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ESPN simulates entire NCAA Tournament — with BYU reaching the championship game

The Cougars hold an ongoing NCAA record with 29 NCAA Tournament appearances without a Final Four appearance. But in ESPN’s simulation, that dubious streak comes to an end.

Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) celebrates with fans after BYU toppled No. 2-ranked Gonzaga 91-78 at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) celebrates with fans after BYU toppled No. 2-ranked Gonzaga 91-78 at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — With the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, many are wondering how things might have played out with this year’s field of 68.

Spoiler alert: one simulation, by ESPN, has BYU advancing all the way to the championship game. It also has three West Coast Conference teams — BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s — reaching the Sweet 16.

The Cougars hold an ongoing NCAA record with 29 NCAA Tournament appearances without a Final Four appearance. But in this simulation, that dubious streak comes to an end.

ESPN analytics specialist Seth Walder used bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s final bracket and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) to simulate the 2020 NCAA Tournament, describing it as “a solitary simulation of this year’s tournament. One-and-done, just like March Madness.”

Walder explained the process.

“In practice, here’s roughly how that works. Let’s take that Baylor-Winthrop matchup ... 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.”

ESPN then went through each hypothetical NCAA Tournament game individually. Here’s how BYU fared, round-by-round:

FIRST ROUND

“No. 6 BYU over 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.”

SECOND ROUND

“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.”

SWEET 16

“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.”

ELITE EIGHT

“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.”

FINAL FOUR

“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.”

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

“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. (Coach Greg) 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!”