Preseason Unranked to Ranked: These Teams Underperform in the NCAAs

Posted by William Ezekowitz on March 16th, 2016

Preseason rankings. Irrelevant in professional sports, but weirdly important in college basketball. I have shown in the past that rankings released before a single game has been played overvalue previous year’s NCAA Tournament success, so they clearly aren’t perfect. The odd wrinkle is that they also are just as predictive as pre-tournament rankings in determining who will make the Final Four. Given that the First Round starts tomorrow, I decided to look more closely into just how important preseason rankings are by looking at whether teams that outperform their preseason expectations regress in the NCAA Tournament. To do this, I reviewed all of the teams since 2007 that were unranked in the preseason and were ranked in the polls just before the NCAA Tournament (i.e., teams that performed better than expected during the regular season). In order to gauge how a team should do in the Big Dance, I borrowed Neil Payne’s win expectation chart by seed listed in this very interesting article. I then tested whether the teams that fit my definition for outperforming expectations did better or worse relative to win expectations than the rest of the field.

Ron Morris Was Certainly On To Something

Kemba Walker and UConn were one of the few programs to buck statistical trends. (Getty)

Here are the results.

# of Teams Expected Wins Actual Wins
Over-Performers 90 125.7 98
Everyone else 344 425 461


The tested group of over-performers did in fact do worse in the NCAA Tournament than everyone else, and the difference is statistically significant. It should also be noted that an examination of the converse group — preseason ranked teams finishing the regular season unranked — produced no difference between win expectation by seed and actual wins. For some frame of reference, there are seven teams this year that have gone from unranked in the preseason to ranked now. That group is listed below.

Team Ranking Seed Proj. Wins
Oregon 5 1 3.3
Xavier 9 2 2.4
West Virginia 8 3 1.8
Miami 10 3 1.8
Texas A&M 15 3 1.8
Seton Hall 20 6 1.1
Iowa 25 7 0.9


Note: Oregon, West Virginia and Miami(FL) were ranked 26th, 27th and 29th, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, and we did so where it was statistically significant.

It should be noted, though, that this statistically significant trend refers to teams in general and not in particular. It certainly does not mean that every team will do worse than its seed expectation; only that all teams on average will do worse. The 2011 Connecticut team proved that the trend can be bucked when they went from unranked in the preseason to National Champions in April. So while these teams will almost certainly on average do worse than their 13.1 projected wins as a whole, that doesn’t mean that one or two of them won’t outperform expectations — statistically speaking, a couple probably will. On the whole, though, take care not to have all of these teams advance too far in your brackets. Odds are that this group is poised to underperform.

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