Upset victories—especially when underdogs win against higher ranked teams—are what make the NCAA tournament exciting. (Unless your team is on the losing side, of course.) In this year’s tournament, there are already nine upset victories in the first and second rounds. That’s almost 20 percent of the total games played. Most notable among these upsets happened against the East Region’s first and second-ranked teams, Villanova and Duke, and against the Midwest’s second-ranked team, Louisville.
Is there any way we could have predicted these upsets? Let’s take a closer look at the most notable of these upsets: Wisconsin’s victory over Villanova.
How big of an upset was it?
Big is an understatement. Villanova was the highest ranked team overall, as voted by the Associated Press. In addition, the Wildcats’ performance during the entire season netted the highest ELO rank among all the tournament participants. It means that in addition to being the AP’s top-ranked team, FiveThirtyEight gave it the highest chance to win it all at 15%. Let us also not forget that the Wildcats are the defending champs.
Could we have predicted the upset?
Comparing the two teams’ data—their performance over the entire season and their histories–using the NCAA’s matchup tool, Villanova was ahead of Wisconsin in the season record. The Wildcats had a season record of 31-3 while the Badgers had a record of 25-9. Because of their season performances, Villanova was ranked by the AP at number 1 while Wisconsin was ranked 25th.
But, there’s a key factor where Wisconsin matches well with Villanova: tournament experience. Wisconsin and Villanova both have 20 tournament appearances. Both teams have reached the semifinals three times and also have similar tournament records, 33-18 for Villanova and 32-18 for Wisconsin. Looking at these data points, we can see that Wisconsin had the experience and the confidence to beat Villanova, which they did.
It was also the Badgers that beat Kentucky (featuring NBA top draft pick Karl Anthony-Towns) and put an end to their perfect record two years ago. They have now gone to the quarterfinals for seven straight years, even reaching the finals in 2015 (losing to Duke).
Wisconsin’s upset victory against Villanova was not a fluke. Data, especially NCAA tournament data, and history reveal that Wisconsin always had the chance and the experience (and the reputation) to do some giant-killing.
How did it happen?
With the game tied at 59-all, Wisconsin’s veterans stepped up. Bronson Koenig, a senior, hit a three-pointer to break the tie in the final two minutes. Villanova later tied the game at 62-all. With less than 20 seconds to go, another senior, Nigel Hayes, drove to the baseline and made a layup. It proved to be the winning basket as Villanova failed to score in the next possessions and Wisconsin made one more free throw. Final score: 65-62.
And as the data revealed, experience was the equalizer. The seniors ruled this game.
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