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Domination by elite teams becoming more regular

Posted by Jeff Nusser on April 6, 2008

If you took the time to listen to me blab on that New York guy’s radio show back in February, you might remember me saying that the reason the NCAA Tournament is so spectacular is that you get a wild first couple of rounds (complete with unexpected upsets), but by the time you get deep in the tournament, the cream has risen to the top and the heavyweights duke it out for the ultimate prize.

Although there weren’t a ton of early upsets this year coupled with a surprising number of blowouts, this obviously has become the ultimate example of that with four No. 1 seeds making it to the Final Four. This continues a recent trend of a handful of national powers making up the bulk of the tournament’s final weekend (table courtesy of John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus; more on him in a second):

Snootiest Final Fours
1985 to Present

       Avg. Seed
2008     1.00    (North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA, Kansas)
1993     1.25    (North Carolina, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas)
2007     1.50    (Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown, UCLA)
2001     1.75    (Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Maryland)
1999     1.75    (Connecticut, Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State)
1997     1.75    (Kentucky, North Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona)
1991     1.75    (Duke, UNLV, North Carolina, Kansas)

Gasaway explores this phenomenon, and what might explain it, which I found highly interesting. He chalks it up to the freshmen, and their opportunity to contribute not just because of the forced year in college, but because of the voids left by other early defectors. I think that only partly explains it. After all, North Carolina and Kansas don’t have any of those heralded freshmen — they’ve got deep squads filled with guys who are very good, but not quite good enough to make that jump so fast.

My take? It all comes down to how many athletes a team has. It’s a tall order to win six games in a row (or even the four in a row it takes to get to the Final Four), and teams are going to have an off performance somewhere in there. Supreme athleticism — while no guarantee of success (hello, Kansas State and USC) — allows very good teams to overcome games in which they perform below their normal level. Memphis had Mississippi State, UCLA had Texas A&M, Kansas had Davidson.

Speaking of Davidson, I think my theory applies there, as well, despite their No. 10 seed and “mid-major” status: It took some superhuman efforts by Stephen Curry for the Wildcats to get as deep as they did. Without Curry — a good athlete who somehow got missed by the ACC — there is no possibility of the Elite Eight.

As a side note, if you like what we do here with statistical analysis, you’ll love what they do at Basketball Prospectus, and you ought to be reading it regularly.

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One Response to “Domination by elite teams becoming more regular”

  1. Seth said

    There’s also the human factor: these seeds don’t just come out of the sky, maybe the tournament committee is just better at seeding teams than they used to be.

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