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NCAA Tournament: North Carolina, the modern bracket, and a reason to cheer for chalk

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If history tells us anything, its that the Tar Heels only cut down the nets against the toughest opponents possible.

NCAA Men’s Final Four - Practice Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2019 NCAA Tournament will be the 35th tournament in the current 64...err, 68 team format, where the champion has to win six games to cut down the nets.

In the tourney’s 34 previous iterations, a #1 seed has won it all 21 times, a #2 seed has taken the championship five times, four #3 seeds have won, and weirdness has taken place in the other four: 1997 Arizona won it as a 4, Danny and the Miracles won the 1988 tournament for Kansas as a 6, UConn won the weirdest modern tournament in 2014 as a 7, and Villanova won the first 64-team tournament with a miracle run as a #8 seed.

Fortune, as you might gather, favors the teams who prove their worth in the regular season. This bodes well for the top tier in 2019: Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee are clearly a cut above the rest of the field— and are seeded to reflect that strength.

While all championships (save for 2013 Louisville’s) count the same, there is something to be said about the path a team takes to cutting down the nets— they are definitively NOT created equal. ‘Chalk’, slang for the higher seeds winning, and the deviation therefrom helps inform this discussion, as does a team’s average opponent seed played.

You might be wondering who has had the toughest path given these metrics, and I did the work for you. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Average Seed Faced

I’ll go ahead and tell you up-front: this is a slightly flawed metric because it is skewed in favor of teams seeded lower in the tournament— a #3 seed doesn’t get the chance to play a 16, generally plays a 6 in the second round, and so on— top-seeded teams’ best (or worst, really) case scenario is an average seed played of 12 as they enter the second weekend.

So it will come as no surprise that 1985 Villanova (#8 seed) and 2014 UConn (7) top this list with average seeds played of 3.33 and 4.67, respectively. Villanova’s miracle run in 1985 was absurd— they avoided the highest possible seed twice, each time by one seed line (a Sweet Sixteen win over Maryland, and a Final Four win over #2 seed Memphis State). Connecticut faced chalk through the Sweet Sixteen before drawing #4 seed Michigan State in the Regional Final, and #8 seed Kentucky in the championship**.

**sidenote: that tournament was trash.

The third-toughest path by this measure was 2016 Villanova’s. They started as a 2, played their region’s 7th, 3rd, and 1st-seeded teams, drew #2 seed Oklahoma in the Final Four, and then apparently won a game over another 1 after that. Who can remember? The average seed faced was 4.83.

The toughest path by average seed faced by a #1 seed? How about your 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels, facing an average 5.66 seed. The Heels saw chalk (#8 Arkansas, #4 Butler, and #2 Kentucky) all the way to their Final Four matchup with 3-seed Oregon, and concluding with #1 seed Gonzaga. 2003 Syracuse tied the Heels in average seed faced, but were themselves seeded 3rd.

Next on the list: 1993 UNC. Average seed faced, 5.5.

Next on the list after that: 2009 UNC. Average seed faced, 5.83.

2007 Florida, 2002 Maryland, and 1996 Kentucky each hoisted trophies as #1 seeds, facing an average opponent seeded sixth.

In the interest of balance, the opposite end of the spectrum: the 1990 UNLV Rebels faced an average opponent seeded ninth, benefiting from a bracket that saw its 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th seeds all go home on the opening weekend. The Rebels beat #12 seed Ball State, #11 seed Loyola-Marymount, #4 seed Georgia Tech, and #3 seed Duke in their final four games.

Next up is 2013 Louisville, but the NCAA will tell you that never happened.

For those wondering, Duke’s titles are all in the middle of the pack. Oddly, their toughest road faced was the infamously-bad 2010 tournament, where they faced the 15th-best average seed. Their 1991 team benefited from attrition more than any other, as the average opponent faced was 23rd-best on the list.

Carolina’s “easiest” title was in 2005, when they had the pleasure of knocking off a once-beaten Illinois squad in the title game. They (barely) avoided chalk in every round from the second round through the regional final, playing 9th seed Iowa State, 5th seed Villanova, 6th seed Wisconsin, and 5th seed Michigan State before the Illini.

Total Seed Deviation

I made up a metric! Seed deviation is what I’m calling the difference between expected and actual seed played. So, if a top seed plays a 9th seed in the second round, a point is applied. If they play a #3 seed in the regional finals, a point is applied. And if they draw a Cinderella #12 seed in the Sweet 16, they get eight points. Like golf, a lower number is a measure of strength. Feel free to quibble with my metric in the comments.

Based on seed deviation, the ‘strongest’ national champions of the last 34 years are:

T-1. 1993 North Carolina and 2016 Villanova: total seed deviation of 1. The Heels played chalk until seeing #2 seed Rock Chalk in the Final Four, and took home the crown against #1 seed Michigan. Villanova had a slightly different path, taking on chalk as a #2 seed before beating another #2 seed in Oklahoma in the semis, and doing whatever they did in the finals. These are your strongest NCAA Tournament champions.

T-3. 1985 Villanova and 2017 North Carolina: TSD of 2. I cannot express how epic Villanova’s 1985 run was. They won their six games by a combined 30 points, with their biggest blowout victimizing...North Carolina by 12 in the regional finals. The 2017 Heels also had a tough path, as mentioned above.

5. 2009 North Carolina. Same story: chalk until the Final Four, #3 seed Villanova (seriously though), #2 seed Michigan State, TSD of 3.

T-6. 1996 Kentucky, 2002 Maryland, and 2007 Florida had a TSD of 4. Impressive. Maryland’s only non-chalk game was the championship game, where Indiana knocked off a really, really good Duke team and made the finals as a #5 seed. Thanks, Hoosiers.

T-9 (not the text system from the mid-2000’s): 2018 Villanova, 2012 Kentucky, 1995 UCLA. TSD of 5. Kentucky would’ve improved in this metric if Creighton hadn’t gone after Kendall Marshall’s wrist...or Carolina would’ve had its least impressive championship due to the presence of #12 seed Ohio.

Carolina’s 2005 run, as mentioned before, was hurt by the bottom of its East regional, as the TSD for Roy’s first title was 10, right in the middle of the pack, tied for 17th with 1987 Indiana and 2014 UConn. Duke’s 5 titles, for those interested:

  • 1991: TSD of 13 (T-26th)
  • 1992: 7 (T-13th)
  • 2001: 8 (15th)
  • 2010: 6 (12th)
  • 2015: 7 (T-13th)

If you want to make the argument that North Carolina’s titles are stronger than Duke’s (or anyone else’s), you can make that case!

What Does It Mean For 2019?

Inject a healthy dose of superstition into your cheering. Playing a #4 seed Kansas in Kansas City seems like a far-from-ideal Sweet Sixteen matchup, but the Heels only avoided the four in 2005. A rematch with Kentucky in the regional final? Bring it.

The Heels could go for the perfect sweep of much-awaited-chalky-revenge-tour-plus-Utah-State, handing Iona retribution for Sean May’s broken foot in the 2003-04 season, Kansas for many harms inflicted, Kentucky for earlier this season, Virginia for earlier this season, and Duke for last Friday.

That’s not highly likely, however, and a Carolina/Duke title game might signal the end of the universe. But I can ride with a TSD of 5.