Do Teams Play Worse After a Buzzer-Beater?: Why Gonzaga Lost to Baylor

by Danny Blumenthal

Gonzaga’s Final Four win over UCLA was special. After a high-paced, back-and-forth 40 minutes, Drew Timme sacrificed his body and took a charge to close regulation, preserving a tie and sending the game to overtime. After Gonzaga jumped out to an early lead in the extra period, UCLA slowly clawed its way back. Finally, Bruins star Johnny Juzang tied the game with three seconds on the clock, setting up the ultimate ending.

With one half-court heave, Jalen Suggs sent Gonzaga to the national championship and sports fans around the world into a frenzy. Dick Vitale called the game an instant classic, and Patrick Mahomes was left speechless. Suggs’ buzzer-beating heroics even inspired LeBron James to crown this game as “one of the best games I’ve seen in a very long time!!”.  

Nevertheless, the Zags still had another game to play just 48 hours later – the national championship. Unfortunately though, Gonzaga appeared to enter the title game still dazed from their Final Four slugfest. They fell behind Baylor 9-0 in the opening minutes, and by the 10-minute mark, faced an insurmountable 19-point deficit. By the end, Baylor had cruised to a 16-point win, ending Gonzaga’s season one game short of perfection.

Throughout the game, Jim Nantz and friends suggested that Gonzaga had started flat because of their thrilling win over UCLA. The broadcasters posited that the Zags were emotionally drained after Suggs’ buzzer-beater, and even though they should have been energized with the national title on the line, they hadn’t recovered in time for tipoff. Is this actually the case? Do teams play significantly worse after winning on a buzzer-beater?

Using a list of NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters assembled by the great people at Sports-Reference, I was able to gather information about how each team fared in the game following their buzzer-beater. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 83 teams wowed fans by beating the buzzer. With two buzzer-beaters taking place in the finals, this provides a sample of 81 follow-up games to investigate.

Firstly, teams went 33-48 (.407) in the games after a buzzer-beater. While this might support the argument that teams get drained by tight games and then fall flat afterwards, this preliminary analysis misses out on a key factor – performance against expectations. Teams that advanced after beating the buzzer tended to have lower seeds than average, so it’s not surprising that they would fall short in the next round. In fact, by employing the head-to-head records for teams at each seed level, it is possible to estimate the number of games these teams should have won. These results will provide Gonzaga fans with little solace, though. Teams that won on buzzer-beaters would have been expected to win 32.1 of their follow-up games, almost perfectly matching the 33 which they did win. Based on this initial breakdown, it appears that teams perform no worse after buzzer-beaters than expected.

Nevertheless, this method is not perfect. Teams are sometimes under-seeded, such as Wichita State in 2017 (No. 8 overall by KenPom, but given a 10-seed by the committee) and Loyola-Chicago this year (No. 9 overall by KenPom, but given an 8-seed by the committee). In these cases, they might be expected to out-perform their seed, especially if they have already won a tournament game. Therefore, to reinforce this analysis, teams’ performances were also compared to pre-game betting odds, which likely measure team quality more accurately. In this case, the next-game point margin for every team to advance on a buzzer-beater over the last 25 years (as far back as OddsShark’s database goes) was compared to the pre-game betting line. As the following chart demonstrates, a t-test comparing actual point margin to the odds indicates that there is no significant underperformance by teams which advance on buzzer-beaters. Teams coming off of buzzer-beaters were underdogs by an average of 3.39 points per game, and they went on to lose by an average of 3.96 points. The difference between these (-0.57 PPG) is not significantly different than zero.

Based on both wins over seed expectation and performance compared to pre-game odds, there appears to be no meaningful decline in games after a buzzer-beater. That’s bad news for Gonzaga, which tied for the worst loss compared to expectation of any team in the sample (-20.5 points, since they lost by 16 as a 4.5-point favorite). Nevertheless, several other factors not accounted for here could have led to Gonzaga’s let-down in the national title game. While most of the aforementioned buzzer-beaters occurred in regulation, Gonzaga had to play an extra period, which could have made the team more tired and emotionally drained than other teams. In addition, Gonzaga was competitive for the championship game’s final 30 minutes, but simply couldn’t come back after falling into such a large hole early. It’s possible that teams coming off of buzzer-beaters struggle early, but analyses of the whole game can’t discern this.

If Gonzaga didn’t lose because they were emotionally drained after winning on a buzzer-beater, why did Baylor beat them so handily? In a word, rebounding. The Bears outrebounded Gonzaga 38-22, and were +11 on the offensive glass. Baylor’s +16 rebounding margin was the largest in a national title game since UCLA’s +19 margin in 1995, before any player in the 2021 final was even born.

Baylor’s excellence on the glass was evident from the start. On the Bears’ opening possession, Mark Vital missed a shot, secured his own rebound, missed the put-back, and then grabbed another offensive board, before Baylor reset the possession and saw Davion Mitchell knock down a jumper. On Baylor’s ensuing possession, MaCio Teague missed a fade-away, but Vital snatched his third offensive rebound and found Jared Butler cutting to the hoop for an easy basket. All told, Vital alone grabbed eight offensive rebounds – more than Gonzaga’s entire team total of five.

Gonzaga’s struggles on the glass, particularly early in the game, could be indicative of one more way in which teams could be drained after a buzzer-beater. They may score just as often as their less-exhausted opponents, but they may perform worse on effort-based metrics, such as rebounds, steals, and blocks, which are crucial for pulling off upsets in March. To see if this was the case, all 81 tournament games following a buzzer-beater in the 64-team era were analyzed, this time to identify whether teams coming off an intense game performed worse on the glass. Surprisingly, teams actually snatched slightly more rebounds than their opponents (+0.52 rebounds per game), but once again, this advantage was not significantly different from zero.

As the following histogram highlights, teams tend to rebound just as well in post-buzzer-beater games. The distribution is centered just above zero, and few teams got dominated on the glass. Gonzaga’s poor performance (indicated by the red line) was simply an outlier.

What’s notable about this performance is that Gonzaga typically excels on the boards. Per TeamRankings, the Zags have finished in the top 20 in total rebounding percentage in each of the last seven years. Just like in the 2017 title game against UNC though, they ran into an opponent that was even stronger on the glass. UNC entered that game as the best rebounding team in the country and dominated inside, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and outscoring the Zags 40-18 in the paint. And in the 2021 final, Mark Vital and the Bears lived up to their No. 6 rank in offensive rebounding. As HSAC’s Kurt Bullard found, there’s value in crashing the offensive glass rather than retreating to play defense, and Baylor showed why. Even when the Bears’ sharpshooters were off-target, their big men were always in the right place, at the right time, to provide second chances to bury threes.

Unlike the common perception, it does not appear that coming off a nail-biting win reduces teams’ success in their following NCAA Tournament games. Whether success is measured in terms of point margin, performance against betting odds, or effort-based metrics like rebounding, teams don’t decline in the game following a buzzer-beater. In the end, instead of excusing Gonzaga’s loss as the result of an emotionally draining win, fans should acknowledge that on this day, Baylor was simply the better team.

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