It’s been 23 seasons since a team entered the NCAA Tournament without a loss – a factoid every Wichita State Shocker fan has heard by now.
But how difficult was that to achieve statistically? And what are the chances the Shockers finish 40-0 and win the national championship?
While some in the national media have made the two questions inseparably intertwined, let’s examine each individually, since to not do so shorts the accomplishment of 34-0.
Getting here undefeated
Coming off a run to the Final Four with many key players returning, WSU received a lot of praise in the preseason by local and national observers. The Shockers were the unanimous pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference and began the season ranked No. 16.
Even with outsized expectations, the Shockers exceeded them statistically.
Many pundits have given credit to WSU’s 34-0 season, but a common knock has been the Shockers’ strength of schedule.
“Wichita State’s feel-good story of not losing a game, in fact, exposes a schedule that at least 25 other teams in major conferences could have run through without a loss,” MLive’s Bill Simonson wrote earlier this month.
How bad was that SOS? It was ranked 111th according to RPI and 119th in ESPN’s metric, the Basketball Power Index (BPI).
That’s certainly worse than most power conference teams in contention, but it’s not horrible.
There are 349 teams in Division I. So by any measure, the Shockers’ SOS is in the top third of the country. Broken down by non-conference opponents – the part of the schedule Wichita State could actually control – their SOS rises to 29, one of the best of contending teams.
Many power conference teams keep the non-conference SOS softer, knowing they would be able to pick up RPI points with conference opponents.
The Missouri Valley Conference, while down, was not awful, as some have said. There were just no teams such as Creighton that were living in the same statistical neighborhood as the Shockers.
Probability dictates that teams will lose games. A team has a 50-percent chance to win against an evenly matched opponent on a neutral court. Over the course of a season, it could be expected to go .500 against a schedule of similar teams. Randomness, injuries and other factors will determine wins or losses off that baseline.
Clearly the Shockers were favorites in most of their games – sometimes big favorites. How did that translate into probability of winning? If a team is a nine-point favorite – which the Shockers were on numerous occasions – that roughly means it has a 90-percent chance to win outright.
If WSU had been a 90-percent favorite on every game on its schedule, it would still have been expected to lose 3.4 games.
Let’s say the Shockers were 95 percent to win each game – huge favorites – then they still would be looking at a less than 20-percent chance to go through the season undefeated.
Here’s the reality: while the Shocker steamroller seemed like a forgone conclusion during the Valley season, the odds were always against them achieving this. And they were certainly not 95-percent favorites against all of their non-conference or road opponents.
At Saint Louis on Dec. 1, the Shockers were a three-point underdog, which translates to roughly a 37-percent chance of winning. Ken Pomeroy’s system rated that win as more difficult than trying to win at home against Duke.
Could 25 other teams have run the table with WSU’s schedule? Hypothetically yes. Any team can win any game in front of it.
But the actual chances are remote that any team – even Florida – would duplicate that. It is not mathematically prudent to suggest multiple teams would replicate that. We’ll grant that the chances of WSU going undefeated in the Big 12 would have been even more remote.
The simple history of college basketball shows how special going undefeated is. In the 23 seasons since UNLV reached the tournament with zero losses, more than 4,600 teams have played schedules ranked as “easy” as the Shockers – all lost a game.
Chances to win
One should remember that every team in this era is actually an underdog to win the entire tournament when compared to the entirety of the field.
The Shockers have anywhere from 10-to-1 to 15-1 odds against winning the title with the current bracket on online sports betting sites.
That seems like a longshot, but consider even the top pick on the board, Florida, is roughly a 5-1 proposition. That means the books only think the top-ranked Gators would win the tournament 16 percent of the time.
At most places the Shockers are between the fifth- and eighth-best bet.
That matches up with what computer predictors have decided, as well.
Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website gives WSU a 5 percent probability of winning the title, eighth best. Unfortunately for WSU, the No. 4 seed in the region, the Louisville Cardinals, have the best probability at 15 percent. The site gives the Shockers a 14 percent chance to return to the Final Four. Three of the top eight title percentages come from the Shockers’ stacked Midwest Region.
One stat is definitely with the Shockers – Kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies. Since his site began in 2003, every champion has been ranked in the top 20 in both categories. WSU enters the tournament eighth in offense and 10th in defense. The Shockers are rated third in BPI, while KPIsports.net has them third.
But if you’re looking for one number that gives you hope for a party at the Roundhouse, go back to betting sites.
Wichita State is 24-6-1 against the spread this season, by far the best record in the country. So the smart money has been with WSU all season.