Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/18/2008 04:08:00 PM
Bracket Math, Part Two
UCLA fans are praying that Kevin Love's back pain isn't an issue during the dance.
NEW YORK -- Having picked UCLA to win the national title, I'll admit I'm just as concerned about Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's ankle and Kevin Love's back this week as I am about statistics. But it's become an annual tradition around these parts to do an efficiency breakdown of the bracket, attempting to ID the real Final Four contenders and the potentially vulnerable high seeds, so that's what the blog is serving up in today's Bracket Math lesson.
Efficiency is measured by how many points a team scores and yields per 100 possessions rather than per game, as compiled and adjusted for competition by kenpom.com. The reason these numbers matter so much is because they allow us to remove tempo from the equation, and evaluate all 341 Division I teams -- regardless of their game pace -- on the same level. The table below presents strong evidence (despite the small sample) of how much efficiency matters in the NCAA tournament. From 2004-07, only two teams outside the top 49 in defensive efficiency made the Elite Eight, and zero teams outside the top 25 made the Final Four.
Efficiency Profile of Elite Eight Teams, 2004-07
Adjusted Off. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
Adjusted Def. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
NCAA round key: NC = national champ, RU = runner-up, FF = Final Four, EE = Elite Eight.
The point here is not that we can guarantee 2008's Final Four teams in advance, but rather that it's a good idea to pick clubs with good offenses and defenses around the Top 25. Of my Final Four, UCLA ranks fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency (ADE), while Kansas is third, Texas is 32nd and Tennessee is 34th.
The larger point of the chart above is that it's not at all smart to put defensively challenged teams in your Elite Eight. Examine the 1-8 seeds from 2005-07 who ranked below 75th in defensive efficiency, you'll see that only West Virginia, which bombed threes at an insane rate in the '05 tourney, cracked the Sweet-16 ceiling:
2005's defensively challenged 1-6 seeds:
Team Off. Eff Def. Eff. (Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) Rd. Out LSU (6) 112.1 (22) 94.7 (84) 1 Gonzaga (3) 115.5 (10) 97.0 (119) 2 W. Forest (2) 120.8 (2) 94.0 (76) 2 W. Virginia (7) 116.1 (15) 96.8 (86) EE
Vandy's main deficiency on D in last year's tournament was not being able to stop Jeff Green from traveling on Georgetown's final shot ... but still, the 'Dores did not become the next version of '05 West Virginia.
The interesting thing about the '08 bracket is that there's only one 1-8 seed with a sub-75 defensive efficiency ranking ... and once again, it's Vandy. So we'll cast the net a little wider, to 1-8 seeds with sub-60 ADE, to provide you with a few more teams that aren't great sleeper Elite Eight picks:
While this quartet has some real offensive firepower, I didn't pick any of them to go past the second round. It's also worth noting that Oregon, which was handed a No. 9 seed, is the worst major-conference defensive team in the entire NCAA tournament. The Ducks rank 125th in ADE. I don't recommend picking them against Mississippi State.
With that out of the way, we can turn to the reasonable pool of Final Four squads, whom I've broken down into three flights:
Team Off. Eff. Def. Eff. (Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.)
Flight A: Top-10 in AOE and ADE Kansas (1) 126.6 (1) 83.6 (3) UCLA (1) 120.7 (5) 84.5 (4) Duke (2) 119.7 (7) 87.4 (10)
The numbers make a Kansas-UCLA title game appear to be a likely scenario (although I took Tennessee-UCLA). But the chart above also shows that Clemson -- a team I like to reach the Sweet 16, at least -- might be the most dangerous squad outside the 1-4 lines. Could the Tigers spoil Kansas' run to the Final Four? Or will the Jayhawks make their statistical prowess matter in the dance? And the biggest question of all: Will you guys use any of this stuff to beat me in the Tourney Blog Pool?
NEW YORK -- We all know the real work in college basketball is done on the road. If that weren't so, the RPI wouldn't assign 2.3 times the weight to road wins as it does to victories at home. So it shouldn't be shocking to learn that teams that only look like contenders within their own arenas tend to under-perform expectations in the dance. According to a study on data from 1999-2006 that the Blog's statistical collaborator, Jacob Wheatley-Schaller, did over at Vegas Watch, 1-6 seeds with the biggest negative gaps between home and road performance won, on average, a half a game less than expected in the tournament. The poster children for this phenomenon were the third-seeded, 2006 Iowa Hawkeyes, who were No. 2 in teamrankings.com's home power index but just No. 53 on the road ... and were upset by Northwestern State in the opening round.
In his post last week, Jacob applied some of the data to projected NCAA tournament teams; here, we'll assess the entire Field of 65's regular-season home-road splits, in hopes of pinpointing a few potential upset victims -- or lower seeds to avoid -- for your pool picks. His analysis only addressed 1-6 seeds, but it's reasonable to suggest that road struggles are a sign of weakness in more than just elite squads.
Here are the teams with more than 40-spot drops in their home-to-road rankings on teamrankings.com:
• Mason '08 is not Mason '06, in case you were considering picking the Patriots to upset Notre Dame. I wouldn't expect GMU to fare well all the way out in Denver.
• Once again, statistical analysis doesn't make Vandy look like a particularly great pick to go deep in the dance. The 'Dores and Michigan State -- another questionable Sweet 16 team -- have almost the same profile: killers at home, mediocre on the road.
On the flip side, here are the teams with more than 40-spot jumps in their home-to-road rankings on teamrankings.com:
Team Seed HomeRk. RoadRk. Diff. Mt. St. Mary's 16 235 115 -120 Boise State 14 169 63 -106 American 15 183 92 -91 CS-Fullerton 14 144 70 -74 Siena 13 132 65 -67 St. Joseph's 11 98 36 -62 Arizona 10 69 14 -55 Baylor 11 70 15 -55 Ms. Valley St. 16 318 263 -55 Washington St. 4 58 6 -52 USC 6 52 10 -42
• I'm not inclined to reach much into the road prowess of 14-16 seeds -- none of the four squads at the top here have favorable first-round matchups -- but Siena, at No. 13, is looking like a solid Cinderella pick. Especially since their opponent, Vandy, was prominently featured on the first chart.
• This table has the potential to yield some underseeded sleepers, namely Washington State and USC, who both ranked in the top 10 nationally on the road but didn't take care of business at home in the Pac-10. Could both of those squads be making surprise runs to the Elite Eight?
B-Day Is Here: Five Early Thoughts on the Field of 65
NEW YORK -- In a few minutes here at the Sports Illustrated offices, SI.com's Grant Wahl and I are going to hunker down and begin work on the magazine's official bracket. In a way we're set up like the NCAA tournament selection committee, with laptops, paper and televisions -- but we are not wearing school warmup suits like some of the actual committee members. We compromise on the picks; Grant writes half, I write half, and then it's edited and sent to the printers, for the whole world to see (and most likely ridicule) on Wednesday.
Before that begins, I leave you with five quick thoughts on the bracket:
1. Tennessee got robbed. The selection committee put too much weight on developments from this weekend -- the Vols' loss in the SEC tournament semis and Kansas' Big 12 tourney title -- when it picked No. 1 seeds and put the Jayhawks in the Midwest and UT as a No. 2 in the East. How can a team that beat Memphis (on the road), Xavier, Gonzaga, West Virginia and Western Kentucky in its nonconference slate, and then won the SEC regular-season title, get passed over for a No. 1? Kansas' best out-of-conference wins were over USC (a No. 6 seed) and Arizona (a No. 10 seed).
2. That said, while Kansas may not have deserved a No. 1 seed, there's little doubt that, efficiency-wise, the Jayhawks are the best team in the country. John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus recently published a list of the top eight major-conference efficiency margins this season, and KU was at the top:
For some context, 75 percent of last year's Elite Eight teams were in the top eight nationally in major-conference efficiency margin -- and Kansas, which lost to UCLA in the quarterfinals, was ranked No. 1 then as well.
3. Your best first-round game: No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Kansas State in Omaha. The committee says it doesn't pay attention to the matchup storylines, but O.J. Mayo vs. Michael Beasley in the first round won't hurt TV ratings. If you didn't catch it back in January, Grant's Mailbag had a story from Beasley's mother, Fatima Smith, about Mayo trying to recruit her son to USC. Apparently Mayo called her up two days before signing day in 2006 ... and this ensued:
"He says his name is like O'Jambolin or something. [Mayo's real name is Ovington J'Anthony]. He didn't say O.J. Mayo. I say, 'Who?' He says, 'O.J., O.J. Mayo.' I say, 'Hi, how you doin'? Are you goin' to Kansas State?' He says, 'No, Ms. Beasley,' which drives me nuts. My name is Smith!
"He says, 'Ms. Beasley, I'm just calling to see if we can get Michael to come out to USC.' I say, 'Oh, no, sugar, no, sweetie pie, you need to come to Kansas State.' He's like, 'Ms. Beasley, we'll look out for Michael. I'll keep an eye out for him myself.'
"I say, 'O.J., you need someone to look out for you! Why don't you just come to Kansas State? It'll be a great team.' He says, 'We'll have a great team too.' I say, 'O.J., if you were having a great team you wouldn't be calling me at the 11th hour. Call Huggs. I'm sure he'll take you.' So I called Huggs and said, 'Hey, I just offered O.J. a scholarship. You got one? Dalonte [Hill], you got a scholarship?' They said, 'No, you're the one who offered him a scholarship!
4. One of the most important figures in this NCAA tournament might be UCLA's ... trainer. For weeks I'd been leaning toward picking the top-seeded Bruins to win it all, but injuries to glue guy Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (a severe ankle sprain) and super-frosh Kevin Love (mild lower back pain) are giving me some serious second thoughts. A fully healthy UCLA team, with its combination of Final Four experience in the backcourt and Love's low-post presence, would be the most dangerous squad in the bracket. Now we have to wonder, will ailments end up spoiling Ben Howland's first national title run? At least the selection committee did the Bruins a favor by giving them the easiest region of any of the No. 1 seeds.
5. Wisconsin, like Tennessee, should be feeling shafted. The selection committee must've really hated the Big Ten, seeing that the team that won both the conference's regular-season title and its postseason tournament was handed a No. 3 seed. Duke, meanwhile, which won neither the ACC nor the ACC tournament, is nicely set up in the West Region as a No. 2. (The Blue Devils did beat the Badgers head-to-head, but that shouldn't have been the deciding factor here.) I was considering UW as a potential sleeper Final Four pick leading up to the bracket announcement, but can it really get past USC, Georgetown and Kansas to get to San Antonio? That's a tall order.
• One parting note: There's still plenty of time for you to join the Third Annual Tourney Blog Pool (now on Facebook!). Click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page. As of the beginning of the selection show, we had 737 members, many of whom who have also been kind enough to friend the poolster on Facebook. Winners are eligible for fortune and fame in future blog posts.