Joe Lunardi projected Oregon as a 9-seed at the end of the regular season, and then he upgraded the Ducks to a projected 8-seed after a win against UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament championship game. When I saw the 12-seed that Oregon was given Sunday afternoon, my reaction was probably similar to that of many Duck fans. I was mildly upset, but then I was immediately reminded of an article I read some years ago by this guy you might know, Nate Silver.
Oregon was expected by many to get an 8-seed or a 9-seed, but as Silver explains, those are probably the worst seeds to be awarded in the 5-to-12 range. If we assume Oregon is as talented as most 8/9-seeds, then had they gotten an 8 or 9-seed, the Ducks would have had about a 50% chance of winning in round one and a 14% chance of winning in round two. That multiplies out to a 7% chance of making the Sweet 16, which is likely a high estimate given that Oregon’s true talent level is objectively worse than a typical 8-seed.*
From the 12-seed, the Ducks will need to beat a 5-seed in Oklahoma State, and then probably the 4-seed in St. Louis (though possibly the 13 in New Mexico State). History suggests that most 12-seeds have a 34% chance of a round one upset. Those that are able to pull off the upset go on to beat the 4-seed 40% of time. That seems a little backward that 12-seeds would do better against 4-seeds than 5-seeds, but remember there’s selection bias. The 12′s that get to play 4′s are the ones that were able to beat the 5′s first. So this is a group of 12-seeds that was underrated. If we just take those probabilities from past tournaments at face value, then Oregon would have a 14% chance of making the Sweet 16. That’s almost surely a low estimate, as Oregon’s true talent level is probably something better than a typical 12-seed.**
Oregon’s chances of making the Sweet 16 actually improved from a conservative estimate of 7% to 14%, simply by getting “shafted” by the seeding the committee, which had no idea it was actually doing Oregon a favor. Indeed, if you look back at the past six tournaments, you’ll find that five 12-seeds have made it to the Sweet 16 versus just one 8-seed and one 9-seed.
UPDATE: Silver’s projections are out, and he has given Oregon a 17.5% chance at the Sweet 16. The 8 and 9-seeds in that draw, Colorado State and Missouri, have been given a combined 14.5%.
*Ken Pomeroy has Oregon as a true-talent 10-seed while Jeff Sagarin has them as a true-talent 12-seed. The AP poll projected Oregon as a 9-seed before winning the Pac-12 tournament. So a simple average of the three would estimate the Ducks’ true talent level as about that of a typical 10-seed.
**And actually, if we additionally account for the slim chances that New Mexico State pulls it out against St. Louis, Oregon could have something closer to a 20% chance at the Sweet 16.