We all know that March is best known for the madness brought by the NCAA Tournament. It’s a craziness that seems to take over the collective consciousness of the nation for the final days of winter and the beginning of spring. It begins with Selection Sunday and concludes when the confetti falls after the national championship game.
And this year may have been the craziest of them all. Not only was it the first time that a one seed lost to a 16 seed, but teams like Cincinnati, Michigan State, North Carolina, and Tennessee all went down in the first weekend as well. That’s quite an opening weekend considering that all five of those teams were among the top 13 on KenPom this season.
These upsets are exciting, but they can have a tremendous impact on the rest of the bracket. Instead of having to face a top 10 opponent like North Carolina or Virginia, someone may suddenly find themselves going against someone outside the top 25. For better or worse, it’s an under the radar side-effect of the madness.
And one of the teams that benefited this year was Michigan.
Maybe that sounds like a bold statement, but take a brief look at the bracket and try to conclude otherwise. The Wolverines made the Final Four last Saturday despite not having to face a five seed or higher or any team among the top 15 on KenPom. Even Loyola (CHI) had to face Tennessee to get out of the first weekend earlier this month.
For many, this has become a rallying cry to minimize what has become a banner season for the Wolverines. Critics have argued that Michigan hasn’t “beaten anyone” in route to San Antonio and didn’t “deserve” to get there.
Let’s take about this issue briefly.
1. There’s no denying that Michigan received a favorable draw this year and is lucky to have made it to San Antonio this season.
Maybe some will true to argue this point, but it’s pointless. Michigan had some fortunate things break within its region. Not only did Michigan avoid a potential Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina (the Tar Heels beat Michigan earlier this season), but No. 1 seed Xavier got upset in the first weekend and Gonzaga lost in the Sweet 16 as well.
Add in that No. 5 seed Ohio State went down to Gonzaga and the point becomes abundantly clear. Nearly all the best teams (on paper) within the region went down before Michigan had to face them. In a sport where the margin between victory and defeat is so small, catching those kind of breaks is extremely fortunate.
Plus, we need to at least mention the fact that Michigan needed a buzzer beater from Jordan Poole to even make it out of the Round of 32. That certainly took some luck.
2. And so what?
Yes, Michigan got some favorable bounces within its region. It also still had to win four games against quality competition. All four opponents were in the top 75 on KenPom and the last three were all in the top 30. None of them were Villanova, but that’s not exactly a path filled with cream pies.
To put this in perspective, let’s look a little deeper at those numbers. We can begin by comparing Michigan’s four NCAA Tournament opponents to the Big Ten. Here’s how those four teams hold up next to the league:
2017-’18 KenPom Ratings:
- #16 - Ohio State
- #18 - Houston
- #23 - Penn State
- #28 - Florida State
- #29 - Texas A&M
- #57 - Nebraska
- #70 - Wisconsin
- #72 - Montana
- #74 - Indiana
- #86 - Northwestern
- #88 - Iowa
Again, while none of those four opponents are Villanova, those numbers should put things into perspective. Montana was a dangerous four seed, Houston was an immensely tough six seed, and Florida State and Texas A&M were really good opponents.
Moreover, it’s important to take these numbers in context as well. Houston was one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament and had won 11 of 13 games before facing the Wolverines. Texas A&M had been one of the most dangerous teams in the country when at full strength and Florida State had just knocked off Xavier and Gonzaga before facing the Wolverines.
While Michigan may not have gone through the toughest route available, its four wins in the NCAA Tournament have hardly been easy. It wasn’t like those one and two seeds were replaced by Pittsburgh and Rutgers. These were quality opponents that would have beaten a lot of other NCAA Tournament teams, if they had been seeded elsewhere.
3. There are no easy routes to the Final Four.
I already touched on this in the section above, but I wanted to highlight this point to finish things off. And, again, I want to make this as clear as possible. No matter what anyone tells you, there are no easy routes to the Final Four.
However you want to describe it is fine with me, but the point remains the same. There are no easy routes to the Final Four. This is March Madness, where teams get upset by inferior opponents on a regular basis. In fact, in the opening round this year, nine (!!!) teams lost as higher seeds. Notably, three of those upsets involved four seeds or higher. And six teams seeded as a three or higher failed to get out of the first weekend.
And that’s really the point. Anything can happen in March. To win four single-elimination games is incredibly difficult and takes some fortunate bounces. It’s why teams hang Final Four banners, even though they didn’t win the national championship.
We all know Michigan got some fortunate bounces, but it still had a tough path.