Thursday, April 22, 2010

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me...When I'm 68?

The NCAA expanded its Men's Basketball field to...68 teams today.

The surprising news comes after a winter when it seemed almost sure that the expansion would be all the way to 96, allowing the top eight seeds in each region a Bye in the first round, adding a full round for seeds 9-24, and meaning wall-to-wall college basketball for six straight nights.

As part of the new deal, CBS will share coverage with Turner, meaning that every single game will be available somewhere on the dial. Or, perhaps more appropriate, at some triple-digit number on your cable box.

As Deadspin's Dashiell Bennett points out, it seems that -- shockingly -- the NCAA listened to the criticism that was levelled in the month of March: the tournament worked as-is, the expansion would water down the regular season, and so forth. Three more at-large bids will (almost surely) be awarded, but the tournament will have the same look-and-feel, albeit with four "play-in" games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

But Bennett is wrong in one respect when he writes the following:
The field will expand to 68 teams, which means (presumably) that all four 16-seeds will now be determined by play-in game, making the possibility of a 16-over-1 upset even more improbable than it already is...

The expansion of the play-in games means that the worst eight automatic qualifiers will play the 16A/16B games for the right to play the #1-seeds. But assuming that the Tournament Committee seeds teams correctly(*), that means that the #16A teams will be advancing; in years past those teams were also known as "#15 seeds."

(*)-The seeding this year was especially problematic, as was widely observed, especially regard to eventual champion Duke's path to the Final Four, and games such as Temple (5)/Cornell (12).

For example, here are the "weakest" four teams in the 2009(**) bracket, together with actual (post-season) KenPom rating:

Chattanoga (16), 226
Alabama State (16B), 209
Radford (16), 188
Binghampton (15), 165 (***)

Average Rating: 197, or slightly below the median of 344 Division I teams

Here are the next four weakest:

Morehead State (16A - play-in winner) 150
Morgan State (15) 148
Robert Morris (15), 118
East Tenn St (16), 111

Average Rating: 132, or close to top one-third of all D-I teams

(**) - Using the 2009 to avoid the seeding problems in this year's tournament.
(***) - Of course, the Committee still mis-seeded Morehead State. (For the record, the other 2009 15-seed was Cal St Northridge (99 KenPom), who played tough against #2 Memphis, before falling 81-70.)

Thus, the #1-seeds will be playing a team that is -- on average -- sixty places higher on the rankings than they would in the traditional 64-team field.

Slicing the data another way (and perhaps accounting for mis-seeds), here are the averages for the five #16- and four #15-seeds:

#16-seeds: 177
#15-seeds: 132

Closer, but still a material improvement, assuming that the better teams wins the play-in game(s).

Some will counter that the short rest will make the #16's road even tougher. (The play-in game winners will have to play the #1 seeds two days after the opening round games, while the #1 seeds have a week to prepare.) But conference tournaments are rife with low-seeded teams who play on consecutive nights and beat higher-ranked opponents who have had a bye. For instance, in the Big East just this year, #8 Georgetown beat #1 Syracuse; #5 Marquette beat #4 Villanova, #7 ND beat #2 Pitt, and #11 Cincy beat #6 Louisville; in each of those games, the lower ranked team played back-to-back against a rested opponent.

The bottom line: the #1 seeds will be playing materially better teams.

And that makes the chances of a #16 beating a #1 much higher, no matter how you slice it.


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