Men's March Madness Tournament: Who Can Beat Gonzaga?

Gonzaga seems poised to claim the National Championship. After a dominant, undefeated regular season, Gonzaga has continued to blow by opponents in conference and NCAA tournament competition. Many were hard pressed to find a reason to not claim Gonzaga as their predicted victor on their March Madness bracket. Now, with teams like Texas, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State out, the chances of Gonzaga stumbling seem even slimmer. However, it is still possible, and Baylor and Michigan are two of the teams that could do it.

Using k-means clustering, the 68 teams that made it to the tournament were categorized into 3 groups based on their regular season and conference tournament play. One of these clusters has the lowest average strength of schedule but the highest average winning percentage. These teams are less tested against the best of the best, but played phenomenally well against those that they went up against. Gonzaga, Baylor, and Houston are included in this group. Another cluster has the highest average strength of schedule and the second highest average winning percentage. These teams were the most tested coming into the tournament and have played well. Michigan, Villanova, and the now-eliminated Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State teams are included in this group.

While Gonzaga and Baylor are grouped into the same cluster, Gonzaga is still much less experienced than Baylor; Baylor’s strength of schedule is 70% higher than Gonzaga’s. Gonzaga has the lowest strength of schedule of the teams that were ranked in the top 15 heading into the tournament, and while they played 4 games against AP Poll Top 25 teams in the regular season and won all of them, the rest of the top 10 teams averaged 7.8 games against other top 25 teams. While Gonzaga has played well when they occasionally played the best of the best, can they continue to play this way as they are consistently playing against the top teams in the tournament? When we look at all of the statistics from the games leading up to the tournament, it certainly looks like this is Gonzaga’s tournament to lose. If anything is going to keep them from the title, it may very well be their lack of experience.

The following graph plots strength of schedule against win percentage for the teams making the AP Top 25 Poll. Baylor and Gonzaga were not used to make the trendline as they have a noticeably higher strength of schedule for their win percentage. This means that despite Baylor and Gonzaga not playing against many of the top teams in the regular season, they still won more than we would expect given their difficulty of schedule. Perhaps Gonzaga is prepared to handle the pressures of the tournament. Also, Michigan had the third toughest regular season schedule of the top 25 teams and still managed to maintain the fourth highest win percentage. They are certainly prepared to handle the pressures of March Madness.

The following graph plots the average number of points opponents scored per game against the average number of points the team scored per game from the regular season. It’s worth noting that while Gonzaga is far and away scoring more points than any other team, they are letting their opponents get away with more points than we would expect. Baylor, on the other hand, is scoring the second most points, and is letting their opponents score less points than average. Houston has the best defense of the top 8 as their opponents are scoring the least amount of points. Michigan has managed to keep their opponents scoring less than average while scoring the average number of points. And keep in mind they have had one of the more difficult regular season schedules.

A contributing factor to Gonzaga’s opponents scoring more than average is the pace that Gonzaga plays the game: they, and their opponents, have the second highest number of possessions per 40 minutes. This can be seen on the graph below. It is clear that Alabama and Gonzaga are letting their opponents score a lot less than we would expect given the pace of their game. Baylor plays the game at a slower pace than Gonzaga while still being able to hold their opponents to less points than we would expect. Michigan plays the game even slower than Baylor while holding their opponents to less points. Perhaps this is key to Baylor or Michigan having a chance at beating Gonzaga: they have to force the game to slow down, getting Gonzaga on uneven footing. Finally, there is more evidence that Houston has the best defense of the top teams, as they are keeping their opponents from scoring a lot less than we would expect given the pace of their game.

The following graph plots 3 point shooting percentage against 2 point shooting percentage. It shows that despite having average 3 point shooting, Gonzaga is blowing away everyone else when it comes to 2 point shooting percentage. In fact, Gonzaga was 1st in the nation for 2 point percentage, but only 73rd in the nation for 3 point percentage before the tournament started. Conversely, Baylor is phenomenal at 3 point shooting and just above average at 2 point shooting. Baylor is 1st in the nation for 3 point percentage, while only being 45th in the nation when it comes to 2 point percentage. It seems like a potential match-up between Baylor and Gonzaga will boil down to Baylor’s 3 point shooting and Gonzaga’s 2 point shooting, and which team is better at shutting the other down. Michigan has a better balance between 3 point and 2 point shooting than Baylor and Gonzaga, which could certainly work in their favor.

The following graph plots assist percentage (an estimate of the percentage of field goals that were assisted) against effective field goal percentage. Gonzaga is in a different color because it was not used to make the trendline. Gonzaga has far and away the highest effective field goal percentage, with Baylor sitting second. However, Gonzaga has a much smaller proportion of assists than one would expect for their effective field goal percentage. A low number of assists hasn't seemed to cause a problem for Gonzaga thus far, but perhaps it will catch up to them as we get further into the tournament, as they play consistently better teams than they played throughout the regular season, and as they need to rely on each other more to win games. Michigan and Baylor both have a slightly lower assist percentage than we would expect, but they are both still higher than Gonzaga’s.

Gonzaga seems to play the game by overwhelming their opponents with their speed, allowing them to score a plethora of 2 pointers without needing many assists. To beat them, a team needs to slow the game down, forcing them to play out of their comfort zone on both offense and defense. Baylor and Michigan have both demonstrated their ability to control the pace of the game. Baylor, especially, could take advantage of Gonzaga’s uneven footing with their 3 point shooting. If any team is going to stop Gonzaga in its tracks, it's likely to be either Baylor or Michigan.

Contributor: Jingting Liu


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