked in the top two, but Pomeroy’s odds for Kentucky are just 19.7 percent.
If you listen to ESPN – or your gut, for that matter – you probably feel like these are low-ball estimates. How could teams as good as Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse (with Melo) lose before the Final Four?
Most commentators and people filling out their brackets at home seem to consider this very unlikely. As of this writing, every single ESPN expert has Kentucky making the Final Four, while 10 of the 15 pick UNC. According to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge National Bracket, 78.5 percent of people are selecting Kentucky to make it out of the South region, while 64.7 percent have UNC emerging from the West.
And yet, Pomeroy’s analysis gives no team a greater than 50 percent chance of making it to New Orleans. (Kentucky and Ohio State are listed at 47.9 percent and 45.9 percent, respectively.) Historically, 1 seeds have won 16 championships since 1985 and eight of the last 10, but this means that any given 1 seed has less than a 15 percent chance of winning the tournament.
The point of bringing all this up isn’t to make Orange fans feel any better. Rather, it is to serve as a reminder that winning the tournament is really hard, no matter who is on your team. Since we are all subject to the various biases that come with human nature, it’s easy to forget this until confronted with the numbers.
Yes, without Fab Melo Syracuse’s chances of winning the NCAA tournament have decreased significantly (possibly even exponentially, as the Times’ Pete Thamel wrote), but they weren’t as high as most of us thought to begin with.
Just as we tend to naturally overestimate a top-seeded team’s chances of winning the tournament, we also naturally underestimate the chances of lower seeds. Seeds lower than 3 make up about 22 percent of Final Four berths. This is not a staggering number, but it’s certainly much greater than you will find in people’s brackets, expert or novice.
Luke Winn at SI has a great analysis of how important Melo has been to Syracuse’s success. There is no denying it, and there is no denying that Syracuse played much worse in the three games it played earlier this season without Melo (albeit a small sample) than it did with him in the lineup.
And if you listened to many commentators, my colleague Matt Goodman among them, you would think that Syracuse now has no shot at winning the national championship.
I wouldn’t put their odds at 4 percent any longer, but how far do they really fall?
According to ESPN’s new BPI statistic, the Orange finished the regular season 2nd in the country at 89.7 but only rated 73.1 in the three games without Melo, a number that would have landed them 41st had they played that way all season. That would be just above West Virginia and five spots below Cincinnati, which Syracuse beat during Melo’s suspension.
It all comes down to matchups and lucky bounces here and there, but Pomeroy gives teams in this range about a .05 to .2 percent chance of winning the championship. My gut tells me that Syracuse’s chances are even better than that, but we have seen above how misleading our guts can be.
The point is that while Syracuse’s chances of winning a national championship potentially drop a dramatic 98.9 percent without Melo, this only results in a change of just over 4 percent of actual outcomes. The reason is that, in the end, you either win a national championship or you don’t.
How many people remember that just last year, according to Pomeroy’s analysis, there was a 56.8-percent chance entering the tournament that Ohio State, Duke, Kansas or Pittsburgh would win a National Championship? Perhaps you don’t remember the analysis, but you probably remember tearing up your bracket due to their failures. In ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, these four teams were picked to win the championship more than any others (over 71 percent of brackets had one of them as the winner).
As it turned out, none of those teams reached the Final Four. Instead, the championship game featured Connecticut, given a 1 percent chance to win by Pomeroy and picked in 4.7 percent of brackets, and Butler, given a .2 percent chance by Pomeroy and picked in .07 percent of brackets. In fact, Butler’s odds of reaching the title game in back-to-back seasons were calculated as just .0135 percent by the Times‘ Nate Silver (1 out of 7,406).
But this is what people remember. The NCAA tournament is loved for its unlikely outcomes, and human nature makes it especially difficult for us to anticipate these surprises, even as we see examples of them again and again.
Pomeroy actually gave Syracuse a 2.5 percent shot at winning the title last year, but would you have taken that team’s chances over this year’s, even without Melo?
For all of the grief that ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb takes from Orange fans for highlighting SU’s weaknesses, he has consistently said that the team could win the national championship. He deserves credit for maintaining that even without Melo Syracuse could still make a run in the tournament.
Syracuse is down but not out. Before feeling too sorry for themselves, Syracuse fans would be wise to recognize this. After all, expectations are a funny thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how you get somewhere as whether you get there at all.