The Myth of the Cinderella

The NCAA Basketball Tournament is so unpredictable and capricious that the press calls any lower seeded team that wins two games and makes the Sweet Sixteen a “Cinderella.” The Brothers Grimm would disagree. Technically speaking, Cinderella was the one and only woman who passed the test and claimed the love of the Prince. In other words, the title Cinderella should go to the tournament champion, assuming the tournament was a test that could be passed only by the best team in all the land. Of course, the tournament can be won by any high seed (1-3) with a good draw, a healthy roster, and a bit of luck, so the tournament isn’t as valid a test as Cinderella’s golden slipper.

North Carolina comes to mind as a real Cinderella as it won the title in 2005 when it was indeed the best team in the country, and again last year when it was the best team in the country. That doesn’t happen very often. Syracuse and UConn come easily to mind as teams that have won titles when other teams were better.

Nonetheless, we are thrilled by the so-called Cinderella’s who make an appearance from time to time. This year’s Cinderella is Loyola Chicago. But is Loyola really a Cinderella even in the sense of media hype?

Loyola is a relatively small school, a basketball mid-major, in a single bid conference (the Missouri Valley Conference) and hasn’t been heard from, in the basketball sense, for decades. The last time the Ramblers were part of the national scene—1963—I was a high school sophomore at an all-boys boarding school. In the tournament that year, Loyola surprisingly made it to the title game where it faced Cincinnati, the unconquerable behemoth of the college basketball world that had won consecutive titles and was seeking to become the first school ever to win three consecutive titles. Cincinnati was the overwhelming favorite that night and naturally we all rooted for the underdog.

As a sophomore I did not have television privileges, so I was stuck in a third-floor dorm room as the game began. On the second floor, juniors and seniors gathered in a huge room to watch the broadcast. I couldn’t stand not being able to watch the game, so I snuck past the dorm monitor and down a staircase to the second-floor landing and listened as a tip-in at the buzzer made the Loyola Ramblers the “Cinderella” winner of the national championship. Can it happen again?

We can forgive the Selection Committee and other basketball “experts” for not knowing that Loyola is a very good team. They have no points of reference as Loyola played only one game against teams the experts know are good. Loyola went to Gainesville and beat Florida and that outcome was simply counted as a bad loss for the Gators. The Committee and the experts have no scientific measurements of team quality absent those points of reference.

However, the RPG system can measure Loyola’s quality based upon how well it plays the game relative to its competition. As we’ve mentioned before, the difference between the best teams and the worst teams is not all that great this year. The teams Loyola played in its conference were not as weak compared to the teams Michigan (Loyola’s semi-final opponent) played as the experts might think.

When we added Loyola to our end-of-regular-season rankings, they placed #25, ahead of teams like Clemson, Seton Hall, Miami, Texas A&M, Creighton and Virginia Tech, all of whom received higher seeds. If any of those teams defeated Michigan, would you consider it a momentous upset?

As #25 in the country, Loyola should have been given the top #7 seed rather than the #11 seed it received from the Committee. That means that its opening round win over Miami was no upset. It’s second round win over Tennessee (#12 in our rankings) was a mild upset but no great shock. It’s third round win over Nevada (#15) was again no great shock. And, in its Elite Eight game against Kansas State the Ramblers would have been a heavy favorite.

So, Loyola is a very good team that has beaten—barely—several comparable teams. Can they beat Michigan (#13 in our rankings)? Absolutely. The Wolverines would be a slight favorite if science were used to set the line.

This is not the first time that a team has been wrongly hyped as a Cinderella. In 2011 George Mason, a team and school that is comparable to Loyola, was seeded #11 and made it to the Final Four. However, George Mason’s seed was an even greater mistake than Loyola’s seed. George Mason was ranked #24 by RPG, meaning it should have been a #6 seed. Its first-round opponent—Michigan State—was the #6 seed but should have been a #11 seed. Brand bias bought the Spartans too high a seed, but it couldn’t buy them a win over a better team. After beating the Spartans, George Mason defeated two more teams that should have been seeded beneath them, so it had pulled no upsets before reaching the Elite Eight. There it pulled its one upset, over #1 seed UConn.

None of this science diminishes the accomplishments of either George Mason or Loyola, but it does tell us that history would have been different, and the press stories would have been different, had the Committee used science to correctly seed teams in the tournament field.

By | 2018-03-28T09:59:03+00:00 March 28th, 2018|Blog|