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2011 NCAA Tournament Notes

April 6, 2011

Connecticut won their third championship on Monday night. The Huskies capped the most amazing postseason run in college basketball history - 11 wins in 11 games to capture the Big East and NCAA titles. Monday's game was, without a doubt, the most poorly played title game (both teams) I've seen in any sport. Connecticut was bad but Butler was awful in a spectacular way. I haven't seen that many missed layups since I attended my sister's elementary school basketball game may years ago. Plenty of teams have gone cold from the outside in big games over the years. I've never seen those kind of shooting stats from inside the paint.

I feel terrible for Butler. They came within a few inches last year - literally - of winning the title. They defied the odds to get back to the championship game only to have the worst shooting game most of us have ever seen. Sure, Connecticut played good defense, but it wasn't that good. Butler had plenty of open shots and uncontested layups. This was the strangest tournament in the 64+ team tournament era (1985-present) and so it makes sense that it ended with the strangest title game.

I am disgusted by the fact that UConn was even allowed to play in the tournament. If any other program (with the possible exception of Duke) had been involved in the same recruiting shenanigans, they would have been declared ineligible for postseason play for at least one season, if not more. Connecticut's self-imposed penalties on its basketball program were less severe than what other programs have experienced. I am not sure why the NCAA holds Connecticut to a different set of standards. The scandal is a black eye for the NCAA so I imagine it will continue to be swept under the rug. The championship actually makes it less likely that the NCAA will keep an eye on Jim Calhoun's crooked program. If the NCAA does take a closer look, I wonder if Jim Calhoun will retire and leave the next guy to deal with the consequences.

Andy Katz of ESPN has already posted his early Top 25 for next season. If Kentucky retains all of its players, the Wildcats could be devastating.

The final conference tally (multi-bid conferences): ACC 8-4, Colonial 6-3, SEC 7-5, Mountain West 4-3, Big East 13-10, Pac Ten 5-4, Big Ten 7-7, Big XII 5-5, A-10 3-3, Conference USA 0-2. The ACC was great early then faded. Five of the Colonial's six wins were courtesy of VCU. The Big East was 7-10 if you exclude UConn.

March 27, 2011

There have now been eight days of tournament action since the brackets were reduced to 64 teams. There were a few upsets in the first three days but nothing out of the ordinary. Since last Sunday, however, March Madness has lived up to it's name. For the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there will be no #1 or #2 seeds in the Final Four. In fact, 2011 marks only the second year in which no #1 seeds will participate. Butler (8) and VCU (11) will become only the sixth and seventh teams since 1985 with a seed higher than 6 to reach the Final Four. Butler and VCU have arguably made the two most shocking Final Four runs in Final Four history although maybe we should not have been shocked since Butler was there last season. The sum of seeds among the Final Four participants is 26, the highest since 1985 (and probably all-time). The sum of seeds for all tournament will also be the highest. The lower seed has already won 20 games. The high-water mark of 23 recorded in 1999 is within reach. I don't think there is any doubt that this is the craziest tournament we've seen since in the 64+ team tournament era.

What can I say about Butler? Apparently, lightning does strike twice. The Bulldogs are now 9-1 in the tournament in the past two years. Not many schools have won that many tournament games in the past decade. After beating #9 Old Dominion at the buzzer, Butler defeated the 1, 2 and 4 seeds to return to the Final Four. Not an easy path. Butler joins Michigan State as the only school to reach the Final Four twice with a seed of higher than 4. Only 16 times in 27 years has a team seeded higher than #4 reached the Final Four. Butler has done it two years in a row.

Before the tournament started I made fun of VCU and ripped the Selection Committee for putting them in the tournament. Obviously, I underestimated the Rams. They are clearly a solid team. I'm not sure how they lost so many games in a weak conference. I was not wrong about the Committee. I don't care if VCU wins the whole thing. They didn't deserve the bid. For all we know, a team like Miami, Cal or Alabama could have found their game and reached the Final Four. That doesn't mean they deserved to be in the tournament. But I have nothing but respect for VCU, who took advantage of their opportunity.

Kentucky, like Butler, came within one shot of being eliminated in the first round. That goes to show you how competitive this tournament has been. The Wildcats are young but that obviously didn't stop them. It's hard to believe that John Calipari has led three different teams at three different schools to Final Fours.

UConn's run to the Final Four has also been impressive given that the Huskies played five games in five days in the Big East tournament. This tournament was a monumental flop for the Big East but they may end up claiming the ultimate prize that to the team who finished tied for ninth in the league standings. The Huskies had a little help from the refs against San Diego State. The technical foul called when the Aztec player bumped Kemba Walker was awful. Guys bump into each other all the time on the way to the benches after a timeout. Sure, the bump could have been intentional but the refs cannot read minds. Had the ref been close enough to the action to hear or see something that would indicate intent, I could understand the call. But employing video replay and mind-reading to call a technical foul is silly. Is that what officiating has become? Sadly, it may have cost San Diego State the game.

As for the trends ... this was not a good year for those of us who use them. Experience didn't seem to matter much (except for Butler). The teams who traveled long distances (UCLA, Washington, UConn) to played pretty well. UConn and VCU didn't seem bothered by fatigue despite playing extra games (UConn in the Big East Tournament, VCU with the first round "play-in" game). Field goal percentage has been known to be a key indicator in a team's success, yet Kansas (the fifth highest field goal percentage in the past 14 years) was bounced by a #11 seed. The #1 seeds were just 8-4. The top RPI conference (Big East) was 11-10. The Final Four teams are from conferences ranked 1, 6, 10 and 11 in the RPI. In other words, absolute chaos.

The current conference tally (multi-bid conferences): Colonial 6-2, ACC 8-4, SEC 7-4, Mountain West 4-3, Pac Ten 5-4, Big East 11-10, Big Ten 7-7, Big XII 5-5, A-10 3-3, Conference USA 0-2.

March 20, 2011

Thursday afternoon was certainly a wild ride in the NCAA Tournament. Four games in a row came down to the last possession. There were two other two-point contests on Thursday. There were a few more great games on Friday. However, there were also a lot of blowouts as the top three seeds pounded their opponents (more on that later) while Tennessee, UNLV and Georgetown put up some of the worst performances we've seen from higher seeds in the first round. Statistically speaking, the 13.2 point average point differential in the Round of 64 (now called the second round, previously known as the first round) was the fifth highest in the last 12 years despite the buzzer beaters.

There was only one major upset (a seed 13 or higher winning) on Thursday and Friday but the 10-12 seeds were a respectable 5-7. This was slightly better than normal for those seeds. This was a big year for the 11 seeds. They were 3-1 in the Round of 64. This marked the first time the 11 seeds have won three or more games in the Round of 64 since 1989.

I'll be very interested to see which school among Georgetown, Tennessee and Vanderbilt is the first to make a coaching change. Bruce Pearl was in trouble coming into the tournament and the 30-point loss to Michigan didn't help. Georgetown lost their first game to a team with a much lower seed for the second year in a row and Vanderbilt lost to a team seeded 12 or higher in the Round of 64 for the third time in five years (they didn't make the tournament the other two years).

As I mentioned above, the top three seeds destroyed the 14, 15 and 16 seeds. All the #1s won by at least 19 points, the #2s won by at least 13 and the #3s, with the exception of BYU, won by at least 17. BYU won by eight points. In the last 10 years, the #1 and #2 seeds are 80-0, winning by an average margin of 21 points. Not a single #1 seed has failed to win by double-digits during that time and only 6 of 40 #2 seeds have won by less than 8 points. The #14 seeds are only 3-37 against the #3 seeds since 2002. The #13 seeds have at least had a little success, winning 9 of 40 games with another 10 games being within six points. The 10-12 seeds have won nearly 40% of the time.

I would like to see two things happen. First, the new first round (aka, the play-in round) should not include bubble teams. The first round should pit the weakest teams (based on RPI) against each other. Second, I would like to see the tournament expand to 72 teams. This would mean the bottom 16 teams would play in the first round. These would be all the small schools who have shown very little aptitude for playing with the big boys. The eight winners would be seeded in the 15 and 16 slots. Most of the winners would normally have been #13 or #14 seeds so the #1 and #2 seeds might face slightly tougher competition. For example, a #2 seed may have had to face Morehead State, Oakland or Princeton this year. The #13 and #14 seeds would include bubble teams so obviously the #3 and #4 seeds would face much stiffer competition. For example, this year, Colorado and Boston College may have been #13 seeds with Virginia Tech and St. Mary's being pushed to a #14 seed. The 1-3 seeds would still win most of their games, but there would be more upsets and far fewer blowouts. Why should the 1-3 seeds essentially get byes in the first round?

The defense has been particularly good this season. The average points scored in the Round of 64 was 133.4. This is the second lowest (1999 being the lowest) in the tournament since 1986. It must be noted, however, that the distance to the three-point line was shorter in many of those years.

On a side note, is there any more annoying phrase than "score the basketball?"

The Round of 32 (especially Sunday) was a lot more interesting. Five teams seeded #8 or higher will be heading to the Sweet 16. This matches 1999 for the most since the 64 team tournament was born in 1985. Three of the five are in the Southwest with Kansas. The Jayhawks must be feeling pretty good about now.

As for the conferences, the big winner has been the ACC. The ACC is the only conference with three Sweet 16 teams and their record in this year's tournament is 7-1. The Mountain West is 4-1 but will be more seriously tested in the next round. The Colonial and the A-10 thanks to VCU and Richmond, are 4-2 and 3-2, respectively. The Big Ten, at 7-5, has been competitive. The Pac Ten is only 4-3 but UCLA and Washington nearly reached the Sweet 16 despite being forced to fly across the country. The SEC and Big XII have been disappointing (4-3 and 4-4) though their big guns (Florida, Kentucky and Kansas) are still around. Without a doubt, the biggest flop in this year's tournament is the Big East. Six of the nine major upsets (teams seeded more than four slots lower than their opponent) were at the expense of Big East teams. One of those was Marquette over Syracuse so it's really five of eight. The Big East (9-9 overall) is down to two teams and both of those squads reached the Sweet 16 by beating another Big East team. When I saw the brackets, I felt that it was unfair to the Big East because they would knock each other out. The selection committee might have done the Big East a favor. They may not have any teams left if they didn't set the brackets up that way.

It's interesting that the third place team in the A-10 and the fourth place team in the Colonial are still standing while the top two are gone. In the Big East, two teams who tied for ninth place will advance while the top eight are all done for the season.

Finally, I have to give credit to VCU. I did not think they were good enough to reach the Round of 32, much less the Sweet 16. Clearly, they are better than most of us thought. However, their success does not change the fact that they should not have been in the tournament in the first place. The committee's poor decisions are not justified by a team's success or failure.

March 16, 2011

Everyone's been talking about VCU's weak tournament resume but even their stats are weak. VCU has the worst field goal defense among the 50 teams seeded between 1 and 12. They have the fifth worst field goal percentage and the eighth worst point differential despite playing in the medicore Colonial Conference.

Reader Adam M. emailed to ask if I had ever looked at point differential (average points scored minus average points allowed) as a predictor for success. The answer is I haven't, but it is a great question. You would expect a good team to win via the blowout route more often than a mediocre team. I took a quick look at all first round games between 1997 and 2010 involving teams seeded 7 through 10 (we know the better seed wins roughly half of these games). I limited the analysis to teams from the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac Ten, SEC) since teams from the smaller conferences tend to have higher point differentials because they play an easier schedule. Anyway, I found 26 teams with season point differentials of less than 4.0 point per game. These teams were 13-13 in the first round. Teams from the major conferences with point differentials of 9.0 of better were 8-10 in the first round. So, the small sample of games indicates that point differential is not a great predictor of success in first round matchups between evenly matched teams.

I also looked at the #1 seeds. There were 18 #1 seeds with point differentials of 17.0 or better between 1997 and 2010. Eight went to the Final Four (44%) and four (22%) were knocked out in the second round (round of 32). There were 14 teams with point differentials of less than 14.0. Three of them advanced to the Final Four (21%) and three were knocked out in the second round (21%). The #1 seeds with the better point differentials did slightly better but given the small number of games, I wouldn't definitively say that point differential is a predictor of success. Among this year's #1 seeds, Ohio State, Kansas and Duke have similar point differentials with Pitt lagging slightly behind. Penn State has the worst point differential this year (+0.6) and the fourth worst since 1997.

I don't publish my bracket online but I do have a few thoughts on the tournament:

Good luck with your brackets.

March 15, 2011

Lots of talk about the selection committee the past couple of days. I think most of us who follow the tournament closely are in agreement that this one of the worst performances by a selection committee in recent memory. Since getting into the tournament matters more than seeding (though seeding is important), the decision to include Virginia Commonwealth in the field was the biggest blunder. I have nothing against VCU and I'm sure they are capable of winning their first round game and perhaps the next but their tournament resume is one of the weakest I've seen from an at-large mid-major team (reasons mentioned below). If VCU was replaced with Colorado, the Committee's at-large selections would at least be defensible. The seeding, however, was far and away the worst I've seen. Let's start with the SEC, where Kentucky (RPI: 7) is a 4 seed and Florida (RPI: 8) is a 2 seed in spite of the fact that Kentucky has beaten Florida twice in a span of less than three weeks. Florida did win the division by three games and that should count for something but it's hard to believe that Kentucky wouldn't, at worst, be seeded the same as Florida. For years, I've been disturbed by the selection committee's refusal to look at head to head matchups to help rank teams within their conferences. Also disturbing is the seeding of the Big Ten teams. Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and, to a lesser extent, Penn State are lucky to even be in the tournament but you can make a case for it. You can't make a case for the seeding of Illinois and Michigan. It must be noted that the committee chairman, Gene Smith, is the Athletic Director at Ohio State. It certainly appears that he used his clout to do some favors for his conference friends. Villanova is also a bizarre choice for a 9 seed. Their resume was impressive enough to get them into the tournament but 0-5 finish to the season (5-10 since mid-January) should have knocked them into a 11 or 12 seed and possibly a play-in (first round) game. Utah State cannot be happy with a 12 seed since their RPI would have put them as a 4 seed and their ranking would have them at about a 5 or 6 seed. The strange thing is that the Utah State AD was on the committee. Apparently, the rest of the group didn't like him very much.

Gene Smith didn't have much of an answer when asked why VCU was in the field of 68. He mentioned their road record and said they were a "great ballclub." He also mentioned that he supports expanding the tournament to 96 teams. Is this a ploy to make sure that every Big Ten team makes the tournament? Thankfully, Smith is out after this year.

Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg took some shots at the selection committee. I haven't seen someone this upset over a rejection since Bill Simmons was rejected for admission by Boston College. I can understand Greenberg's frustration as the Hokies have been close in each of the past four years but have not made it. In three of those years, they finished above .500 in the ACC. I wondered if the Hokies would make it this year simply because they were so close in 2008 and 2010 (they weren't really a legitimate bubble team in 2009). I guess only the current season matters and that's probably the way it should be. Still, I feel bad for the Virginia Tech seniors.

I will defend the committee when it comes to Alabama. RPI has always been a key at-large criteria. Alabama's RPI ranking of 80 would have been well above the previous high of 74. The RPI is not a perfect measure (in fact, someone made it worse about five years ago) but it is reliable enough to tell us that a team with an RPI ranking of 80 should not be considered for an at-large bid.

Villanova's stumble into the NCAA Tournament is rather unique. The selection committee looks at each bubble team's last 12 games (changed from "last 10 games" a few years ago) so it is rare to see a tournament team with a sub-.500 record in their last 12 (Nova was 4-8). In fact, Villanova is only the fifth team since 1997 to get an at-large big with a sub-.500 record in their last 10/12 games. I decided to look at the success rate for teams who were below .500 in their last 10/12. It's happened 33 times in the past 14 tournaments. Those teams (seeded from 4 to 12) were 13-20 in the first round (39%). Based on their seeds, the expected winning percentage for these 33 teams was 53% so it would appear that a team playing sub-.500 ball down the stretch is more likely to lose in the first round than a team that won at least half its games in the stretch run. On the other hand, teams in this group that won first round games were 5-8 in the second round despite being the better seed in only two of those games. By the way, when I say "first round" and "second round" in this paragraph, I am talking about the old first round (round of 64) and the old second round (round of 32). Sometimes I feel like the NCAA changed the "play-in game" to the "first round" just to annoy me.

I created a separate page showing the five best and worst teams among seeds 1 through 12 in a variety of statistical categories including field goal percentage, turnover margin and road/neutral record. Click HERE to take a look.

March 13, 2011 9:00pm

The brackets were announced earlier tonight with one major surprise among the 37 at-large choice. Virginia Commonwealth, which finished fourth in the Colonial Conference, received an at-large bid. The Rams 23-11 overall and were 3-6 against the RPI Top 50 (two of those three wins coming within the Colonial). What's worse, they were 3-5 in their last eight games. The obvious snub was Colorado, which won five of its last seven and was 6-7 against the RPI Top 50. It's a head-scratcher. How can the fourth place team from the Colonial be in the tournament when two teams who tied for fourth in the ACC (BC, VA Tech) and a team tied for fifth in the Big XII (Colorado) are not? I also predicted that St. Mary's would make the field but one can certainly make an argument for USC. As I thought, the Committee did choose a so-called mid-major but it was VCU, not St. Mary's. I thought the Gaels were much more deserving.

As usual, the Big Ten was given more credit than it deserved. Not only did all four Big Ten bubble teams make the tournament but none is seeded lower than 10. Penn State legitimately played their way into the 10 seed they received but the seeding of Michigan (8) and Illinois (9) is ridiculous. The Big Ten wound up with seven tournament teams while the Big XII, Pac Ten, ACC and Big XII got between four and five each. Awful. Did I mention that the Ohio State Athletic Director was the Committee Chairman?

I was surprised to see that Big East were placed on the bracket in such a way that they could meet in the round of 32 (which I guess is now called the third round). I'm not sure why, since the 11 Big East teams could have easily been placed in completely separate groups of four, meaning that they would not meet until at least the Regional Semifinals (aka. Sweet Sixteen). If all 11 Big East teams advance to the Sweet Sixteen so be it. The Committee should be smart enough to create a bracket that will avoid conference matchups for as long as possible. I'm not sure what motivated them to set up a potential UConn-Cincinnati and Syracuse-Marquette third round games.

I've been calling for the expansion of the tournament to 68 teams for a while. However, I just assumed that the NCAA would have the bottom eight conference champions play each other for the right to play the #1 seeds. This would shift the teams in a way that would make all of the games more competitive. This would have removed the weakest four teams from the tournament, forcing the #1 seeds (104-0 against the #16s) to sweat a little more. The teams that had been 14 seeds would be 15s, the 13s would be now be 14s and so on. Instead, the NCAA came up with a harebrained scheme to pit the last four teams in the tournament against each other in two of the four play-in games. I hate this for several reasons. First, it's annoying from an NCAA pool perspective. Assuming that most pools won't ask participants, you don't really know who you are picking in the second round. For example, I might pick a rested (11) USC to beat (6) Georgetown but I certainly wouldn't pick VCU to beat the Hoyas. I could pick "USC/VCU" over Georgetown but I'd be assuming that USC beats VCU and that USC is not adversely affected by playing two days easlier while Georgetown was resting. That brings me to my second point. It is slightly unfair to VCU and USC (as well as UAB and Clemson) to play the extra game but you can argue that is the penalty they pay for being one of the last four at-large teams. It is definitely not fair, however, for Georgetown and West Virginia to be matched up against a team that played less than 48 hours earlier. Why should Georgetown and West Virginia be given an advantage that the other 5 and 6 seeds do not have? If the "last four in" teams are able to win that second game then their third round opponent has an even bigger advantage since they will be playing against a team involved in their third game in five days. For example, Purdue (3 seed) could be playing a tired USC team while other 3 seeds are playing teams without the same potential for fatigue. If the NCAA cares at all about fairness, they will change the format for next year's tournament.

I am the last person in the world to say something nice about the University of Connecticut but I must admit to being impressed with the five wins in five days. As far as I know, no team has even played five games the week before the NCAA Tournament. It will be interesting to see if UConn suffers from fatigue next weekend. If UConn drops out early, I wonder if the Big East will reconsider its five round conference tournament.

The ACC Tournament was filled with both blowouts and amazing comebacks. In the first round, Miami erased a 10 point deficit in the final 37 seconds and beat Virginia in overtime. The next day, Miami led North Carolina by 16 points with a little over seven minutes left but managed to lose at the buzzer. Virginia Tech rallied from a ten point deficit to beat Florida State in the quarterfinals and Clemson lost to North Carolina in the semi-finals despite being ahead by seven points with just over two minutes remaining.

As for the NCAA Tournament, ESPN has html, gif and pdf versions of the brackets. My NCAA statistics pages are also updated.

Finally, I wanted to share a link to Nate Silver's blog. Nate's blog is mainly about statistics as they relate to politics but he obviously knows a lot about the tournament as well. In a recent post (3/11), Nate discusses the performance of teams based on how far they travel for tournament games. This is something I've been meaning to analyze but never have. Interesting stuff.

March 13, 2011 3:30pm

Selection Sunday has finally arrived. When the week began, I felt that 24 of the 37 at-large spots were wrapped up. A few more teams have played their way into the tournament, putting that number at 30. That leaves seven spots up for grabs. This is certainly the most crowded bubble I've ever seen, partially because of the three at-large bids added for this year's tournament. Here's the latest:

At-large Summary

Conference Champions (31) LINK

Locks (30): North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson, Temple, Xavier, Ohio St/Penn St loser, Wisconsin, Purdue, Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, St. John's, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, George Mason, BYU, UNLV, Arizona, UCLA, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

Bubble - IN (7): Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Colorado, UAB, Georgia and St. Mary's

Bubble - OUT (9): Boston College, Virginia Tech, VCU, Cleveland State, Harvard, Missouri State, Colorado State, Alabama and USC

NCAA Tournament Links
NCAA Trends Part I
NCAA Trends Part II
ESPN College Hoops
CBSSportsline College Hoops