Analysis: Do New Year’s Day Rankings Predict NCAA Tournament Destiny?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on January 3rd, 2019

The turn of the calendar is a significant milestone for many college basketball fans. With the new year comes conference play, and, on the horizon, the NCAA Tournament. The games start to matter a little more. But can we use what happened before the turn of the calendar to predict the NCAA Tournament? Taking data from the past five years, I looked at New Year’s Day KenPom ratings to answer a few important questions. What I found may surprise you.

For reference, here were the New Year’s Day rankings for the top 60 in KenPom:

Now, for the questions:

Given where my team was on New Year’s Day, how likely is it to make the NCAA Tournament?

  • #1-#20 – 99% likelihood. Breathe easy, KenPom top 20 fans! 2015 Florida missed the NCAA Tournament by struggling to an 8-10 record in the SEC after ranking 20th at the turn of the calendar. Every other team got at least a play-in game! 
  • #21 – #40 – 73% likelihood. This group has work left to do, and could very easily find itself on the outside looking in if conference play doesn’t work out. 
  • #40 – #60 – 41% likelihood. This is the true Bubble. Mid-major upstarts should still plan on winning their conferences, and power conference teams have considerable work still to do.
  • #60+ 8% likelihood of an at-large bid. 2016 Temple, a true hero, found its way to a #10 seed despite languishing at 131st at the turn of the New Year. Those Owls notwithstanding, teams below #60 in the ratings may need a minor miracle to get in without winning their conference. 

Given where my team was on New Year’s Day, can it get a good seed?

  • #1 – #40 – top-four seed. The only team to be seeded fourth or lower after being outside the top 40 on New Year’s Day was, incredibly, 2016 Virginia (#42), which coasted to the ACC regular season and conference championships.
  • #40 – #60 – #5 seed or higher. These teams need have work to do to get in anyway, so a few will inevitably outshine their peers and as a result rise on the seed line. 2014 Oklahoma even went from 65th on New Year’s Day to a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So, it’s possible.

Given where my team was on New Year’s Day, can it make the Sweet Sixteen?

  • #1 – #20 – 52% Sweet Sixteen likelihood. To UCLA fans, this might not be much of an accomplishment! Obviously all 20 teams can’t make it, but ranking among the top 20 suggests you’ll be there again when it matters most.
  • #20 – #40 – 18% Sweet Sixteen likelihood. In 2017, just three teams ranked above #20 at the turn of the calendar made the Sweet Sixteen. There will be a couple in most years, but things are looking slimmer here.
  • #50+ – 6% Sweet Sixteen likelihood. We’ve been averaging around one per year from this cohort. Some team will surprise, but don’t count on anyone specific at this point.

Given where my team was on New Year’s Daycan it win the National Championship?

  • #1-#3 – six out of the last nine. We went as far back as we could here and found that the eventual National Champion ranked among the KenPom top three in six out of the last nine years. This is very good news for Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga
  • #1 – #10 – seven out of the last nine. Throw in 2017 North Carolina, which sat at a pedestrian eighth on 1/1/17, and we have seven of nine.
  • Connecticut– the exception is (always) Connecticut, which ranked #42 and #32 in 2014 and 2011, respectively. So let’s just say that the trends apply to all teams other than the Huskies. They are always a threat to win the National Championship, no matter what.

So there you have it! These are just trends rather than rules, so specific teams can certainly escape them, but, you can bet on what we have observed before to generally endure. 

William Ezekowitz (30 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *