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Who Wins the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Title Based on Academics?

Did Michigan State and West Virginia send your March Madness bracket up in flames Friday? It could be worse—you could have filled it out based on academics, in which case, you'd already be down three Final Four teams and your national champion.

While this year's edition of the 2016 NCAA men's basketball tournament has been even more of an insane, upset-filled spectacle than usual, it's nothing compared to how the field would have looked if teams advanced according to their academic progress rates (APR) and graduation success rates (GSR).  

The University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released its annual study last week examining the graduation-rate trends of all 68 colleges and universities participating in this year's NCAA tournament. According to Richard Lapchick, the director of the institute and the primary author of the study, this year's group of teams featured the "best news for the academic progress of African-American student-athletes" yet.

"While the GSR numbers for white male basketball student-athletes remained the same at 93 percent in 2015 and 2016, the GSR for African-American male basketball student-athletes increased from 69 percent in 2015 to 75 percent in 2016," Lapchick said in a statement. "That closed the cavernous 24 [percentage point] gap in 2015 to a still large but significantly smaller gap of 18 [percentage points] between the rates of white and African-American male basketball student-athletes."

Two years ago, white male basketball players from schools in the 2014 NCAA tournament had a graduation success rate of 89 percent, while African-American male basketball players were at 65 percent. Only 59 of the 68 teams graduated at least 50 percent of their players in 2014, whereas 63 did both in 2015 and this year. The percentage of teams that graduated 60 percent or more and 70 percent or more of their men's basketball players both rose this year compared to last, too.

According to the study, 41 percent of the teams in the 2015 NCAA tournament had a disparity of greater than 30 percentage points between white student-athletes and African-American student-athletes when it came to their graduation rates, whereas just 18 percent of the teams in this year's tournament could say the same. Only 12 percent of teams had a disparity greater than 40 percentage points, compared to 28 percentage points last year.

While the across-the-board rise in graduation rates is an undeniable positive, Lapchick noted there's still plenty of work to be done. "The most troubling statistics in our study is the still too large disparity between the GSR of white basketball student-athletes and African-American basketball student-athletes," he said. "Eighteen percent in 2016 is better, but there is more room for improvement."

Eleven of the 68 teams in this year's tournament had a graduation success rate of 100 percent, including Duke University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Texas-Austin. That's a slight drop from last year, where 13 teams graduated 100 percent of their players.

The Academically Based Bracket

Based on each team's APR, which is a metric that takes into account each student-athlete's academic standing and retention on the team, I created a version of a March Madness bracket where academics, not on-court play, determine who advances.

If two teams had the exact same APR, I used a series of tiebreakers to decide upon a winner. First, I looked at each team's overall graduation rate; if both were the same, I then went to African-American graduation rate, white graduation rate, and finally, overall graduation rate for all athletics at that school. 

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A few highlights:

  • This year would have featured not one, but two No. 16 seeds toppling No. 1 seeds—something that has never before happened in the men's NCAA tournament. Florida Gulf Coast University (955 APR) barely squeaked past the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (952 APR), whereas the College of the Holy Cross (995 APR) obliterated the University of Oregon (945 APR). Holy Cross made it to the academic Sweet 16 before meeting its match in the Duke Blue Devils (995 APR), while the University of South California knocked out FGCU in the round of 32.
  • Both Holy Cross and the University of Michigan (995 APR) made it from the "First Four" play-in games to the Sweet 16.
  • The East region was the only one to pit two teams with perfect 1000 APRs against one another. Ultimately, the University of Indiana Hoosiers snuck past the University of Pittsburgh Panthers thanks to a slightly superior graduation rate (67 percent vs. 62 percent). Meanwhile, the Midwest region didn't feature a single team with an APR of 1000.
  • Last year, three of the academic Final Four teams were either No. 1 (Duke) or No. 2 (the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona) seeds. This time, however, the academic Final Four was comprised of a No. 5 (Indiana) and three No. 6 (Arizona, Texas and Seton Hall University).
  • Texas wound up toppling two teams with 1000 APRs in the Final Four (Arizona) and national championship game (Indiana) by virtue of its perfect 100 percent graduation rate overall. Arizona (80 percent) and Indiana (67 percent) never stood a chance against the Longhorns.

So, while your bracket may be in tatters, at least you didn't follow this model. Then again, this version did correctly predict that neither Michigan State nor West Virginia would be around past the Sweet 16. 


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