Joe Posnanski
Tuesday March 24th, 2009

Bill James put together a mathematical system that, more or less, figures out what percentage of the time one NCAA tournament seed should beat another. According to his system, for instance, a No. 1 seed should beat No. 16 seed a bit more than 99 percent of the time ... and of course a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed in 100 chances. In fact, the math is pretty easy to figure out this year because the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, which means that this is the 25th year, which means that there have been exactly 100 first-round games played for each matchup.

At right, you can see James' math predictions and the actual results of all first-round games:

Pretty darned accurate. It is fairly interesting to me that the two seeds who have really overperformed are the ninth seed and the 12th seed. The 12th seed makes some sense to me because, best I can tell, that's where the line where the tournament tends to put two kinds of teams: 1. The underachieving team that has been given a second life. This year's Arizona team fits that tag. The Wildcats in my view DID NOT deserve to make the tournament. That's because, in my view, they really had a mediocre season. But they are a very good team -- they destroyed Kansas at home early in the season -- and so given the chance it's not especially surprising that they are rolling in the tournament. This, to me, would have been like giving the New York Yankees a spot in the playoffs last year. They would not have deserved it ... but once they were in they would have been very dangerous. 2. The overachieving team that is probably better than their seed. This year's Western Kentucky team fits that tag. The Hilltoppers are a very good team, and they played an Illinois team that was probably overseeded (Illinois was playing without its point guard) and the result was fairly predictable*. *Though, I admit, I did not predict it. My bracket is a fiasco. I made the mistake I always make -- too many upsets. We always hear about all these upsets in college basketball, but it seems to me the tournament is actually becoming much more predictable. Last year all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. And this year the only meaningful upset was Cleveland State over No. 4 Wake Forest ... Wake is the only top 4 seed that was surprised the first week (No. 5 Purdue also beat No. 4 Washington, but that's not really an upset).

The No. 9 seed beating the No. 8 more than half the time is probably just an indication that once you get that far down in the seeding (The 8 and 9 seeds would represent teams ranked 29th to 36th) there's really not much to separate the teams, plus the No. 9 seeds have that little extra benefit of being considered "underdogs." Anyway, using the Bill James system you can figure out, pretty easily -- not super easily, but pretty easily -- what a team's chances of making the Final Four are. For instance: A No. 1 seed, facing the hardest route available -- meaning it would face a No. 16 seed, then a No. 8 seed, followed by a No. 4, and finally the No. 2 seed in the Elite Eight -- should make the Final Four about 37 percent of the time. The No. 1s have actually outperformed that math: 96 No. 1 seeds (entering this year) 14 won championships: 15% 9 finished runner-up: 9% 19 lost in Final Four game: 20% 42 total reached Final Four: 44%

Of course, one of the big reasons that No. 1s have outperformed the math is because they rarely have to face the hardest route available. Take Kansas last year. The Jayhawks beat No. 16 Portland State, then No. 8 UNLV, then No. 12 Villanova, then No. 10 Davidson. A No. 1 seed facing that much easier route should make the Final Four 63 percent of the time. So that's how the thing works. A brilliant reader asked just how hard George Mason's route was in 2006. Mason was a No. 11 seed, and it had to beat a No. 6, a No. 3, a No. 7 and a No. 1 to get to the Final Four. According to the system the percentage chance on that is .34 percent, meaning it was roughly a 294-to-1 shot. So, now I'll reprint the Final Four chances for each team still left in the tournament. It's not that interesting this year because there are only two teams left who are what you would call "surprises" -- No. 12 Arizona and No. 5 Purdue. Other than that, the top 4 seeds are completely intact. We were discussing what this says about the tournament committee: Does it mean they did an incredible job seeding these teams? That was my first reaction, but I don't know if that's true. Seems to me there were very few competitive games over the weekend, and very few interesting match-ups. I realize it's technically not the committee's job to give us interesting match-ups, but in the larger view, of course, that is precisely their job, right? Nobody wants to watch March Predictability. Anyway, here again are the percentage chances for each team making the Final Four (using the Bill James seeding system): Midwest Region Louisville: 58% Michigan State: 27% Kansas: 13% Arizona: 2% Comment: Michigan State beat Kansas earlier in the season ... how many times do you think Spartans coach Tom Izzo will say that it's "tough to beat a good team twice in the same year?" West Region Connecticut: 49% Memphis: 28% Missouri: 13% Purdue: 9% Comment: The Missouri-Memphis game could be a lot of fun -- a couple of athletic teams playing all-out, full-court basketball. Of course, games like that often turn into blowouts too. East Region Pittsburgh: 48% Duke: 28% Villanova: 13% Xavier: 10% Comment: All of the top four seeds are here, which should make these games interesting. We'll see. All the basketball junkies are so high on Pittsburgh, but I didn't seen anything the first weekend that made me think that Pitt is invulnerable. I think Xavier is a tough match-up and, though I dread saying it, I think Duke might be the best team in the region. South Region North Carolina: 48% Oklahoma: 28% Syracuse: 13% Gonzaga: 10% Comment: Again, all of the top four seeds are here. That Syracuse zone is absolutely ferocious. I have no idea how they play the zone better than anyone else. But I would look forward to North Carolina-Oklahoma only to see a Duke player (Jeff Capel) at Oklahoma while a longtime Kansas guy (Roy Williams) coaches North Carolina ... it's just all sorts of baffling. New Final Four Prediction Louisville Connecticut Duke North Carolina

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