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Your take about Gonzaga having an easy road to the Final Four is bad and unnecessary

Don’t be That Guy

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Xavier Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Noted Bad Opinion Haver Clay Travis fired off a flaming hot take of a tweet the other day, as he is wont to do, voicing an opinion that lots of folks feel the need to verbalize (for some reason).

This is a factual tweet. Gonzaga did in fact play a 16 seed (like every 1 seed does), an 8 seed (the best possible seed a 1 seed can face in the round of 32), a 4 seed (the best possible seed a 1 seed can face in the Sweet 16), and an 11 seed. They will, in fact, play a 7 seed in the Final Four when they take on South Carolina.

Here’s the thing though: Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four is actually not that different from how most top-seeded schools get there. It’s crazy, but it’s almost like if you play a great season and are rewarded with a great seed, you end up playing teams that are worse than you. It’s a novel concept, I know, but strangely, that’s how the math seems to work out every year.

Since the field expanded to 68 teams, ten 1 seeds have made it to the Final Four: this year’s Gonzaga, this year’s North Carolina, 2016 UNC, 2015 Duke, 2015 Wisconsin, 2015 Kentucky, 2014 Florida, 2013 Louisville, and 2012 Kentucky. Only about half of those teams can really claim to have played a notably tougher group of teams than Gonzaga has played this year.

For fun, here are two tables of every team that’s made the Final Four since 2011. We’ll sort the first one by the sum of the seeds of all the teams that they played. Obviously, the lower the number, the tougher the competition.

FINAL FOUR TEAMS SINCE 2011

Team/Year Sum of opponents' seeds through Regional Final
Team/Year Sum of opponents' seeds through Regional Final
Butler 2011 14
Kentucky 2014 16
South Carolina 2017 19
Michigan State 2015 19
UConn 2014 19
VCU 2011 20
Kentucky 2011 21
Michigan 2013 22
Wichita State 2013 24
Louisville 2012 26
Villanova 2016 26
UConn 2011 27
Wisconsin 2014 29
Oklahoma 2016 29
Syracuse 2013 29
Wisconsin 2015 30
UNC 2017 30
Duke 2015 31
Kentucky 2012 31
Kentucky 2015 32
Oregon 2017 33
Ohio State 2012 34
Syracuse 2016 34
UNC 2016 36
Kansas 2012 37
Louisville 2013 38
Gonzaga 2017 39
Florida 2014 40
Teams in bold denote 1 seeds

Yes, it’s true, by this metric this year’s Gonzaga’s team is the second “luckiest” Final Four team. But keep in mind that the only difference between them and 2017 UNC or 2015 Wisconsin, who both played the toughest possible seeds for a 1 seed (16, 8, 4, 2), is just that Xavier game. Every other game, Gonzaga drew chalk.

Also, there are three other top seeds who have nearly identical profiles. Last year’s UNC team got a 16, 9, 5, and 7 seed in their region. They’d go on to play a 10 seeded Syracuse team in the Final Four. 2013 Louisville played a 16, 8, 12, and 2 seed before their Final Four matchup with 9 seed Wichita State. Florida in 2014 played a 16, 9, 4, and 11 seed in their regional. They played a 7 seed in the Final Four. Nearly half of all top seeds who’ve made the Final Four in the 68-team era have had pretty much the same exact slate as the Bulldogs. Gonzaga isn’t unique.

Beyond that, simply looking at opponents’ seedings isn’t a super accurate way of measuring the quality of the teams they played. This year, Kentucky might have played a 10 seed in the second round this year, but to generalize Wichita State as roughly the 40th best team is a mistake (glares angrily at the selection committee). Here’s another table where, instead of opponents seedings, teams are sorted by KenPom ranks of their opponents. One important caveat: I chose not to include first-round opponents in this table because there are wild fluctuations that significantly skew the data. There isn’t a tangible difference in win expectancy between 16 seeds, but the huge discrepancies in KenPom ranks (sometimes as big as 100 spots) would heavily affect top-seeded teams. Also, for the purpose of talking about how “lucky” a team’s draw is, the first round isn’t usually what we’re talking about.

FINAL FOUR TEAMS SINCE 2011

Team/Year Sum of 2nd round, Sweet 16, and Elite 8 opponents' KenPom ranks
Team/Year Sum of 2nd round, Sweet 16, and Elite 8 opponents' KenPom ranks
Kentucky 2014 19
Butler 2011 27
Michigan 2013 28
South Carolina 2017 32
Louisville 2012 33
Michigan State 2015 34
Kentucky 2011 35
UConn 2014 40
Villanova 2016 41
Duke 2015 46
UConn 2011 49
Kentucky 2012 49
Wisconsin 2014 56
Ohio State 2012 57
Wisconsin 2015 59
Oregon 2017 59
Oklahoma 2016 61
Wichita State 2013 62
UNC 2017 62
Louisville 2013 63
Florida 2014 72
Gonzaga 2017 74
VCU 2011 75
Kentucky 2015 77
Kansas 2012 78
Syracuse 2013 85
UNC 2016 92
Syracuse 2016 143
Bold denotes 1 seeds

Again, Gonzaga is near the bottom, but, again, there aren’t significant differences between them and the other 1 seeds listed. 2015 Kentucky and last year’s UNC squads both had easier roads and there are only slight degrees of difference separating Gonzaga from 2014 Florida, 2013 Louisville, and 2017 UNC.

The bottom line is that when people point to Gonzaga’s route to the Final Four, and now the Championship game, as “lucky,” they’re doing so because it confirms their preconceived notion that Gonzaga isn’t legit. To be so transparently selective when it comes to what does and doesn’t make a tough NCAA Tournament run is evidence of the disrespect that this year’s Gonzaga team unjustly has to deal with.

No one points to VCU’s magical 2011 run as discredited by a weak road. Even as an 11 seed, the quality of their opponents was almost identical to this year’s Gonzaga team. The best story about that team was about Shaka Smart, Havoc defense, and a Cinderella story.

No one talks about Kentucky’s juggernaut 2015 team’s road to the Final Four as illegitimate because of their schedule, even though it was one of the easiest in the 68-team era. People were already aware of how great that team was so it didn’t matter who they had to play.

For those who are trying to poke holes in this year’s Gonzaga team, their slate is something that they’ll reflexively point to, no matter how unfair that point is. The sad part is, unless Gonzaga wins the whole shooting match, people will claim that the Bulldogs didn’t actually deserve their success this year. That’s the (very Donald Trump voice) mainstream media bias that Gonzaga has to bust through to be taken seriously. The good news is that Gonzaga can 100 percent be the team cutting down the nets when it’s all said and done.

That’s the best way to shut everyone up.