UConn/Butler: Is the AP Poll Losing Predictability?

This year’s NCAA tournament has been one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. VCU made it to the Final Four, and now UCONN and Butler are playing in the national title game after UCONN was unranked in the pre-season poll and Butler was unranked for all but the first two weeks of the season. This raises the question: how accurate are the AP polls, particularly the pre-season poll? The table above shows how many of the teams in the pre-season Top 25 ended up being in the final Top 25, since the 1989-1990 season. This way of measuring the accuracy of polls is probably the most favorable to the pollsters. It does not take into account shifts within the top 25; that approach would certainly judged the pollsters in a more harsh manner.
The pre-season polls reached the peak of their accuracy in during the 1999-2001 period and has reached its low during the current three-year period 2009-2011. The trend in polling accuracy was relatively consistent until around 2007, the same year as the start of the one-and-done rule. Before that rule, players that attended college usually stayed more than one year, allowing the pollsters to gain more familiarity and evaluate teams accordingly. Connecticut was unranked in this year‘s preseason poll, no doubt because it had a number of unknown players; pollsters did not know how to evaluate them.
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UConn Back In The Final Four: Is Parity For Women’s Basketball Out Of Reach?

When I saw the score of the UConn-Duke game it made me wonder when women’s college basketball will achieve some sense of parity and competitive balance.  75-40 is a ridiculous score for an elite eight game, especially one that includes a 1st and 2nd seed.  So I did this short study to determine if this score is indicative of lack of parity or just an exception.  There were some mixed results that were also somewhat surprising.
As seen in the table below, Regional Final (Elite Eight) games show about a 5 point difference in scoring margin difference between the men and the women over the last ten years. 

That difference is significant and shows that there is still a measurable talent gap between the top 10 or 15 teams and the rest of women’s college basketball.  However, that is not the end of the story.  When you look at another measure, average scoring margin in games where both teams are at least a 2 seed, the parity gap between men and women narrows.  I use that measure because a 1 or 2 seed can’t play another 1 or 2 seed until the Elite Eight or Final Four, where presumably the pretenders and cinderellas are weeded out.  Since 2002 there have 24 of these games in the men’s tournament and 38 in the women’s tournament.  These numbers confirmed my suspicions; the men’s tournament doesn’t have as many 1 vs 2, 1vs 1, or 2 vs 2 games because there are more upsets.  However, the average scoring margin for men was 10.6 and the women’s was only slightly, if insignificantly higher at 11.3.

At the completion of this study I came to the conclusion that the men’s game has a minimal edge of over the women’s game when comes to parity amongst the top 15 teams. As for the rest of teams, a tremendous gap still exists and may never be closed. Additionally, part of the 5 point gap between women and men in Elite Eight scoring margins is that any cinderella or upstart team in the women’s game is usually overmatched and blown out in the Elite Eight.

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The Butler Did It: Butler Joins Some Rare Company On Its Way To The Final Four.

With a win today against Florida, Butler joined a some rare company. They became the fifth unranked team to reach the Final Four since the Top 25 era started in 1989. The other four teams were UNC in 2000, Wisconsin in 2000, Indiana in 2002, and George Mason in 2006. Of those teams, only Indiana made it to the Championship Game, which is not too surprising when you look at the table below. Indiana was ranked up until one week before the tournament and was unranked for a smaller portion of the season than the other four teams. 2000 UNC was unranked for the last 8 weeks of the season, this year’s Butler was unranked for the last 17 weeks of the season, and amazingly; 2006 George Mason and 2000 Wisconsin were unranked for the entire season. There were also 15 other teams who made the Final Four while being unranked at some point in the season, but they were ranked by the time the tournament started.
“Weeks Unranked” Before Tournament is How Many Consecutive Weeks Unranked Before Tournament.

Let’s look at each instance individually. As stated earlier, this season’s Butler team was unranked for the last 17 weeks of the season. Their run is not as improbable as it seems when you look at their body of work. Their absence from the Top 25 had more to do with the poll voters overlooking them than their actual play. While they did have a three-game hiccup in conference play, they still had good conference and non-conference records.  One would think that last year’s run would have given them some benefit of the doubt with the voters. They were undoubtedly overlooked because they lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA and bias against the mid-major conferences.

The 2000 Tarheels had sufficient talent to make the Final Four and they displayed that talent during their 9-4 run through their early non-conference schedule. But when they got into conference play they began to struggle and dropped from the top 25 for good when they lost 4 conference games in a row, the last being to a weak Florida State team. A good showing in the ACC tournament would have probably gotten them back in the Top 25, but they lost in the first round to Wake Forest. When they hit the NCAA tournament as 8th seed their talent began to gel and they got lucky when Kenyon Martin got injured and the 2nd seed Cincinnati lost in the 2nd round to Tulsa. Bottom Line: Their ranking, or lack thereof, said they shouldn’t have made the Final Four, but their talent warranted their “surprise run”.
The 2000 Badgers stayed unranked the entire season and I can’t really explain their run; except to say that their slow-paced, defense first style, combined with some luck, helped them a great deal during the tournament. George Mason in 2006 also had a inexplicable run to the Final Four; it was a true Cinderella story.
If the last 20 years is any guide, Butler should probably lose in the Final Four, but if recent history and common sense prevail, you can expect them to at least get to the title game.
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A Rare Elite Eight, Only One Top Seed

This year is the first time since the 2000 tournament that only one number 1 seed made it to the Elite Eight. It has happened only twice since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In 2000, the remaining number one seed Michigan State benefited from the upsets and won the tournament. This year’s number one team, Kansas, has a chance to match up with Florida, the same team that played Michigan State in the national title game. However, I don’t think Kansas will be as lucky as Michigan State. If they reach the title game, as they probably will, they will have to play a very strong team capable of beating them. Three of the potential match-ups can easily see Kansas on the losing side; Arizona, Kentucky, and North Carolina.
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This ‘Zona Team Reminds of ’97: They Always Seem To Come Out Of Nowhere.

Both the ’97 team and this team came from out of nowhere in the tournament; but once they got a couple tourney wins under their belts everyone knew they would be special.  Every five years or so, they get these stacked one-year wonder teams. If they win tonight; it could be revenge for that stacked ’01 team that had Arenas, Gardner, Walton, Jefferson, and Woods.  Go ‘Cats!

The table below shows how Arizona tends to perform well when there are low expectations of them.  I noticed this over the years and decided to find out if it was true and quantifiable.  The years that they reached the Elite Eight(Regional Final) are in the bold.  I used 26 for their ranking when they were unranked to keep the table simple.  In the years that made it to the Elite Eight, they jumped on average, about 5 spots in the rankings from the pre-season poll to the final poll; in the other seasons they fell about 2 spots.

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Arizona Wildcats: This Team Reminds Me Of The ’97 Team.

Both the ’97 team and this team came from out of nowhere in the tournament; but once they got a couple tourney wins under their belts everyone knew they would be special.  Every five years or so, they get these stacked one-year wonder teams. If they win tonight; it could be revenge for that stacked ’01 team that had Arenas, Gardner, Walton, Jefferson, and Woods.  Go ‘Cats!

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NCAA Tournament: A Short Evaluation Of The Seeding Process. (Click Image to Enlarge)

This table shows the average margin of victory in the first round for each seed from 1985-2010.  The table was constructed to find out the biggest differences between consecutive seeds and evaluate the difficulty of seeding and effectiveness of the seeding process.  The biggest difference was between the one seed and the two seed, which was 9.1 points.  The smallest difference was .3 points, between the five and six seed.  This tells me that the five and six seed are basically interchangeable.  It also seems like the four seed was the biggest enigma; it was only 2.5 points away from the three seed, but a full 5 points better than the five seed.  I think the biggest stat to take away from the table was that the five through eight seeds show a big drop-off from the higher seeds.  Additionally, each step down from the one seed to the three seed was significant.