SEC basketball has been the butt of many jokes this year, and the great majority of that was earned. Despite all of the punch lines, the league may still end up winning its second national championship in a row.
Believe it or not, several advanced statistics outfits actually have the Florida Gators as the favorite to win the whole tournament:
- Ken Pomeroy, the godfather of advanced college basketball analysis, has Florida as his No. 1 team. That implies that UF is the favorite by his system.
- The Power Rank gives the Gators an 11.7% chance of winning it all, the best of any team.
- The Survival Model, done by John Ezekowitz of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective, has proven even more accurate than Pomeroy's rankings in tournament picks and has nailed five of the last six champions. It has Florida with a 15.7% chance of cutting down the nets, the most of any school.
So why is this? Turning to Pomeroy's ratings, it's because Florida is highly efficient on both offense and defense. That system puts UF No. 5 in offense and No. 2 in defense, the only team to rate in the top five of both categories. It's an experienced and balanced team that does a lot of things well. Teams like that tend to do well in March.
Even if Florida is the favorite, it's not an overwhelming one. Pomeroy's overall team rating system spans from 0 to 1, and just .001 separates the Gators from No. 2 Louisville. The Power Rank also has Louisville next in line with a 10.9% shot, not far off of Florida's 11.7%. The Survival Model actually gives the Gators the most breathing room, as next after their 15.7% chance is Louisville's 13.4%.
Furthermore, even in the most optimistic model, Florida would still lose the tournament 84 or 85 times out of 100 if we could stage the tournament that many times. Indeed, saying that UF is the most likely tournament champion doesn't mean that the outcome of UF winning it all is even a likely event. It's still fairly unlikely when you look at the odds the rest of the field collectively has.
A quick aside: Florida is famously 0-6 in games decided by 10 points or less, and teams usually have to win a close game in order to win the tournament. Sometimes they don't, as with 2009 North Carolina, but most often they do. Could Florida do it and fulfill its statistical destiny?
This is something that Florida actually went through not that long ago with Tim Tebow. He famously began his career as a starter 0-5 in games in which his team trailed in the second half. Those games were only 20% of his first 25 starts, which means that he wasn't trailing in the second half very often. As it turns out, he got his first come-from-behind win in the second biggest stage in the game: in Atlanta against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Florida basketball has played 33 games so far, after all. The inverse of that close games statistic reveals that the team is 26-1 in games decided by 10 or more points. The Gators have only laid one egg, their February 5 stinker against Arkansas, and have beaten most of their opponents by comfortable margins. That fact, as much as any, is why all of the numerical systems favor them. A team that wins most of its games handily and only loses close when it falls will do well in any decent mathematical system.
Florida has had some games, like its recent SEC Tournament victory over Alabama, where the game was close throughout but it pulled away late to make the game not count as "close". Had 49.6% free throw shooter Patric Young missed both of his free throws (instead of making one) at the end of that game with it already out of Bama's reach, it would have been a nine-point victory. The Florida-hasn't-won-a-close-game narrative would've been dead right there.
Anyway, humans seem to be picking Louisville the most, but the algorithms like Florida. Of course, the algorithms like Louisville too, as the Cardinals are second in line in all three I highlighted above. Those teams appear to be the two most likely squads to win the tournament, but even put together, their chances are still under 30% of taking home the title.
That's part of what makes March Madness so much fun: something being unlikely doesn't make it impossible. And if Florida does make a run to win it all like the formulas say it can? It just might be the most fun opportunity to use the S-E-C chant to infuriate the rest of the country we've had in a while.