BPI projects how the 2020 NCAA tournament could have played out

BySeth Walder ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 18, 2020

It will be remembered as the NCAA tournament that never happened.

But what if it had?

That's what we're here to settle.

Armed with Joe Lunardi's final bracket and our own Basketball Power Index (BPI), we decided to simulate the 2020 tournament.

Normally when we do this, we're providing probabilities. We tell you that Kansas was the pre-tournament favorite, with an 18% chance to win. That Baylor had a 7% (!) chance to lose in the first round to Winthrop. Or that Texas Tech was the double-digit seed with the best chance at reaching the Sweet 16 (18%).

That's good stuff, and if you want to see who the pre-tournament favorites to win it all were, just look at this list:

  • Kansas 18%
  • Duke 17%
  • Gonzaga 15%
  • Michigan State 10%
  • Dayton 7%
  • Baylor 6%
  • Ohio State 3%
  • San Diego State 3%
  • Louisville 3%
  • Maryland 2%

But here's the thing: Life is a single sim. The 2020 tournament was only going to be played once. And so that's what this article is actually dedicated to: a solitary simulation of this year's tournament. One-and-done, just like March Madness.

A single simulation means that upsets will happen. The unexpected will rear its head. Because any given Thursday-Sunday in March, there's some weird in college basketball. And that's reflected here.

In practice, here's roughly how that works. Let's take that Baylor-Winthrop matchup we mentioned earlier. BPI has determined that given the relative strength of the two teams and the location of the game (Omaha), Baylor has a 93% chance to win. So it effectively rolls a 100-sided die, and 93 of the sides show a Baylor win, and the other seven have a Winthrop win. The winner advances, and we go through the same process for every game.

And we made a pact, too. We decided to use simulation No. 2020 and use it no matter what. If it's the one simulation where Vermont wins it all, we're doing it. No takebacks. Because sometimes the wildly improbable does happen. You're just gonna have to trust us on this point.

Oh, and BPI doesn't provide any information about score or stats, so we're taking some liberties with the details along the way. OK -- the rules are set. Now, it's time for tipoff.


Midwest Region

No. 1 Kansasover No. 16 Siena

A sloppy first half from Kansas draws some early concern, but the Jayhawks recover and pull away for the expected win.

No. 9 Marquetteover No. 8 Houston

Marquette finished the season ice cold, with six losses in its final seven contests. But the Golden Eagles can take solace in the fact that BPI does not overreact to recency in college basketball. And they also have this going for them: Markus Howard. And on this day against Houston, Howard finally gets his first NCAA tournament win. Will there be more?

No. 12 Libertyover No. 5 Auburn

Our first upset! Had Selection Sunday actually happened, I would have spent this entire week yelling from the rooftops that Liberty was an excellent underdog to pick. I promise, I would have! After all, we identified the Flames as the second-best 11-plus seed in terms of first-round upset potential a week ago, shortly before the actual tournament was canceled.

No. 4 Wisconsinover No. 13 North Texas

Both of these teams are among the 16-slowest pace squads in the country, but Wisconsin's decent offense is a mismatch against a weak North Texas offense. The Badgers gradually extend their lead over the course of the game, which is never really in doubt.

No. 6 Iowaover No. 11 East Tennessee State

Just in terms of regular ol' net efficiency, Iowa had the 24th-best offense in the country. But once we adjust for opponent and account for the tough Big Ten in which the Hawkeyes had to battle, it was the fifth-most efficient offense. And that's what leads them to a blowout win in the first round of the tournament.

No. 3 Dukeover No. 14 Belmont

As you can see from the championship projections, BPI was awfully high on Duke this season relative to general perception. Will that result in a championship in Sim No. 2020? It remains to be seen, but it did carry the Blue Devils to a first-round victory.

No. 7 Providenceover No. 10 Arizona State

In a back-and-forth affair,Nate Watson's dominance inside against Providence's Pac-12 opponent leads the Friars to a victory.

No. 2 Kentuckyover No. 15 North Dakota State

Kentucky was maybe slightly overseeded as a No. 2 seed from a résumé standpoint -- strength of record would have put the Wildcats at a No. 3 seed -- but vastly overseeded from an ability standpoint as the 24th-best team in the country, per BPI. It's irrelevant now -- they beat North Dakota State just fine -- but will it matter down the line?

East Region

No. 1 Daytonover No. 16 Robert Morris

It has beenObi Toppin's season. Will it be Obi Toppin's tournament? He throws down a couple of impressive dunks, but he won't dominate SportsCenter on this night because Dayton cruises to an easy victory.

No. 8 Coloradoover No. 9 Florida

What a fall for Florida, from being a teamwe actually called a co-preseason favorite with Michigan Stateto now a quiet first-round exit. BPI gave the Gators a 59% chance to win this contest, but on this day it was the Buffaloes who came out on top.

No. 5 Butlerover No. 12 Richmond

On paper, this would look like a pretty vulnerable spot for Butler. They're slow-paced and the worst 3-point shooting team, so if Richmond got hot, it would be a problem. But the game isn't played on paper -- eh, this one kind of is. Anyway, it doesn't matter: Butler still earns the win.

No. 4 Marylandover No. 13 Akron

It got dicey for the Terps at the end of the regular season. Three losses over the final five. Needing a comeback to squeak out a one-point win over Minnesota. But Maryland battled for most of the season through that Big Ten schedule and was battle-tested. It handles Akron just fine in the opener.

No. 6 Penn Stateover No. 11 NC State

Something I'll be curious to see in this sim: Does the Big Ten dominate? BPI loved the conference, particularly for its depth. So could a team like Penn State end up making a deep run? It starts with a win in the first round over NC State, which took out UCLA in the First Four.

No. 14 Hofstraover No. 3 Villanova

Whewwwwww. Here we go. Liberty over Auburn was fun, but now we're popping. Hofstra, making its first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2001 tournament, pulls off a massive upset, taking out Jay Wright's team in the first round. This is Hofstra's first tournament win in program history.

No. 7 West Virginiaover No. 10 Utah State

My goodness, West Virginia is about the feistiest No. 7 seed you can possibly imagine. Bob Huggins' crew is the 11th-best team in the country, and yet here they are. Gotta feel for Utah State, which falls to the Mountaineers.

No. 2 Florida Stateover No. 15 Northern Kentucky

The Seminoles take care of business. But look at the game above: Florida State has a much tougher second-round contest than a No. 2 seed deserves.

West Region

No. 1 Gonzagaover No. 16 Prairie View A&M

Is this the year Mark Few gets it done? In front of a friendly crowd in Spokane, his team takes the first step.

No. 8 LSUover No. 9 Oklahoma

Hey, look at that! It's a rematch of the national semifinal in football. Good news for Oklahoma: It loses by fewer than 35 points this time. Bad news: It still loses.

No. 12Yaleover No. 5 Michigan

Our second 12-5 upset team is another that our numbers were fond of. I mentioned earlier that Liberty was the No. 2 upset threat in the first round. Guess who was No. 1? That's right: Yale. And the Bulldogs live up to the hype in knocking out Juwan Howard and the Wolverines.

No. 4 Oregonover No. 13 New Mexico State

Our opponent-adjusted win shares metric loved Payton Pritchard. In fact, from a volume standpoint, Pritchard recorded more win shares than any other player in college basketball this season. And he leads the Ducks to another right here.

No. 6 BYUover No. 11 Indiana

If there's one team BPI is underrating in this tournament, there's a good chance it's BYU. The Cougars spent a significant portion of their season without Yoeli Childs -- not only their best player, but a top-20 player on a per-minute basis according to our win shares number. BPI doesn't know about his specific missed time, so BYU is probably a little better than we have them rated. Regardless, it doesn't hold back the Cougars here, as they get the win over the Hoosiers.

No. 3 Seton Hallover No. 14Eastern Washington

Closer than it should have been, but the Pirates -- making their fifth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament -- hold on for the win over Eastern Washington. Seton Hall had a geographic advantage here, with this game played in Albany, New York.

No. 10 Texas Techover No. 7 Arizona

Remember we said the Red Raiders were the most likely double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16. With a win over Arizona, Texas Tech has completed the first step.

No. 2 San Diego Stateover No. 15 UC Irvine

The Aztecs were the only No. 2 seed to crack the top-10 favorites to win the whole tournament but still were the eighth-most-likely team to win it overall. Their path to the championship is clear through one game, with a victory against the Anteaters.

South Region

No. 1 Baylorover No. 16 Winthrop

One of Baylor's 93 sides on the aforementioned 100-sided die came up. The Bears get past an unusually tough first-round game for a No. 1 seed but still an incredibly easy game overall.

No. 8 Saint Mary's over No. 9 Rutgers

Saints Mary's' efficient attack, built on ball security and a high conversion rate on 3-pointers, is enough to take down Rutgers and earn the right to face Baylor.

No. 5 Ohio Stateover No. 12 Stephen F. Austin

BPI would consider this matchup an underrated favorite against an overrated underdog. While we've already seen a couple of 12-5 upsets in this tourney, BPI gives Ohio State a 90% chance to win this game, and it does.

No. 4 Louisvilleover No. 13 Vermont

Louisville is the eighth-best team in the country, as far as BPI is concerned, despite being a No. 4 seed. Vermont is a challenging No. 13 seed but can't put together enough of a challenge to really make the Cardinals sweat.

No. 6 Virginiaover No. 11 Cincinnati

Entering the tournament, Virginia looked like one of the most vulnerable teams to go down early. The typical critique of Virginia as a favorite -- that the Cavaliers' slow-paced game makes them susceptible to variance -- is fair, it's just that last season their offense was so good that it didn't really matter. This season, not so much. Still, in the first round, it doesn't matter and Virginia gets past the Bearcats.

No. 14 Bradleyover No. 3 Michigan State

Down goes Izzo! BPI remained high on Michigan State until the very end --it gave the Spartans the best chance to win it all among Big Ten teams, despite a No. 3 seed. But that guarantees nothing. And instead,Cassius Winston's season ends with a very disappointing upset loss.

No. 10 USCover No. 7 Illinois

Illinois entered this game as a pretty substantial favorite for a 7-10 contest, with a 63% chance to win. But USC, led by its defense, prevails.

No. 2Creightonover No. 15 Little Rock Trojans

The Bluejays fly through their opening game with ease, as expected.


Midwest Region

No. 9 Marquette over No. 1 Kansas

And Kansas falls! Markus Howard is flying now and he and Marquette are having the tournament that Golden Eagles fans hoped for a year ago. And just like that: Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and the rest of the Jayhawks are done.

No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 12 Liberty

The Flames had their moment, but they won't reach the second weekend. They hung tough with the Badgers and kept the scoring margin within single digits, but Greg Gard's defense helped keep Liberty from ever making a late charge.

No. 3 Duke over No. 6 Iowa

Vernon Carey Jr., the most productive player in college basketball this season on a per minute basis according to our win shares metric, leads the Blue Devils into the Sweet 16. And Duke is now a clear favorite to come out of the region because ...

No. 7 Providence over No. 2 Kentucky

Another blue blood down in this pretty brutal Midwest region. Even though we think Kentucky is overseeded, the Wildcats are still almost three points per game better than Providence. That's on average. Not today. Today, the Friars are moving on.

East Region

No. 1 Dayton over No. 8 Colorado

Toppin is rolling now. His dunks steal the show as Dayton secures a spot in the Sweet 16 and Toppin becomes the player to talk about in the layoff between the first and second weekends of the tournament.

No. 4 Maryland over No. 5 Butler

This one comes down to the wire, but Jalen Smith -- who dominated the glass all day -- comes through with the winning score in the final minute.

No. 6 Penn State over No. 14 Hofstra

Hofstra's first tournament win will be its only tournament win, at least this year. The Nittany Lions have completely shaken off the rough end to their season -- though they had the incredible fortune to play Hofstra instead of Villanova here -- and are moving on.

No. 7 West Virginia over No. 2 Florida State

This will not, as it turns out, be Leonard Hamilton's first trip to the Final Four. Instead he's ousted by another veteran coach, Bob Huggins, who looks to take West Virginia to its first Final Four since 2010.

West Region

No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 8 LSU

A 20-point, 8-rebound performance by Killian Tillie keeps Gonzaga's title hopes alive, as the Bulldogs move past the Tigers and into the second weekend.

No. 12 Yale over No. 4 Oregon

Yale is through to the Sweet 16! It's the only double-digit seed thus far to get there, edging out Oregon in a prime-time thriller. The Bulldogs shot the lights out.

No. 6 BYU over No. 3 Seton Hall

The Cougars rely on a strength -- 3-point shooting -- to launch an efficient attack and end it early against Seton Hall. BYU ranked first in 3-point field goal percentage in real life this season, per KenPom.

No. 2 San Diego State over No. 10 Texas Tech

Malachi Flynn has a big night on both ends of the court as San Diego State recaptures early-season form and advances.

No. 8 Saint Mary's over No. 1 Baylor

A second No. 1 seed falls! The Gaels stun the Bears and advance to the Sweet 16. In fact, all three WCC teams to earn a berth are on to the second weekend.

No. 5 Ohio State over No. 4 Louisville

We told you BPI loves the Big Ten and loves Ohio State. That's no guarantee for success in this exercise, but it meant the Buckeyes had a decent shot. They live up to the model's hype and bounce Louisville from the tourney.

No. 6 Virginia over No. 14 Bradley

Tony Bennett's team takes advantage of an easier-than-expected opponent and discards the Braves. The Cavaliers are moving on.

No. 2 Creighton over No. 10 USC

Creighton shoots quite a few 3s and makes a heck of a lot of them. The Trojans have a great defense whose strength is, per KenPom, limiting opponents' effectiveness on 2-point field goals. The Bluejays shoot USC out of the building.

Sweet 16

No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 9 Marquette

Wouldn't this be something: an all-Wisconsin showdown in the Sweet 16. Wisconsin is favored and ... just like that, Markus Howard and Marquette's Cinderella run comes to a screeching halt. Nate Reuvers records a couple of key blocks down the stretch as Wisconsin's defense comes through again.

No. 3 Duke over No. 7 Providence

Duke is coming into its own this tournament, and playing much closer to what a typical Blue Devils team looks like than the one that played this regular season. They look like one of the best teams in the tournament and making the committee feel foolish for slapping a No. 3 seed on them. Providence is a casualty as a result.

No. 4 Maryland over No. 1 Dayton

Dayton -- an underdog turned No. 1 seed with an NBA-bound star -- had quickly become a beloved team around the country. Alas. The Flyers are done. But everyone in Maryland is happy. This time, it's Anthony Cowan who delivers the damage.

No. 7 West Virginia over No. 6 Penn State

The Mountaineers completely control the offensive boards andOscar Tshiebwe-- who has the highest offensive rebounding rate in the country, per KenPom (and also the highest if you adjust for opponent) -- leads the way. The result: plenty of second-chance buckets for West Virginia en route to a win over the Nittany Lions.

No. 12 Yale over No. 1 Gonzaga

YALE!!!!!! The Ivy League school stuns Gonzaga and the country, eliminating the current favorite to win the national championship (after Kansas' early exit). That means all four No. 1 seeds have been eliminated prior to the Elite 8. Yale had just a 1.6% chance to reach the Elite 8, but here it is. And junior forward Paul Atkinson is suddenly a household name.

No. 6 BYU over No. 2 San Diego State

And another high seed falls! All of a sudden, life in Sim No. 2020 has gotten awfully chaotic. The Cougars bounce the Aztecs, and that sets up an incredibly unlikely game between Yale and BYU with a shot at the Final Four on the line.

No. 5 Ohio State over No. 8 Saint Mary's

Kaleb Wesson cleans up on the boards and hits a couple of shots beyond the arc, leading the Buckeyes to the Elite 8, where they will be favored because ...

No. 6 Virginia over No. 2 Creighton

And again, a major contender falls. Is it time for me to eat my words from earlier on Virginia's vulnerabilities? I think so. That defense is apparently rocking, because the Cavaliers beat the Bluejays and are now in the conversation for a repeat.

Elite Eight

No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 3 Duke

D'Mitrik Trice knocks down a 3 at the horn to put the Badgers over the top and win by one ... they're going to the Final Four! They took down Mike Krzyzewski, Carey, Tre Jones and the rest of the Blue Devils ... just barely. But they're through.

No. 4 Maryland over No. 7 West Virginia

The mighty Big Ten is now 2-2 in the Elite 8, and is guaranteed a rep in the national championship game. Cowan and Smith lead the way again, and West Virginia just can't keep up with the Maryland offense. The Terps win by 10 and cut down the nets.

No. 6 BYU over No. 12 Yale

And the Bulldogs' run is finally over. They took down some goliaths but ultimately it was an underrated No. 6 seed that got the best of them. Childs got the better of Atkinson at both ends of the floor and, as a result, the Cougars are moving on to Atlanta.

No. 6 Virginia over No. 5 Ohio State

The title defense is very much on. Two years ago, the Cavaliers were knocked out as a No. 1 seed in the first round. Now they have a national championship under their belt, and back-to-back Final Fours ... at least. It's an incredible accomplishment for a team that has, in BPI's estimation, the 220th-best offense in the country. Tony Bennett's stock is flying higher than ever. UVA completes a bizarre looking and utterly shocking Final Four made up of two No. 4 seeds and two No. 6s. But in a strange season for college basketball, maybe this is what we should have expected.

Final Four

No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 4 Maryland

Maryland falls behind early but makes a late run and pulls ahead in the final minute. But in the final seconds, history repeats itself: Brad Davison knocks down a 3 to put the Badgers up at the very end, just as he did when these two schools played in January. A half-court heave from the Terps is off the mark, and Wisconsin, improbably, is headed to the national championship.

No. 6 BYU over No. 6 Virginia

The UVa offense finally held back the Cavaliers. Hot starts by Childs and Jake Toolson put the Cougars ahead by double digits at the half, and Virginia struggles to fight its way back into it. While BYU's run to the finals was also incredibly unlikely, it was actually slightly more likely than Wisconsin's, though both were just over 2%. Now, the Cougars are very slight favorites to win the national championship.

National championship

No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 6 BYU

The Badgers have done it! In the college basketball season that made no sense, Wisconsin has come out of (relatively) nowhere to take the national championship. The Badgers had less than a 1% chance to pull off this feat entering the tourney. It's a team effort, but Nate Reuvers leads Wisconsin with 16 points. Gard is lauded for getting his group to play their best when it mattered the most. This is a team that did not begin the season in the AP's Top 25 and only barely cracked it in the last set of rankings. Not that any of that matters, because the Badgers are now (simulated) champions!

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