On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 31st, 2017

This is the second edition of our two-part look at ways to improve the overall structure of the NCAA Tournament. In our Part I piece published earlier this week, we made several recommendations concerning the selection and seeding of the 68 teams in the annual field. Today we will focus on improving the bracketing process. Over the years, the Selection Committee has endeavored to better balance the bracket while easing travel burdens on participating schools’ players and fans. Examples of these modifications include the current “pod” system for the first two rounds; ranking the four top overall seeds so that the top two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket; and, easing the restrictions on where schools from the same conference can be placed in the bracket. Since the last change was implemented, the committee claims that it has not needed to swap any teams off their true seed line. We think there is also an opportunity for further adjustments to that process, including one that is relatively simple and involves future tournament sites.

Black Stars – First/Second Round Sites (2015-17)
Blue Stars – Regional Sites (2015-17)

Go West Young Men — Just Not So Often

Our top suggestion deals with the issue of geographic balance. NCAA member schools’ presidents and chancellors have mandated that the Selection Committee consider traveling distance a priority when placing teams into each season’s bracket. But the committee is somewhat handicapped by the previously established locations that they have available for those placements. In the image above, we can see all of the regional sites for the last three NCAA Tournaments. In almost every year since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a full six-round event in 1985, the western region of the country has hosted two First/Second round sites plus a regional championship. To put it in mathematical terms, 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament prior to the Final Four is typically played in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Yet, only 19 percent (six of 32) of the nation’s conferences are primarily located in those two zones — and that’s giving full western credit to the WAC even though three of its eight schools are actually in the Central time zone.

Similarly, only about 17 percent of all Division I schools reside in those two time zones. By moving one of those western sites to another part of the country each year, the NCAA Tournament would become much more representative of its membership in a geographic sense. The recommendation here is to only move one of the First/Second round locations out of the west — keeping the regional round located there for the sake of broader balance. As for where to relocate that site, the mid- to deep south needs more representation. Most of the major basketball conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 — have plenty of viable nearby options in most years, but that’s not always the case for SEC schools. It’s not just about the big boys, though — there are a lot more mid-to-lower tier Division I schools that would have improved travel situations as well. There are plenty of options available in this region — cities with NBA arenas like New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando and Miami.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 28th, 2017

Last June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee a perspective from men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has in recent years become increasingly receptive to considering and making changes, and as this year’s event reaches its climax, we decided to offer some specific recommendations to bolster the best three weeks in sports. Let’s focus today on improvements to the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the primary metric that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: Either dump the RPI altogether, or dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. A month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update on the current NCAA Selection Committee:

The basketball committee supported in concept revising the current ranking system utilized in the selection and seeding process, and will work collaboratively with select members of the NABC ad hoc group to study a potentially more effective composite ranking system for possible implementation no earlier than the 2017-18 season.

Moving away from the RPI as the primary method for sorting teams into composite tiers would be a huge step toward improving the balance of the field. We have heard committee members for years make the point that a school’s RPI ranking is just one factor of many on its resume. But then the same committee members turn right around and cite that team’s record against the top-50 or top-100 — or its strength of schedule rating — all of which, of course, are derivative of the RPI. That means that the outdated metric is still, even now in an environment of Big Data, a highly significant influence on how teams are judged. The real harm occurs when the RPI results in entire conferences being overrated, which leads to those member institutions likewise being over-seeded. Placing five to seven teams well above their proper seed lines can have a substantial negative impact on the overall balance and corresponding fairness of the entire NCAA Tournament. Here are three recent examples.

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Beware the Polls: Overperforming Teams Regress in NCAA Tournament

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2017

Preseason rankings may seem irrelevant when it comes to college basketball, but history has shown that their predictive value are surprisingly important. For example, as we have shown in this space before, the preseason poll is in fact just as predictive of a run to the Final Four as the current AP Poll. The reasoning behind this phenomenon is that the preseason polls take into account all of the changes that the mathematical models have more difficulty accounting for (i.e. coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries, etc.). The conventional wisdom entering the season is actually fairly sophisticated and smart.

Are You Sure You Want to Choose Michigan? (AP)

Given this intuition, let’s examine the teams that defied that wisdom throughout the season and went from unranked in the preseason to ranked in the final AP poll before the NCAA Tournament. Had the preseason polls gotten something wrong? Or did these over-performing teams regress back to their expectations in the postseason? Using the last 10 years of data that includes seed win expectation data from fivethirtyeight.com, I investigated. Of the 97 teams who qualified for analysis, 32 (33%) of those teams outperformed their win expectations in the NCAA Tournament while 65 (67%) underperformed. As a whole, a group that was expected to win 138.8 games over the 10-year sample won just 107. A statistical T-test found this difference statistically significant. In fact, only one team — Kemba Walker’s 2011 National Championship team, Connecticut — even made the Final Four.

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Is the 2017 Bubble Really the Weakest in Years?

Posted by Shane McNichol on March 2nd, 2017

One of the prevailing narratives that has developed during the second half of this season is the existence of a historically weak crop of bubble teams. The bubble, by its very definition, is a fluid concept where a 68-team field consisting of 37 at-large teams necessarily limits the strength of the group. For whatever reason, though, this season’s bubble dwellers have earned a reputation as a particularly futile bunch. To explore the veracity of that claim, I reviewed the last seven NCAA Tournament bubbles (2011-17). This includes every NCAA Tournament since the 2011 implementation of the First Four, which added three additional teams to the at-large field. For this year’s bubble, I used ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s Last Four In and his first two out from the bracket released on Monday, February 27 — teams included were USC, Providence, Marquette, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

There are several clear takeaways here. First, the 2017 bubble does in fact feature the worst aggregate winning percentage and average RPI of the last seven years, along with the second-worst average KenPom ranking. In comparison with the last six years, this group of six bubble teams is statistically weaker than other years relative to the higher levels of automatic qualifiers. The most important finding, though, can be found in the far right column. This season’s bubble teams have all played very difficult schedules, nearly cutting the average bubble member’s strength of schedule rating in half. That’s notable because this season’s six bubble teams are from power conferences, while 19 of the 36 bubble teams from 2011-16 came from the mid-major world. That group included schools like Middle Tennessee, Tulsa, Colorado State, Iona, BYU (twice), Boise State (twice) and Oral Roberts.

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How Tournament-Proof Are the Nation’s Top Five Offenses?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

This year multiple coaches across the country have conceded publicly that a team’s offense is the biggest factor in its ability to maintain a defense. “Defense wins championships” may still be a treasured maxim, but the truth is that offense is the fuel in college basketball. The question then becomes one of how vulnerable the best offenses in college basketball are to a one-game slump? Since only a single bad night is all it takes to be sent home from the NCAA Tournament, it’s worth investigating the nation’s top five offenses to set some criteria for evaluating the rest of the field. Per KenPom, here are the top five offenses nationally based on adjusted offensive efficiency, along with their corresponding adjusted tempo.

Team Adj. ORtg Adj. Tempo
1. UCLA 124.5 14.1 (6)
2. Oklahoma State 123.9 16.5 (91)
3. North Carolina 122.2 15 (16)
4. Gonzaga 122.2 15.7 (33)
5. Villanova 121.7 18.8 (314)


As the tempo column shows, teams can play at both warp speed (UCLA, North Carolina, Gonzaga) or at a relative crawl (Villanova) and still be extremely effective. That said, to the extent that the game slows somewhat in the NCAA Tournament, it is reasonable to suggest that some of these teams may face more trouble than others. 
The Bruins, Tar Heels and Bulldogs all use a healthy dose of tempo when they play. This is not to say that any of those three teams cannot also win a low-possession game, but their opponents would certainly be better-suited to impose a slowdown game on them to the extent possible. Villanova has already proven its favored pace can win championships. The next question then becomes which of the faster teams are most poised to handle a grind-it-out half-court game?

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Finding a Path For Four Teams on the Wrong Side of the Bubble

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 17th, 2017

The end of the regular season is creeping up on us. With just a little more than three weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, teams around the country are prepping for their final stretch of conference games. For schools sitting precariously on the bubble, chances to grab signature wins are dwindling. For teams on the outside looking in, the home stretch represents a do-or-die opportunity to make an at-large bid a reality. The four teams we examine today all have pathways to March Madness ahead of them, but nothing will come easy and their odds are diminishing daily.

Wake Forest

It’ll likely come right down to the wire for the Wake Forest faithful. Getty)

The Demon Deacons are 6-8 in ACC play but a losing conference record won’t be quite as damaging this season thanks to a soft mid-major bubble. Still, even if Wake manages to get to 8-10, some conference losing records will be viewed much better than others. The biggest issue for Danny Manning’s team is that it has yet to beat any top-tier ACC squads this season. The Deacs have a favorable RPI at #36, but close losses against Duke and Notre Dame simply aren’t enough. With four games remaining, Wake Forest must top Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech to remain on the bubble, but to truly make some waves, the Deacs need a win at Duke or against Louisville. Stealing either of those games would result in a 9-9 ACC record and a legitimate, perhaps even likely, chance at an at-large bid. Read the rest of this entry »

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Finding a Parachute for Four Teams Fading Fast…

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 11th, 2017

In Sports Illustrated‘s recent profile of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, he asked two philosophical questions about the game of basketball: “Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” Those questions are silly on their face, but they stuck in my head this week while evaluating the NCAA Tournament resumes of a few teams whose seasons have clearly stagnated. Is there something to be said for viewing a team’s record of wins and losses without the associated construct of time, completely freeing its resume from any particular front-to-back narrative? This idea, in many ways, ties into the cutesy “blind resumes” gimmick we see on television so much throughout late February and early March. When we remove the bias that everyone inherently brings to the analysis, how does that change our opinions?

Is Tom Crean Destined for the NIT? (USA Today Images)

In the end, the individuals comprising the selection committee will bring their own biases along with them regardless of how the narratives are constructed. So as we sit here in mid-February, we thought it would be a useful exercise to re-evaluate a handful of teams who have seemingly lost control of their seasons. Indiana, USC, Clemson and Minnesota looked well on their way to the NCAA Tournament as recently as a month ago, but conference play has taken a significant toll on each. The narratives attached to these teams will greatly affect how they are viewed by the selection committee over the last month of the season. Can any of this quartet recover?

  • Indiana: The obvious poster child for this phenomenon, the Hoosiers were among the nation’s top 10 and projected as a #2 seed by ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi as recently as December 12. Since that date, Indiana has suffered injuries to key players (OG Anunoby and James Blackmon) and compiled a 7-8 record as a result. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, their only loss to an opponent outside the RPI top 100 came in a true road game at Fort Wayne, but with four of the Hoosiers’ last five Big Ten games on the road, concerns about a bid remain if Indiana can’t right the ship.

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Judging the Seeding Impact of Major Injuries and Suspensions

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 3rd, 2017

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee faces a number of difficult decisions while building the field for this year’s NCAA Tournament. After sifting through home and road performances, quality wins, RPI and every other tool currently available, the committee faces one particularly difficult task: evaluating teams that were without the services of a certain player because of injury or suspension. Of the myriad criteria the committee considers, no subject is more nebulous as judging a missing player’s effect on games in which he was not involved. The committee does not ignore those games nor does it consider them victories had the player been in action, but the gray area in between those two extremes is where it gets tricky. The injury bug and suspensions have hit quite a few likely NCAA Tournament teams this year, but four in particular could face some upward or downward seeding movement based on those missing players. Those four teams — Creighton, Xavier, Arizona and Duke — will be evaluated on more than just their wins and losses.

The Loss of Creighton’s Maurice Watson Makes the Bluejays a Tough Decision (USA Today Images)

  • Creighton: The Bluejays lost Maurice Watson, the nation’s assist leader and catalyst of Creighton’s high-powered offense, to an ACL injury two weeks ago. In the four-plus games since his season-ending injury, Creighton has been a mixed bag. The next two games were troublesome, with the Bluejays losing a home game to Marquette in which they gave up 102 points, followed by a blowout defeat at Georgetown. Since then, a win over lowly DePaul and an impressive victory over Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse seems to have steadied the ship. It appears that head coach Greg McDermott is rerouting his team’s trajectory by increasing the offensive load carried by Justin Patton and Marcus Foster. Creighton’s ceiling as a Final Four contender has certainly changed, but its overall resume should be strong enough to place the Bluejays safely in the NCAA Tournament. This team’s performance in its final eight Big East games will heavily impact the committee’s seeding decision, though, especially in crucial games like a February 25 rematch with Villanova.

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Overrated/Underrated: Six Teams to Watch Down the Stretch

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 3rd, 2017

Now halfway through the conference season, things are beginning to take shape around the college basketball landscape. As we advance into February, there are a number of overrated and underrated teams in the national polls. This week let’s dive into who some of those teams are and what makes them that way.

Overrated

Baylor Played Kansas Tough But Found an All Too Familiar Result (USA Today Images)

  • Baylor, 20-2 (7-2), #2. The Bears earned some #1 votes in the most recent AP Top 25 for a reason — this is a very good team. But can Baylor keep it up for the next five weeks in the rugged Big 12? Wednesday night’s loss to Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse was perhaps expected, but what about upcoming road tests at Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and a home date with West Virginia? Lastly, there’s that pesky issue that Baylor wasn’t ranked in the preseason, which matters more than you’d think. Since 2006, only one team that was unranked in the preseason and ranked in the pre-tournament poll has made the Final Four. That was Shabazz Napier’s 2014 National Championship Connecticut team. These Bears feel more like last year’s Iowa club or the 2014 Syracuse team, though.
  • USC, 19-4 (6-4), NR. After a home upset of UCLA, the Trojans climbed up to a #8 seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology and sat just outside the Top 25 in this week’s poll (28th). But KenPom only rates the Trojans as the 59th-best team in college basketball and that’s probably closer to reality. USC is an athletically gifted team that maximizes offensive possessions by grabbing rebounds and avoiding turnovers, but its offense isn’t very efficient (52nd nationally) and its defense generally doesn’t pick up the slack (73rd nationally). Moreover, the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 is exceptionally weak this year, inflating win totals and otherwise artificially boosting all the numbers. The Trojans played well in the non-conference with good wins over SMU and Texas A&M, but if they can’t meaningfully separate themselves from the rest of the league over the last five weeks, they may be staring a bubble disaster right in the face on Selection Sunday.

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Three Schools Looking to End Tourney Droughts

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 30th, 2017

So much of this season’s focus has zeroed in on college basketball’s blue-blooded programs, both those holding true to their stature and those that are floundering. But although their names are not as sexy, this season’s early group of bubble teams features a handful of programs that have little to no recent experience in the NCAA Tournament. For coaches at these schools, climbing the mountain to March Madness can be a veritable game-changer. As we slowly turn the corner into February and the last six weeks before Selection Sunday, fans, coaches, alumni and general observers should all keep a close eye on Northwestern, Virginia Tech and TCU to see if they can end their long droughts by closing the deal.

Is Another Chicago Curse About to End? (USA Today Images)

  • Northwestern. With a 7-2 Big Ten record and its first AP Top 25 ranking in seven years, Northwestern is finally in position to end the other less-publicized Chicago area losing streak. Though there have been a few close calls over the course of the last decade, head coach Chris Collins seems to have the group of Wildcats that will break through. His team currently ranks 29th in the RPI, having gone 18-4 against a schedule that KenPom rates as the 67th toughest in college basketball. The selection committee values road wins and Northwestern has answered this season by winning four of its first five Big Ten away games. Hopes are high in Evanston, and with nine games left in the Big Ten season, it would take a fairly monumental collapse for Collins’ team to play its way out of the Big Dance.

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