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Who Would Win the 2015 Men's NCAA Tournament Based on Academics?

While the University of Kentucky is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament, an academically based tournament would produce a far different outcome.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual report this week gauging graduation-rate trends for the 68 teams involved in this year's tournament. Unlike last year, the 2015 report largely featured positive trends.

In terms of graduation success rate (GSR), both white and African-American male basketball players made strides compared to 2014. The GSR for white male basketball players climbed from 89 percent in 2014 to 93 percent in 2015, while the GSR for African-American male basketball players increased from 65 percent in 2014 to 69 percent this year.

This year's NCAA tournament teams also made strides in terms of graduating their players. Last year, 59 of the 68 teams graduated at least 50 percent of their players, while 63 of the 68 did so this year. Likewise, 53 teams graduated 60 percent of their players and 36 graduated 70 percent of their players in 2014, compared to 54 and 44, respectively, in 2015. Thirteen teams graduated 100 percent of their players, including Duke University, the University of Maryland-College Park, the University of Notre Dame, and Villanova University, compared to just seven teams last year.

However, big disparities persist across racial groups among the men's basketball programs in this year's field.

"While there is positive news, the most troubling statistic in our study is the continuing large disparity between the GSR of white basketball student-athletes and African-American basketball student-athletes," said Richard Lapchick, the primary author of the study and the director of TIDES. "The gap remained the same from 2014, a staggering 24 percent in 2015.

"It is simply not acceptable that in 2015, 41 percent of the men's teams had a GSR disparity of greater than 30 percent between white student-athletes and African-American student-athletes, and 28 percent had a GSR disparity of greater than 40 percent."

The teams in this year's field also made strides in terms of Academic Progress Rate (APR), a metric that takes into account each student-athlete's academic standing and retention on the team. Under a policy the NCAA approved in 2011, teams in this year's field must have a four-year average APR of 930 (correlating to roughly a 50 percent graduation rate) or a two-year average APR of 940 to participate in championships such as the NCAA's tournament. Starting in the 2015-16 school year, all teams must have a four-year APR of 930 or above to compete in the postseason.

Last year, eight teams fell below that four-year 930 mark. This year, only Coastal Carolina University (910) did so. Meanwhile, five teams in this year's field—Belmont University, Indiana University-Bloomington, the University of Kansas, the University of Louisville, and the University of Texas at Austin—had perfect APRs of 1000 this year. Only one team—the Kansas Jayhawks—had an APR of 1000 last year.

The Academically Based Bracket

Using the APR figures listed for all 68 schools in the TIDES report, I created a March Madness bracket based on academics alone.

Whenever both teams had the exact same APR—the University of Kansas vs. the University of Indiana-Bloomington in the round of 32; Kansas vs. the University of Texas at Austin in the Sweet 16; the University of Louisville vs. Belmont University in the Elite Eight; Kansas vs. Belmont University in the national title game; just to name a few examples—whichever school had a better men's basketball graduation rate advanced.

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A few highlights of the academic bracket:

  • Kansas survived back-to-back battles against teams with perfect 1000 APRs in the round of 32 (Indiana) and the Sweet 16 (Texas). For the latter matchup, it ultimately came down to overall student-athlete graduation rate, as both teams graduated 100 percent of their players, both white and African-American.
  • The East Region produced the first-ever No. 16-over-No. 1 upset in NCAA history, with Lafayette College (994 APR) taking down Villanova University (983 APR). Lafayette wound up making it to the Sweet 16 before meeting its match against the University of Louisville (1000 APR).
  • The University of Dayton (985 APR) made it from the "First Four" to the Sweet 16, but the Flyers proved no match for the Belmont University Bruins.
  • Louisville and Belmont, each of which had an APR of 1000, clashed in the Elite Eight. The Bruins took down the heavily favored Cardinals by virtue of graduating a higher percentage of their basketball players (100 percent to 58 percent).
  • Three of the Final Four teams were either No. 1 (Duke University) or No. 2 (Kansas and the University of Arizona) seeds, suggesting that success on the court and in the classroom isn't mutually exclusive.
  • The national championship game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Belmont Bruins, each of which has an APR of 1000 and graduates all of their players, wound up being the most closely contested matchup of all. It ultimately came down to overall student-athlete graduation rate, where Belmont (96 percent) edged past Kansas (85 percent).

For what it's worth, last year's academic bracket didn't fare so well once the tournament action began. It finished 10,764,103 on ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge, in the bottom 2.2 percentile of all participants. So, if you're looking for help filling out your bracket over the next few days, replicating these picks doesn't appear to be the way to go.

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