Despite being a trendy upset pick, the 14th-seeded Yale men’s basketball team entered its March Madness game against third-seeded LSU as big underdogs. The Tigers were 10-point favorites and had an 84 percent chance of advancing before tipoff, according to the Yale Sports Analytics Group’s model. Entering the 2019 tournament, 14 seeds were 21-115 — a 0.154 win percentage. Simply put, the odds were not in the Bulldogs’ favor. Yale put up a valiant fight, losing 79-74 after being within a single possession in the final 10 seconds. But a very cold-shooting day derailed head coach James Jones’ master plan for pulling off the upset.
One common strategy for teams trying to pull an upset in March Madness is to attempt many three-point shots. Shooting lots of threes increases the amount of variance in possible game outcomes, an effect which benefits the underdog. This strategy can be especially beneficial if the underdog team is outsized by their opponent. With LSU’s forwards — 6-foot-10 Naz Reid and 6-foot-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams — clogging the lane, staying away from the basket seemed like a smart strategy for the Bulldogs. Moreover, three-point shooting has been a strength for the Elis all year, with their 36.5 percent three-point clip ranking in the top 75 in the entire country.
Against LSU, Yale took a whopping 37 shot attempts from beyond the arc, six more than its regular season high against Lehigh, 10 more than it shot in the entire Ivy League Championship tournament and 16 more than its season average of 21.4 attempts per game. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs had one of their worst three-point shooting games at the wrong time, making only eight of their 37 attempts.
Given Yale’s proficiency at hitting threes, statistically, one would expect Yale to make between 13 and 14 threes on 37 attempts. Moreover, based on the Elis’ season average shooting percentage, the chances that Yale would make only eight or fewer threes on 37 shots is just four percent. The above calculations assume that each shot is treated independently of one another, which is probably not a valid assumption. The fact that all the shots came against LSU mean that they all were affected by the same type of defensive pressure or other factors that could affect the shot outcome. Many of the attempted shots in the game were wide open and not affected directly by any Tiger defenders, so at the very least, the above calculations illustrate just how unlucky Yale’s three point shooting was against LSU.
While eight for 37 sounds bad enough already, Yale’s shooting woes were even worse when one considers that three of the successful three-point shots came in the first six minutes of the game, and three more came in the final 33 seconds of regulation time. Between 13:56 of the first half, when Azar Swain ’21 made his second three-pointer in a row, to 12:14 of the second half, when Alex Copeland ’19 hit a three to cut LSU’s lead to single digits, the Bulldogs missed 12 three point attempts over a 21 minute, 42 second stretch.
In some senses, the fact that the Bulldogs only lost by a mere five points is miraculous given how unlucky they were from beyond the arc. A more representative narrative is that LSU led by an average of 9.08 points over the course of the game. That is, if someone turned on the game at a random point in time, they would have likely seen LSU winning on average by over nine points.
On the other hand, the fact that Yale lost by only five points speaks to the quality of the blueprint James Jones and the coaching staff developed to beat LSU. If Yale had made just two or three more of its many wide open threes, it probably would have won the game. If the Elis shot their season average from the three point line, they probably would have won by double digits.
Yale had a perfect game plan to pull off the upset and repeat its magic from three years ago when it upset Baylor, but execution simply fell short last Thursday in Jacksonville. One poor shooting night should take nothing away from a tremendous season that included Ivy League regular season and tournament championships. The numbers show that this March Madness game was Yale’s for the taking, and that will be a bitter pill to swallow all offseason.
Luke Benz | firstname.lastname@example.org