Handicapping the would-be 2020 NCAA tourney

Madness has been replaced with sadness this March, as canceling the 2020 NCAA tournament is just one of the many unexpected and unfortunate realities this country is facing with the coronavirus situation. That doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun projecting what would have been the tournament.


For as wide open as the 2019-20 season was thought to be, I can tell you that for the first time since I began keeping my Strength Ratings in 2011, Kansas was the unanimous top team in all four of my ratings — Power Ratings, Effective Strength Ratings, Bettors’ Ratings and Momentum Ratings. This isn’t to say the 2020 tournament was a foregone conclusion. But according to the numbers, the Jayhawks were a heavy favorite, and this is coming from someone who picked the last two champions in Villanova and Virginia.


For this exercise, I used Jerry Palm’s projections at CBS Sports. I have gone through the bracket and, using my four sets of ratings, projected the potential point spreads in every potential matchup. I used these point spreads to establish percentage chances to win for every team in each game. I was then able to project every team’s chances of reaching each successive round. These would have been fantastic for projecting potential upsets, finding futures wagers value and for betting the tournament game by game.


Let’s go through each region and list the projected winner by each of the four ratings, along with some of my observations.


Midwest Region


Top Seed: Kansas

Projected Winner by SM Power Ratings: Kansas

Projected Winner by SM Effective Strength Ratings: Kansas

Projected Winner by SM Bettors’ Ratings: Kansas

Projected Winner by SM Momentum Ratings: Kansas

Observations: Kansas is obviously a heavy favorite in a region loaded with blue bloods. This in my opinion is a ridiculous spread of teams, and with Joe Lunardi of ESPN projecting something very similar, I’m disappointed I didn’t get to hear the rants of the talking heads on TV. Kansas, Kentucky, Duke … all in the same region? Come on. Add Creighton, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida and this region is oozing not only talent but talent that had come together in recent weeks. In fact, the combined Momentum Ratings of this region far surpass any other. I would have had a difficult time picking against the Jayhawks, but Creighton and Wisconsin could have been fun underdog picks, while Michigan, Florida and Vermont were potential Cinderella teams. Kansas’ actual championship odds ranged between 12.6% and 15.8% across the four ratings, meaning anything worse than 7-1 title odds was not actual value. The highest percentage for any other team was Gonzaga at 9.1% in the Momentum Ratings.



East Region


Top Seed: Dayton

Projected Winner by SM Power Ratings: Michigan State

Projected Winner by SM Effective Strength Ratings: Michigan State

Projected Winner by SM Bettors’ Ratings: Michigan State

Projected Winner by SM Momentum Ratings: Michigan State

Observations: The East Region projected by Palm also finds a ratings sweep by a team, only this time it’s third-seeded Michigan State, which pushed through an often-turbulent season to share the Big Ten title. The Spartans were a team that might have saved their best for last, as has become typical in the Tom Izzo era. Top-seeded Dayton was ranked No. 2 in three of the ratings sets but was behind Louisville, West Virginia and Michigan State in the Bettors’ Ratings, an indicator that gives a picture of what the betting markets think of a team’s chances. Boasting an elite point guard in Cassius Winston, Michigan State would have been my pick. Auburn, as the No. 5 seed, could have been in some trouble against No. 12 Akron, while No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 10 Indiana had good chances of continuing recent success by those seed numbers.



West Region


Top Seed: Gonzaga

Projected Winner by SM Power Ratings: Gonzaga

Projected Winner by SM Effective Strength Ratings: Gonzaga

Projected Winner by SM Bettors’ Ratings: Gonzaga

Projected Winner by SM Momentum Ratings: Gonzaga

Observations: Gonzaga would have been a sizable favorite in Palm’s bracket, but a few bigger underdogs could have been worthy of attention had the Zags slipped up, namely, Oregon, BYU and Houston. The Ducks also had a point guard who could have been a potential tournament MVP in Payton Pritchard, while the Cougars were as efficient offensively as almost any team in the nation, a very important statistic for projecting tourney success. Houston was a near-miss team a year ago that seemed to be playing its best ball at the right time. San Diego State was the real wild card in this region as a team that swam in both belief and doubt all season. I saw the Aztecs as a team most ripe for getting upset on the first weekend rather than getting to the Final Four. For those looking for a big upset in this region, perhaps Hofstra was the team as a No. 14 over No. 3 Seton Hall. The Colonial Conference has been wildly competitive and successful in recent years of the NCAA tournament.



South Region


Top Seed: Baylor

Projected Winner by SM Power Ratings: Baylor

Projected Winner by SM Effective Strength Ratings: Baylor

Projected Winner by SM Bettors’ Ratings: Baylor

Projected Winner by SM Momentum Ratings: Providence

Observations: The weakest region in these projections easily was the South, where Baylor was expected to be the top seed. The region is worse than the others top to bottom, and this is the only one in which it wouldn’t have been a ratings sweep for one team, as No. 7 Providence secured the top Momentum Rating for its recent surge. Baylor had about a 25% chance to win this region based on the average of the four ratings sets, but Florida State, Maryland, Ohio State and Providence might have made some noise. Butler was extremely ripe for the picking as a No. 4 seed and would have faced No. 13 Bradley, a team that ripped through the Missouri Valley tourney and gave Michigan State a run for its money last year. Defending champion Virginia was projected in the South Region and probably would have gotten some love from the experts, but this Cavaliers team was a shell of its 2019 championship self and was incapable of another run.


To see the charts with this story, read VSiN’s “Point Spread Weekly.”


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