Friday, March 19, 2010

Your Team Probably Won't Win the Tournament

Your team probably won't win this year's Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Mine probably won't, either.

There are 65 teams in the Men’s NCAA basketball tournament.  Only one will go undefeated for six straight games and win the national championship. Despite these odds, there are millions of us fans supporting lots of different teams and somehow convinced in our hearts that ours will be the one to cut down the nets.
Nearly all of us will be wrong, but our beliefs won’t waiver one iota until we lose.

For those teams seeded in the bottom half of their region, history says that winning is nearly impossible. But even for teams seeded 1st, 2nd or 3rd, the odds aren’t pretty.

How do I know that your team probably won’t win without knowing who you are or what team you support?   Simple probabilities.  The ones we all choose to ignore. 

This phenomenon isn’t limited to basketball, or even to sports.  An entire academic field known as behavioral finance has sprung up fairly recently to help explain the reasons and the methods we use to deceive ourselves into ignoring the odds.

We can, however, look at the last 25 years of NCAA tournament results and gain some perspective on the probabilities.  That includes 1,600 teams (if we ignore the play-in games) and 1,575 games.

Twenty-five years ago happens to be when the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams.  Yes, there is a "play-in" game for the 65th team, but ignoring those for the last few years won't impact the statistics in any important way.

The 4 through 8 Seeds

First, let’s look at the seeds who have slightly better than a snowball’s chance. That would be the group of 20 teams seeded 4th through 8th each year.  Over 25 years, that group includes 500 teams that have won a total of three championships. The three low-seeded teams that won it all were seeded 4th, 6th  and 8th.

The success rate for this group is 3/25, or 12%, so there is a 12% chance that one of the 20 teams seeded 4th through 8th will win the tournament, based on historical results. But, the record for individual teams seeded 4th through 8th is 3 title wins per 500 attempts, so the probability of an individual team seeded in this group winning it all is about 0.06%.

The Bottom Half

4th through 8th seeds may be a long shot, but at least they have three titles.

Not one team in the bottom half of the field has won a championship in the current format.  Only four 15-seeds have even made it to the second round.  Only two teams seeded lower than 8th have made it to the Final Four (LSU in ’86 and George Mason in 2006, both 11-seeds).

No 16-seed men’s team has ever won a game.

(A 16-seed did win a game in the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament once.)

Seeds 9 through 16 have never won a title.  Seeds 4 through 8 have won 3.  And, a whopping 88% of national titles have been won by 1-, 2- or 3-seeds.

The Top 3 Seeds

How about the top seeds, the ones who have a real shot at putting together a six game winning streak to win a championship?  Doesn’t it seem like the teams that end the regular season ranked number one in the polls win the NCAA tournament more often than not?

They don't.

1-, 2- and 3-seeds have won 22 of the last 25 championships, but 1-seeds have won 15 of those, or 60%.  The remainder have gone about equally to 2-seeds (4 titles) and 3-seeds (3 titles).  Now you know why Rick Pitino preached to his Kentucky teams that they needed a 1-seed to have a real chance of winning a championship.

But how likely is the big trophy, even if you are a 1-seed?  The NCAA only began announcing overall 1-seeds in 2004, but since 1985, only 4 of the 25 teams (16%) that ended the season ranked number 1 in the major polls have gone on to win the championshipi.  That’s about 1 in 6.

In the past 25 years of tournaments, 100 teams have received a 1-seed and 15 of those teams won the title.  The success rate for those four 1-seeds averages 15% each year.

2-seeds have won 4 of 25 championships, so the probability that the tournament winner will be a 2-seed is 16%, based on historical data.  During that period, there have been 100 teams seeded 2nd, but only 4 won titles, so the probability of your 2-seed cutting down the nets is about 4%.

If you’re a 2-seed, the challenge is potentially having to beat three 1-seeds, one in the Regional finals, one in the Final 4, and one in the championship game.  With a historical winning percentage of .536 for 1-seeds versus 2-seeds, the probability of a 2-seed, like West Virginia this year for example, winning three games in a row against 1-seeds is (0.5363)3, or slightly better than 15%, and that’s after having won the first three rounds against lower seeds.  The only team to beat three 1-seeds in a single tournament to date was 4-seed Arizona in 1997.

Of course, who’s to say that West Virginia is seeded correctly?  Maybe they should have been a 1-seed.  They think so.  And perhaps other 1-seeds will be knocked off before WVU has to play them. But seeding is just one of the reasons that the statistical favorite doesn’t win the NCAA basketball championship. 

There are new injuries, injured players who are finally healthy, lucky shooting nights (an NC State air-ball that becomes a lob pass against Houston), emotional rivalries, bad coaching decisions (Pitino not guarding Grant Hill on the inbound pass to Laettner), and fortunate calls from the officials. 

There are bad matchups. Just because Team A beats Team B and Team B beats Team C doesn’t mean Team A will beat Team C.  It just doesn’t work that way.  There is no transitive law of college sports. UK is ranked second in the nation but beat Mississippi State—who didn’t even qualify for the NCAA tournament— by one-tenth of a second in the SEC Tournament finals last week.

Probabilities can’t tell us who will win the championship, but they do tell us that the winning team, even if they are a 1-seed, will have to beat the odds. No matter how good your team is, the odds are slim that they will win the tournament. 

Probabilities also tell us that improbable doesn’t mean impossible. If you bet long-term statistical averages, which means just picking the higher seeded team, you will be right more often than you will be with any other method, but these are one-game competitions, not seven-game series.  And an individual NCAA tournament is a one-time event. 

That’s what makes the odds for even the best teams daunting.  The winner has to play near-perfect basketball for six games in a row, but it only takes one game for a lower seed to knock you out of the bracket.

While only 4 teams ranked number one at the end of the regular season went on to win titles in the past 25 years, this feat was accomplished twice as often in the past 60 yearsi

I suspect this is because the fields were smaller before 1985, meaning fewer rounds and fewer opportunities for the regular season champion to get knocked off by a lower seed.  If so, that doesn’t bode well for the expansion of the tournament to 96 teams, as has recently been discussed.

As I said, improbable outcomes are not impossible.  In 1985, Villanova was an 8-seed playing top-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA title game.  All it took to win the national championship was to go further than any 8-seed had ever gone in the tournament. . . and then to play one perfect half of basketball.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Clanking Shots Off the Back of the Irony

It’s easy to get caught up in the madness of college basketball and miss the entertaining sideshow just off-court.  Let’s take a moment to review some of the rich ironies of the 2009-10 season.

Irony is an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.  You know, irony.  Like when the most maligned college coach in the country, John Calipari, spends a Sunday during basketball season raising over a million bucks for relief efforts in Haiti. 

The “March to 2,000 Wins” that UK “won” by beating Drexel last December 21st holds some ironies, too. 

Bill Mayer, writing for the Lawrence Journal-World, wrote recently, “It’s regrettable that [Kansas University] grad Adolph Rupp factored so heavily in a shady Kentucky march to glory. Kentucky may have hit 2,000 first but KU and UNC will do so more honorably. The Wildcats got there with considerable assistance from cheating and NCAA criminal indifference and oversight.” 

(The World part, in case you’re wondering, refers to the fact that the LJ-W isn’t limited to Lawrence, but also serves Tonganoxie, Baldwin, Basehor, Bonner Springs, Eudora and De Soto.)

"Criminal" indifference is either hyperbole or ignorance, since the NCAA doesn't enforce actual laws, and the irony involving Mr. Mayer is rich.  As most college basketball fans are aware, last year’s national basketball championship was won by a school that was on probation— Kansas. 

According to an ESPN article by Pat Forde, dated 2006 and entitled  “Kansas Isn’t Alone in Cutting Corners”, Kansas may not be alone, but they are alone at the top.  They lead the league with five major infractions.  Ding!  Was that the irony bell ringing?

UK, admittedly, is not far behind with four.  UNC, with one major infraction and probation in 1960, should be offended that Kansas would lump its reputation with theirs.  That probation, by the way, led to the promotion of assistant coach Dean Smith.

I’m not proud of Kentucky’s history of NCAA violations.  All of the top college basketball programs have been sanctioned by the NCAA at some point, but that’s no excuse.  We deserve the shots we take for past infractions.  But I have a theory about why those major programs all have violations— it’s because they win. 

Casinos don’t ban gamblers who count cards, they ban gamblers who count cards and win.  Count cards badly and lose and you’ll go completely unnoticed.  If the casino does happen to notice you because say, you move your lips while you count, they will gladly direct you to the nearest ATM machine and comp your dinner.  Likewise, I doubt that losing basketball programs get a lot of NCAA scrutiny.

The whole “College Basketball’s Winningest Team” race is a bit strange, anyway.  Dean Smith said years ago that he put little stock in this statistic because one of UK’s wins was against the Lexington YMCA (there weren’t a lot of teams available to schedule in 1903) and one of the Tar Heel’s wins was against the Chapel Hill YMCA.  This is probably the worst example one could find, but still it brings into question the equality of competition the top teams in this “race” have faced over the past century.   It’s hard to imagine that a fair analysis of the competition could even be performed.

One thing we can analyze however, is the number of games each team has played and both UNC and Kansas have played far more games than the leader, UK.  At last count, Kansas had played 140 games more than UK and UNC had played 64 more.  Makes you wonder how UK ever got the lead in the first place.

To put this in perspective, if UNC sat out their next 64 games and waited for UK to catch up in games played, and UK won their long-term average of 75.8% of those games, then UK’s lead over UNC all-time would be 65 games instead of the current 16.  If KU obliged UK in the same way, Kentucky’s lead over Kansas would be 124 games instead of the current 18.

So, several teams are apparently competing in a race, having played dramatically different numbers of games, against competition that can’t be compared and, ironically, the team with the fewest games played among the top three has the most wins. Ding!

If Kansas is not the team to be sanctimonious, I was even less inclined to listen to the recent sermon on sportsmanship and propriety from Bobby Knight.

Knight recently said, "We've gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking and that's why I'm glad I'm not coaching. You see we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that." 

I'm sure there are lots of things he really doesn't understand and that includes the facts with respect to Calipari. UMass wasn't placed on probation and Memphis' probation is under appeal, but that is not the larger issue.

Bobby Knight may have been a great basketball coach and he may even have a few correct ideas about changes needed within the NCAA, but in questioning John Calipari’s integrity, he was a very large pot calling the kettle black.  Or perhaps he was smoking pot, because his major accomplishment in attacking Calipari seems to have been to bring his own questionable behaviors back into the news spotlight for a generation of fans who might not have been old enough to witness them firsthand (many were televised).

You may remember the classics, including choking a player, grabbing an IU student by the arm because he addressed him as “Knight” instead of  “Your Lordship”, belittling the crime of rape in an interview with Connie Cheung (on national television), getting arrested for assaulting a Puerto Rican policeman while representing his country in the 1979 Pan American Games (probably on Puerto Rican television), firing his shotgun at a man's house during a dispute over the man's complaints that Knight hunted too near his farm, being put on a zero-tolerance leash by IU's president, banning author John Feinstein from IU's home games because he didn't like A Season on the Brink, quickly running Larry Bird off to Indiana State University (unless Bird thought Terre Haute was a better showcase for his talents), and in an event that would presage vice presidential political drama, hunting without a license and accidentally shooting his friend. Ding! Ding! Ding!

Apparently, Knight thinks the word integrity only applies to NCAA sanctions, of which he has none-- whoop-de-doo, coincidentally the same number of NCAA sanctions (zero) that have been given Calipari-- and now Bobby has brought an entire generation previously unaware of his shenanigans up to speed; I hope that makes him happy.

Were it me, I would have preferred my transgressions to remain forgotten. Yes, Your Honor, I admit I shot at that man's house because I was angry with him and that I will be arrested if I return to Puerto Rico, but I didn't want to go back there, anyway, and by the way, I don't have a single NCAA sanction. Ding!

This season, when Kansas State fans began chanting "OVERRATED" near the end of their win over Texas, Knight suggested this chant was unsportsmanlike and that fans should chant "great effort" or "thank you, thank you."  This from the coach who threw a chair across the basketball floor on national television after being called for a technical foul.

Picture Bernie Madoff at courtside leading a chant of, "Full Disclosure!  Full Disclosure!"


“Whoa, baby!” as Dick Vitale would say.  “They rolled out the irony GONG for The General, Mr. Robert Montgomery Knight!  Are you kiddin’ me? ARE YOU KIDDIN' ME?”

Back to the "March to 2,000 Wins", fans seem to believe that someone will actually win this race by taking the lead and keeping it.  It is more likely, though, that Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina will have a string of great years, as UK did under Pitino the last time UNC nearly caught them, or a string of bad years, like  UNC did under Matt Dougherty and UK did under Billy Gillispie, and completely change the leader board.  

(I was relieved to learn that LOST is a popular TV series and not the title of Billie G’s autobiography. Hey, I'm still recovering from Glory Road.)

UNC is nearing the end of one of those horrible seasons, though I am sure they will be back with a vengeance soon.  But, how can a team with seven McDonald's High School All Americans, a coach who has never had a losing season, and a returning All America candidate (Ed Davis) be fighting to avoid last place in an unusually weak ACC?  Only Duke is currently ranked in the top 20.  Doesn't that qualify as an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs?

My UNC friends taunted me last season with predictions that they would take the lead as college basketball's winningest team in 2010 and furthermore, that Kansas might also overtake Kentucky, leaving the Wildcats in third place.  Instead, UK has built significantly on it's lead this year and it appears that Kansas will go deep into the NCAA tournament, passing the Tar Heels by the end of the season and leaving them in third place. 

Ironic, isn't it?

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