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March Madness: how important is a team’s recent play?

Posted by Jason Lisk on March 17, 2008

I would like to thank Doug for allowing me to infect this week's blog with some temporary March Madness. Long before I was doing research on the NFL, I was a NCAA tournament junkie.

I still have the NCAA program from the 1988 Final Four, featuring Arizona, Oklahoma, and Duke. (I'll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize the fourth team). I memorized that program, and can still to this day tell you who won the NCAA tournament in any year. In college, I once banged my head on the floor during an intramural basketball game. My teammate's reportedly asked me who won the NCAA tournament in 1950, to see if I was okay. When I mumbled "CCNY, Irwin Dambrot, Nat Holman", they told the ref that I was okay. I don't really remember it.

My particular affliction, and the cause of an unhealthy love-hate relationship with March Madness, is that I am a Missouri Tigers fan. I cried when the 1987 team with Derrick Chievous lost in the first round to Xavier as a #4 seed. I cried the next year when they lost to Rhode Island in the first round. (Yes, I cried alot as a kid). By the time the 1990 NCAA tournament rolled around, I was a sophomore in high school. I was at school, but skipped class that afternoon, snuck into the A/V room in the library with a couple of other guys, and watched the second half of the game against Northern Iowa. I can still see Maurice Newby's prayer of a shot sailing through the net.

That particular Missouri Tigers team was led by Anthony Peeler and Doug Smith (who Doug had an opportunity to see up close at the first NFL game he attended). Less than a month earlier, they were the #1 ranked team in the country. They went into a bit of slump at the end of the season, culminating in a first round Big 8 tourney loss to the #8 seed Colorado Buffaloes, which dropped them all the way down to a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament. I'll use that Missouri Tigers team to transition to the point of this post. How important is a team's finish to the regular season, and does the tournament committee properly weight the end of season performance versus the whole body of a team's performance?

I wanted to look at more teams, but unfortunately time constraints limited me to looking at just the top 7 seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament, for the twelve year period from 1996-2007 (all results from the college basketball archives at www.goldsheet.com.) I sorted the teams by seed, and by the W-L record in the final 10 games played before the NCAA tournament (including conference tourneys). Here are the results, with some discussion to follow. I list the round of the NCAA tournament in which a team with that seed and record in the last 10 games (R1=1st round, R2=2nd round, S16=Sweet Sixteen, E8=Elite Eight, F4=Final Four, FN=Championship Game, CH=Won NCAA Championship).

#1 SEEDS

WINS	NO	R1	R2	S16	E8	F4	FN	CH
********************************************************************
10	8	0	1	1	2	2	2	0
9	21	0	4	3	5	3	2	4
8	15	0	2	3	5	3	0	2
7	3	0	0	1	1	0	0	1
6	1	0	0	0	0	1	0	0
********************************************************************

#2 and #3 SEEDS

WINS	NO	R1	R2	S16	E8	F4	FN	CH
********************************************************************
10	7	0	3	2	2	0	0	0
9	18	0	6	3	4	3	1	1
8	24	2	10	3	3	2	2	2
7	29	2	10	7	7	1	1	1
6	15	2	7	2	2	1	1	0
5	3	1	2	0	0	0	0	0
********************************************************************

#4 and #5 SEEDS

WINS	NO	R1	R2	S16	E8	F4	FN	CH
********************************************************************
10	2	1	1	0	0	0	0	0
9	9	2	1	5	0	1	0	0
8	22	4	8	5	0	4	1	0
7	21	6	6	8	0	0	1	0
6	34	11	14	6	1	0	1	1
5	4	0	1	3	0	0	0	0
4	4	2	0	2	0	0	0	0
********************************************************************

#6 and #7 SEEDS

WINS	NO	R1	R2	S16	E8	F4	FN	CH
********************************************************************
10	2	1	1	0	0	0	0	0
9	4	1	1	1	1	0	0	0
8	18	7	7	2	2	0	0	0
7	26	12	8	3	3	0	0	0
6	16	6	5	3	2	0	0	0
5	22	6	7	8	1	0	0	0
4	7	3	3	1	0	0	0	0
3	1	0	1	0	0	0	0	0
********************************************************************

I am going to go over a few observations. When it comes to the #1 seeds, I don't see that the record in the last 10 games matters. Most of the #1 seeds lost 1 or 2 games in their last 10. Of the four teams that lost 3 or more games in the last 10, and still got a #1 seed, three of them advanced to the Elite Eight or further. If you are still getting a number 1 seed after losing 3 games in the last 10, you were probably a very strong team, playing in a strong conference, that had a couple of close losses.

Turning to the #2 and #3 seeds, how a team is playing does seem to matter. In the first round, the #2's and #3's that were 9-1 or 10-0 were a perfect 25-0 in the first round, and won 64% of the second round matchups. The #2's and #3's that were 7-3 or 8-2 were still pretty good, at 49-4 (93%) in the first round, and 29-20 (59%) in the second round. However, #2's and #3's that were 6-4 or worse are poor values. These teams went 15-3 in the first round, and followed it up by going only 6-9 in the second round (40%). Combined, only 1/3 of the slumping #2's and #3's played to their seed and reached the Sweet Sixteen.

Now, like 1990 Missouri, these slumping #2's and #3's have typically been big name programs that have been highly ranked all season, but may drop a seed or two because of performance at season's end. Take 2005 for example, results like #2 Connecticut losing to NC State, #2 Wake Forest losing to West Virginia, and #3 Kansas losing to Bucknell involved highly ranked teams that were 6-4 or worse in their final 10 games.

Next, the #4's and #5's, where danger lurks in the first round, but correctly predicting one of these teams to advance deep in a tournament can win a pool. There were only two of these teams, that went 10-0, and they were both mid-major teams that failed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The teams that went 9-1 or 8-2 in their last 10 were a different story.

These were typically teams from major conferences that had been playing much better over the last month than they had early in the year. These teams won 81% of their first round games (compared to only 60% for all other #4's and #5's). A fairly significant 19.4% of the #4's and #5's that were either 8-2 or 9-1 reached the Final Four. In contrast, only 3 of the remaining 65 (4.8%) #4's and #5's reached the Final Four (though Arizona 1997, the only one to win it all, was 6-4 in last 10). 16.6% of the #2's and #3's reached the Final Four, so your chances of picking a hot major conference #4 or #5 seed to reach the Final Four are slightly better than correctly picking a random #2 or #3 seed to the Final Four. And if you are going to pick one of these teams to pull the upset in the Sweet Sixteen over a #1 seed, you might as well go "all in" and pick them to advance to the Final Four, as they are a combined 6-0 in Regional Finals. #4 Louisville (over Washington and West Virginia) and #5 Michigan State (over Duke and Kentucky)advancing to the Final Four in 2005, and #4 LSU (over Duke and Texas) in 2006 are recent examples.

I don't really see anything too notable about the #6's and #7's, in looking at how they finished. Of the 7 teams that were seeded here that had a losing record in their last 10, only 1 broke through to the Sweet 16. But the teams that went 5-5, ended up sending 41% through to the Sweet 16, so other than maybe avoiding the small subset of teams who were really slumping down the stretch, there does not seem to be any benefit to taking a hot team over an average one.

In looking at it overall, there is some evidence that the committee does not value recent performance heavily enough in sorting through the teams seeded 2-5, if in fact the goal of the committee is to be predictive in its seedings, rather than retrodictive. Here is a quick chart putting the "hot" #4's and #5's (those teams that were 8-2 or better in last 10) up against the cold #2's and #3's (6-4 or worse last 10). This shows the percentage of teams in each group that advanced past a particular round.

TEAM	NO	R1	R2	S16	E8	F4	FN	
********************************************************************
COLD 2/318	0.83	0.33	0.22	0.11	0.06	0.00	
HOT 4/5	33	0.79	0.48	0.18	0.18	0.03	0.00	
********************************************************************

If anything, these numbers understate how much better the "hot" #4's and #5's performed, because of strength of schedule. In the first round, they universally had the significantly tougher games, yet posted a similar winning percentage. In the second round, they surpassed the #2's and #3's. In the Sweet 16, the "hot" #4's and #5's were almost universally playing #1 seeds, going a respectable 6-10 in these games.

However, in looking at the #2's and #3's that were "struggling" over the last 10, most had very impressive resumes before that stretch, and were not considered the weakest of their seed group. Just going from memory, the teams that were 6-4 or worse were not the ones that caused the most controversy. Many, in fact, were the picks of many a person in office pools that I may have participated in the past. So, from a PR perspective, I am not sure how popular decisions to switch some of these teams up or down in seed would have been, before the fact.

Addendum:

Here are the records of the top 5 seeds in the last 10 games of the season:

#1 seeds
N. Carolina: 10-0
UCLA: 10-0
Memphis: 9-1
Kansas: 8-2

#2 seeds
Georgetown: 8-2
Tennessee: 8-2
Texas: 8-2
Duke: 6-4

#3 seeds
Wisconsin: 10-0
Louisville: 8-2
Xavier: 8-2
Stanford: 6-4

#4 seeds
Connecticut: 7-3
Pittsburgh: 7-3
Vanderbilt: 7-3
Washington St: 7-3

#5 seeds
Clemson: 7-3
Drake: 7-3
Notre Dame: 7-3
Michigan State: 5-5

This entry was posted on Monday, March 17th, 2008 at 3:51 am and is filed under Non-football. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.