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Michigan State – Easiest Path into the NCAA Championship Game in Tournament History?

Updated on November 9, 2013

I've had a few discussions with a friend at work, Matt Tevelow, and although I am not a basketball fan at all (especially not the NBA or WNBA) and I watch when it's turned on in a bar or something. Anyways, Matt and I had discussed a week or so ago, just as March Madness was heating up how the ranking system worked. I had never put much thought into it, however he wrote an article about, that explains some of the complexities of the seeded rankings. He asked me to post his view on the NCAA's seeding process and here it is:

In the 25 years since the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams, there have been just 4 teams seeded 5th or higher to have made it to the championship game. Only one, the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks – seeded 6th, have won it. One reason for this lack of lower seeds is the difficult path they must take to the championship.

The advantage of getting a high seed in the tournament is having an easier road through the field. If there were no upsets, the one seed would play against teams seeded 16, 8, 4, 2, and 1 to get to the championship (adding all the seeds together you get a combined score – later called scratch score - of 31). By comparison, a five seed would play teams seeded 12, 4, 1, 2 and 1 (a combined score of 20). A lower combined score generally equals a more difficult path.

If Michigan State makes it past 5th seeded Baylor, they may have the distinction of the easiest path for team seeded 5 or higher in tournament history. To get to the championship game they will have faced teams seeded 12, 4, 9, 6 and 5. The highest seeded team was Maryland; whom they faced in their second game and required a buzzer beater to win. The combined score for the teams faced is 38, which is almost double the scratch score of 20 they would have had if there were no upsets.

All of the other teams to make the championship seeded 5 or higher also had upsets ease their path. Indiana in 2002 (seeded 5th), Florida in 2000 (seeded 5th) and Michigan in 1991 (seeded 6th) all made it to the championship game, but had to face teams seeded at least one and three to reach that point. The other team to make it was Kansas in 1988 (seeded 6th), who beat Oklahoma to win the tournament. To get to the championship game they played teams seeded 11, 14, 7, 6 and 2. This results in a combined score of 40…22 higher than the scratch score of 18 for a 6 seed. The 1988 Kansas team may rival the current Michigan team for easiest path, but they did have to go through a 2 seed. This year’s Michigan team faced no higher than a 4 seed, which I think gives them the edge.

When looking at the easiest road ever to the championship, the 1990 UNLV Rebels may have that distinction. They were the number 1 seed, which generally results in an easier path, but due to upsets they faced teams seeded 16, 8, 12, 11, and 4 (a combined score of 51!)

Facing higher or lower seeds guarantees nothing. Highly ranked teams fall all the time and the one-and-done nature of the tournament makes it highly unpredictable. Michigan has taken care of their business; but having an unprecedented number of higher seeds cleared out without ever having to face them has contributed to their success.


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