The consensus going to the NCAA Tournament was that the Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team had the toughest road to the Final Four, despite being the overall No. 1 seed.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee explained that regions take precedent when creating brackets—and Louisville didn’t have far to travel with games in Lexington and Indianapolis.
After the Cardinals won a spot in the Final Four, Coach Rick Pitino said:
“Our bracket was a death bracket. I’ve experienced a quite a few NCAAs and I’ve never played the likes of a Colorado State in the second round. They’re a team that was very much capable of getting to a Final Four. And then Oregon was just absolutely terrific … And to play Duke in the Elite Eight, nevermind a Final Four, it was a death bracket.”
But did Louisville really wind up having the toughest road?
Going by RPIs—the rating the NCAA uses to seed teams—the answer is no, because Oregon pulled two upsets to reach the Sweet 16.
The average RPI ranking of the Louisville’s four opponents so far is 71.
The other three Final Four teams:
Wichita State 25
Of course, Louisville’s first round opponent, North Carolina A&T, had an RPI of 214. Since no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed, it makes sense to toss that one out. Even then, the average RPI ranking of Louisville’s opponents is 23. And it should be noted that Louisville’s last opponent, the Duke Blue Devils, was the No. 1 ranked team in the RPIs.
So how does this compare to recent years? Last year’s national champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, played four opponents to reach the Final Four with an average RPI ranking of 62—20, if you toss their first-round opponent Western Kentucky, which had an RPI of 189.
In 2011, the Connecticut Huskies won the national championship as a No. 3 seed. The average RPI ranking of their four teams was 36.
The other caveat is parity—the idea that the quality from top to bottom has condensed, particularly in recent years. Rankings alone don’t do parity justice. If you average out the actual RPI rating for each team and exclude NC A&T, Louisville’s road is the toughest. The ratings for the three other teams average .6231, strengthened by Duke’s .6691. (With NC A&T, it’s .5842.)
The other three Final Four team’s RPI rating average: Wichita State is .6120, Michigan is .6106 and Syracuse is .5969.
All that said, the Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team are now, as they’ve been since early March, the favorites to win the national championship.
ESPN’s predictions are succinct: Michigan may win because “Burke is the top playmaker in the field, and he’s surrounded by talented shooters and underrated defenders.” Syracuse may win because “this zone is still a mystery that some of the best teams in the country haven’t been able to decipher in recent weeks.” For the Cardinals, ESPN predicts:
“They’ll win the national title because they’re just better than everyone else.”
Nate Silver, the statistician for The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, likewise predicts that Louisville will win the national championship—as he has for weeks.
Silver writes that the Cardinals have a 55 percent chance of winning the title. Michigan is second with a 21.2 percent chance, followed by Syracuse with a 19 percent chance and Wichita State with a 4.7 percent chance.
It’s worth noting that it’s pretty common for only one No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. It’s happened four times in the past 10 NCAA Tournaments. In 2011 and 2006, no No. 1 seeds made it. Half of those lone No. 1 seeds went on to win the national championship.