Revisiting Kansas St.-Xavier thriller through a fascinating new prism
Kansas St.'s exhilarating Sweet 16 win over Xavier was the Game of the Year
Kenpom's new Win Probability figures exhibit this class bout's supreme watchability
Frank Martin: "There were 2 teams that day that just refused to end their seasons"
My most nagging regret from this past NCAA tournament: Never writing about Kansas State-Xavier, the widely agreed-upon Game of the Year. Especially since I was in the building for said epic, covering the West Regional. The problem was that I covered a different game.
SI sent two writers -- me and Kelli Anderson -- to Salt Lake City, and we split up the bracket. Butler knocked off top-seeded Syracuse in the early contest, and I was more than happy to jump on that. Stories like the Bulldogs' are so rare and inspiring that it's unwise to pass on them, for fear of going years before falling into another one. (And I also figured there were slim odds that Kansas State-Xavier would be more entertaining.)
You know what happened: the drama of two overtimes, 13 ties, 17 lead changes, 197 points scored and a 101-96 win by the Wildcats. I watched the early parts from the press room on TV (while trying to write), and then saw all the defining sequences courtside. Elements of it reminded me of being at the Syracuse-UConn six-OT thriller the previous March -- the absurd shot-making, the audible gasping from the crowd, and especially, the suspension of jadedness in press row. That does not often occur.
I used a ticket stub from that Sweet 16 doubleheader as a bookmark for the next few months. It kept the game on my mind to the extent that when, in late May, efficiency stats guru Ken Pomeroy released Win Probability graphs for nearly every game of the 2009-10 season, charting how teams' odds of victory changed on each possession, Kansas State-Xavier was the first thing I examined. Some of you might consider it blasphemous to re-live such a game through a chart, but this is a previously unavailable prism through which to view it ... and as charts go, this one is pretty amazing.
Some important explainer-info, before we proceed: Kenpom's Win Probability figures are based on time-and-score data from thousands of college hoops games in his database. Games don't begin with even odds; because Kansas State was the more efficient team, it theoretically opened with a 56.9 percent chance of beating Xavier. All possessions aren't created equal, either: The charts are color-coded to show the varying stakes of each possession; the highest-leverage possessions, shown in yellow, have potential to create at least a 10 percent swing in Win Probability. As Pomeroy wrote of his leverage ratings, "You can think of [them] as a proxy for the watchability of a game at that point."
|Courtesy of kenpom.com -- Click for full version|
Kansas State-Xavier was eminently watchable. Of its 50 minutes of game-time, 15:04 was high-leverage -- a figure that blows away any other NCAA tournament game. BYU and Florida's double-OT duel in the first round featured only 9:29 of high-leverage possessions, because its second extra period wasn't competitive. The Wake Forest-Texas single-OT game in the first round had 8:27 of high-leverage possessions. Northern Iowa's second-round upset of Kansas had 4:52. The Michigan State-Maryland second-round thriller had 1:32. And the Duke-Butler national championship game, despite its tense finish, had just 1:16. Because of Duke's sizable efficiency advantage, on only one possession -- after Kyle Singler missed a shot with 37 seconds left and a 60-59 lead -- did its Win Probability drop under 65 percent.
The Kansas State-Xavier chart is far more volatile than that of the title game, almost giving off the appearance of a tachycardic ECG reading. Because the Wildcats opened with a slight advantage (56.9 percent WP), when they fell behind on the scoreboard on a few early occasions -- at 0-2, 2-4, 31-32 and 33-34 -- Win Probability remained on their side.
The game got interesting once it passed the nine-minute mark of the second half. Curtis Kelly scored off of an offensive rebound to put K-State up 56-49, and lift its Win Probability to 83 percent. Xavier calls a timeout, for which Gus Johnson's outro-to-commercial line is, "Here come the Dobermen!" Things were looking bleak for the Musketeers, who followed the timeout with a turnover and a missed shot on their next two possessions. With 8:06 left in the game and a seven-point lead, the Wildcats' Win Probability was 86.5 percent. It wasn't over, but mathematically, it was heading in that direction.
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