Untrustworthy: Caveat Emptor on These 10 Teams

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2018

Preseason rankings — they are, in most sports, completely irrelevant when the postseason rolls around. But not in college basketball. When projecting Final Four teams, as we have covered in this space before, the preseason AP Poll is just as predictive as the current AP poll. The rationale for this is that preseason rankings account for things that the mathematical models struggle with (for example, coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries and suspensions, etc.), making them a surprisingly accurate projection system. So what about the handful of teams each year that are excluded from these rankings but go on to do great things in the regular season? Is it safe to assume that if you can’t crack the preseason Top 25, you won’t cut down any nets in March?

Can Virginia Break the Trend? (USA Today Images)

To answer this question, I looked at historical NCAA Tournament teams that were unranked in the preseason but were ranked in the final regular season poll (this one) to examine whether they came crashing down to earth when it mattered most. My findings indicate that these teams have in fact underperformed as a group in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2007, 106 teams fit the criteria. Just 37 of that group (35%) exceeded their seeds’ average win expectation (based on average wins for each seed since 2002), and the group as a whole won just 120 games. That mark is 30 below an expected aggregate total of 150 victories, a statistically significant difference at the five percent level. Furthermore, just one of 51 top-four seeds ultimately made the Final Four (Kemba Walker’s 2011 Connecticut squad), although they have collectively produced 11 Elite Eight appearances with Florida‘s run last year being the most recent example. The conclusion here is that, although a handful of teams in this group may turn out to exceed expectations, it is likely as a whole to underperform.

So who are the teams we should be picking against? There are a bunch this year! Virginia, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Ohio State, Auburn, Clemson, Houston and Nevada all have the honor of being final Top 25 teams that were unranked in the preseason. They have exceeded expectations all season long, but they are statistically more likely to regress to the mean over the next two weeks.

Here are the caveats. Virginia, for all of its glory this season, is the first #1 overall seed to have come into the season unranked in recent memory, and they were just outside the Top 25 (27th, to be precise). To that point, do not infer this data to mean that every one of these teams will exit early — the conclusion is rather that the group as a whole will underperform versus their seed.

March is upon us, and it is all-consuming. But, as recent history shows, we should still be considering November in our picks.

William Ezekowitz (27 Posts)

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