On Tuesday, The University of Connecticut Men’s basketball team capped off a captivating championship run with a dominant 17-point victory over San Diego State. All tournament long, UConn has seemed unstoppable. Their “closest” game came in the Final Four when they defeated Miami by 13 points. Overall, they defeated their tournament opponents by an average margin of 20 points.
As you might imagine, this kind of dominant tournament run is pretty rare. In fact, the 2023 UConn Men’s team stands along just four other championship teams in winning each of their tournament games by at least double digits (since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams).
However, some haters have argued that UConn’s dominance was in large part due to a relatively easy path to the Championship Game. After all, thanks to an upset to Kansas in the second round, UConn did not have to play the 1-seed in its region. In fact, the highest seed that UConn ended up facing was a 3-seeded Gonzaga. In contrast, in 1997 Arizona faced three 1-seeds on its path to the championship.
Naturally, I decided to take an empirical look at just how dominant UConn’s run has been this year, and whether they truly were much luckier than normal. Click to skip to a section:
Note: For this analysis, I look at all NCAA Tournament Champions dating back to 1985. This cutoff is chosen because 1985 is when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and the modern tournament format took form. Since 1985, there have been 38 champions.
Average Margin of Victory
To measure the dominance of UConn’s 2023 tournament run, we can first compare their average margin of victory to past champions. The 2023 UConn Huskies were remarkable in that they beat every single one of their opponents by double digits. Their average margin of victory was exactly 20.0 points, which ranks top 5 among all modern champions. The chart below summarizes the 10 championship teams with the highest Average Margin of Victory:
Here, we can see that the UConn ’23 team is one of only four historic teams that have defeated opponents by an average of at least 20 points a game. This places this year’s UConn team in the top 10% of championship teams by average margin of victory. Furthermore, their margin was 48% higher than the average champion.
Adjusted Average Margin of Victory
However, averages can be skewed by outliers. Specifically, in the First Round, 1 & 2 Seeds play 16 & 15 Seeded teams (respectively). These seeds tend to be weak teams that earned an automatic tournament bid (autobid) by winning relatively weak conferences. The better seeded 1 & 2 Seeds have historically won 96% of these games, with a whopping average margin of victory of 21.4 points. So is it fair to count a 28 point drubbing of a weak team in the First Round as equally as a 28 point win over a 3-Seed in the Elite Eight?
To account for this, we can adjust our Margin of Victory metric to omit the results from the First Round. The results can be seen below:
When we omit the First Round, we see that this year’s UConn team had the highest margin of victory in tournament history. Furthermore, this adjusted margin is 69% better than the average champion.
Overall, we see pretty solid evidence that UConn’s tournament run this year was historically dominant. They had one of the highest (if not the highest) margin victory in modern tournament history.
There are many ways to measure the difficulty of tournament opponents. For simplicity, this article does not look at advanced metrics for opponents. Mainly because I was too lazy to scrape them. So we can instead look at the seeding of the teams that each champion played en route to their championship. Ostensibly, the tournament committee looks at advanced metrics when determining seeds, so in a way this approach takes advanced metrics into account.
Average Opponent Seed
We can start our analysis of opponent strength by simply looking at the average seed of the opponents played by each Championship Team. This year, UConn played seeds 3, 5, 5, 5, 8, and 13 for an average opponent seed of 6.5. Since lower seeds are “better” teams, a higher average opponent seed suggests easier opponents. A chart of all teams can be found below:
Here, we see that UConn was solidly middle of the pack in Average Opponent Seed. In fact, its Average Opponent Seed is almost exactly average among all Championship Teams. This suggests that UConn was neither lucky nor unlucky when it came to its opponents.
Adjusted Opponent Difficulty
Again, we need to remember that outliers skew simple averages. Specifically, recall that low seeds are guaranteed to play a high seed in the First Round by construction. For example, a 1-Seed always plays a 16-Seed in the first round, while a 7-Seed always plays a 10-Seed. Consequently, the Average Opponent Seed of a 1-Seed will mathematically automatically be 1.0 higher than the Average Opponent Seed of a 7-Seed. If we’re concerned with analyzing how “lucky” a championship run is, we may want to adjust for this.
One way to make such an adjustment is to compare a Championship Team’s actual opponents to the toughest possible opponents for each round. This depends on the original seeding of the champion. Consider this example: in 2014, UConn won the tournament as a 7-Seed. Their regional bracket path looked like this:
In the First Round, UConn was automatically matched up to a 10-Seed. In the Second Round, the “best possible opponent” that UConn could face was 2-Seeded Villanova. In the Sweet Sixteen, the “best possible opponent” UConn could face was 3-Seeded Iowa State. In the Elite Eight, the “best possible opponent” for UConn was 1-Seeded Virginia. Instead, they played 4-Seeded Michigan State, who had upset Virginia in the previous round. Here, we see that UConn faced an “easier than expected” matchup for the Elite Eight, which could be construed as lucky.
We can apply this logic to all past Championship Teams based on their original seeding to get an Adjusted Opponent Difficulty that compares their actual championship path to the hardest possible path. The way I calculate this metric, a value of 0 indicates the hardest possible path, and higher values indicate an easier (or “luckier”) championship path. The results can be found below:
Here, we see that UConn faced the 6th easiest path to the championship using our adjusted metric. This puts UConn in just the 16th percentile for championship run difficulty. This metric suggests that UConn was relatively lucky this year.
This was a pretty rough — and by no means sophisticated — analysis of Opponent Difficulty. My metrics may not paint the full picture. For example, consider the ’97 Arizona Championship Team. This team beat three different 1-Seeds en route to their championship. This remains the most 1-Seeds ever defeated by a tournament team. Yet neither of my metrics point to this team as having faced a particularly tough road, because their remaining opponents were 10, 12, and 13 seeds.
There’s no denying that UConn was historically dominant this year. They beat their opponents by an average margin of 20 points, and if you exclude the First Round, they had the highest average margin of victory in tournament history.
But there might also be some credence to the argument that UConn got a little lucky. Although the average seeding of their opponents was middle-of-the-road, they probably faced one of the easier paths to the championship overall. I’d probably take my opponent difficulty metrics with a healthy grain of salt, though.
Thanks for reading, and congrats to UConn! No matter how you cut it, they tore their way through the tournament and deserve their flowers. If you liked this article, please subscribe below! I only email when a new article comes out. And sometimes I forget to even do that.