The NCAA Tournament field is all set and I’m here to make sense of the Basketball Power Index (BPI) and help you with your bracket selections. All BPI projections are updated daily and round-by-round projections for each team can be found here at espn.com/bpi. As a reminder, BPI factors in opponent strength, location of the game, travel distance, high elevation and how many days’ rest a team has had. If you don’t care about the in-depth numbers and want a quick summary, look no further than here.
For those who want to take a deep dive into this year’s bracket, I’ll give some insights and compare how BPI has done with its projections in previous years. Historically we have the BPI NCAA Tournament projections going back to 2008. The eventual champion has been in the top three of BPI or in the top four in terms of who was most likely to win each year except for 2011 and 2014. Those years Connecticut was the eventual winner.
For those of you who like to stick with chalk brackets, UConn didn’t make the field of 68 this year and there’s a 53 percent chance one of these four teams win the NCAA Tournament:
It is important to note that this is the second-smallest percent chance for the favorite to win the NCAA Tournament in the past 10 years. There is still a 47 percent chance that someone besides these four teams are cutting down the nets in Phoenix. The next most likely teams to win are Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and West Virginia -- each has between a 4 and 6 percent chance to win the NCAA Title.
Bracket pools typically aren’t won in the first weekend, but should one of the favorites win the title, you probably need a strong first weekend to rise above your peers. BPI has been very accurate about how likely teams are to win each game. Historically teams win games in the NCAA Tournament about as often as BPI says they should:
How many upsets should you go with in the first and second rounds? BPI expects 5.2 double-digit seeds to make the Round of 32 and 1.4 to make the Sweet 16. Which teams to pick is a much more difficult decision.
In the Round of 64, Wichita State is the most likely double-digit seed to win its first game. The Shockers are 15th in BPI playing Dayton, which is 36th. Wichita State is also the most likely double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16. BPI gives the Shockers a 30 percent chance to get past a potential Round of 32 matchup with Kentucky.
The 12-5 matchup is a fan favorite and the 12-seed has won at least one game in four out of the past five years. This year there is a 72 percent chance we see at least one 12-seed beat a 5-seed. Middle Tennessee has a 42 percent chance to beat Minnesota while Princeton and Nevada each have greater than a 20 percent chance to pull off the classic 12-seed upset.
Want a small conference team that could surprise people and make it to the Sweet 16 and perhaps further? Saint Mary’s is ranked 12th in BPI and is playing its opening weekend games in Salt Lake City, a city familiar to the Gaels, as it is 38 miles from where they play BYU once a year. Should Saint Mary’s get past VCU, which BPI gives it an 82 percent chance of doing, it will have a 64 percent chance to win in a potential matchup with Arizona, who is 24th in BPI.
Saint Mary’s would play Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in San Jose, which is only 37 miles from their campus, putting any opponent at a travel disadvantage. The Gaels are the eighth-most likely team to reach the Elite 8 at 26 percent. Should they get to the Elite 8, there is a 61 percent chance they play their conference foe Gonzaga for a chance to go to the Final Four. Gonzaga has beaten Saint Mary’s three times already this season, and BPI sees a fourth matchup as the most likely matchup in the West Region Finals.
SMU is another team casual fans may not be familiar with. The Mustangs are 16th in BPI and are the 18th most likely team to reach the Sweet 16 at 47 percent.
The final pieces of advice I can give is to not strictly follow the BPI favorites and not to base bracket picks on a team’s performance in previous years. Villanova was often thought of as an underachiever before last season, so people stayed away from picking them. Gonzaga and West Virginia may evoke similar thoughts this year.
The BPI NCAA Tournament projections give us percentages that are fairly accurate, but they are just that: percentages. Several favorites won’t win, and teams with small chances of winning will win some games. This is, after all, why we love March Madness.