Tourney Mythbusting: Do experienced teams really do better in the dance?

I do a lot of blogs over the course of the season—so many it seems, that I forget ones I’ve done months ago. I already addressed the topic of team age and experience, way back on November 27, but I figured I’d redo the analysis, looking at the attribute in a slightly different way this time.

I still hear college hoops analysts talk about the value of a team’s experience as if it’s the key to advancement in the dance. Someone will say, “They’ve got three senior starters, they’ve fought the wars and they know what it takes to survive in the tourney.” Or you’ll hear, “This team is still young. They need to learn how to win close games.”

I wish that college basketball experts would stop saying these things. They should’ve stopped saying them 28 years ago. The fact is, the age and experience of a tourney team has never correlated to overachievement in the tournament—and has actually been a big indicator of underachievement since 2006. There’s a reason for that. We’ll get to it in a minute.

I broke the 28-year, 64-team tourney into four seven year periods and did a PASE analysis of one- through six-seeded teams with the oldest starters and those with the youngest. I defined the oldest starters as teams with an older unit than four juniors and a senior. In the modern era, about 20 percent of the high-seeded teams have been this old. The youngest squads were defined as having younger than two sophomore and three junior starters. Another 20 percent of the one through six seeds are this young. (That’s handy.)

One thing is for sure: there were a lot more older teams in the early years of the modern dance than there are now—and vice versa for younger teams. From 1985 to 1998, 25 percent of the high seeds had old starting units; since then, only 17 percent meet our “oldest” threshold. Conversely, just 12 percent of the high seeds were young squads before 1999. Since then, 27 percent have been youngsters. And—yes—there’s a big reason for that…which I am teasing yet again.

Raw numbers of teams aside, how have the two starting age extremes performed against seed expectations over the course of the modern era? Here’ a gander:


Take a look at the first three seven-year periods first, then we’ll talk about the gigantic gulf since 2006. The fact is, the youngest squads have been pretty much outperforming the oldest squads from the get-go. They have solidly better PASE numbers in the first two seven-year periods, and only marginally lower numbers between 1999-2005. Overall, in the first 21 years of the 64-team dance, the oldest teams were +.029 PASE overachievers; the youngest beat expectations at a +.071 PASE clip. So much for the value of an older team.

Now, let’s talk about the monstrous difference between the oldest and youngest high seeds since 2006. There’s a darn good reason for that. After the 2005 tournament, the NBA instituted its one-and-done rule, forcing all players coming out of high school to participate in at least one year of college or European ball. Suddenly, players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett had to cool their heels in college.  The impact, as you can see from the chart, was immediate.

Since 2006, only one of the 29 oldest high-seeded teams has reached the Final Four. That would be North Carolina in 2009, which also cut down the nets. Meanwhile, 13 of the 42 youngest teams have made the semis—and three have been crowned champion (Florida in 2006, UConn in 2011 and Kentucky last year).

I understand why young teams have fared so well since the one-and-done rule: great players who might otherwise jump right to the NBA have had to showcase their talents for a year in college. But why are the oldest teams doing so badly? Here’s my theory: nowadays, having too many junior and senior starters just means you probably don’t have NBA-caliber players. Otherwise, they would’ve already jumped to the pros.

In the mongo-Excel sheet I make available late Selection Sunday night, you’ll get the age of every team’s starting unit (I actually go by the top five scorers). But I figured I do a quick check of the AP’s top ten to identify young, old and average-aged teams. Here’s what I found:

  1. Gonzaga (Average)
  2. Indiana (Average)
  3. Duke (Average)
  4. Kansas (Oldest)
  5. Georgetown (Youngest)
  6. Miami (Oldest*)
  7. Michigan (Youngest*)
  8. Louisville (Average)
  9. Kansas State (Average)
  10. Michigan State (Average)

If youth is to be served again this year, Georgetown and Michigan need to overachieve. The Wolverines have far and away the youngest top five of the elite teams (1 junior, 1 sophomore and 3 freshman). And Miami is the oldest (1 sophomore and 4 seniors). It will be interesting to see if the Hurricanes and the Jayhawks buck the trend toward experienced underachievement.

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5 Responses to Tourney Mythbusting: Do experienced teams really do better in the dance?

  1. Gary Diny says:


    Great work as always. Can’t believe we are only a week away from selection Sunday. Wondering if you have any data on deep run teams and the number of first round NBA draft picks. I remember that The Sporting News always noted to look at teams with more “potential” NBA players in the Sweet 16 and beyond. Their thought was it took elite players to get to the final four and win the championship.

    I think this goes along with your thoughts on older teams not having the elite NBA caliber talent in the more recent tournament years.


    • ptiernan says:

      I was going to do an analysis on the value of having an All-American…but I don’t have specific data on potential NBA-ers. The problem is, how do you determine that potential? Take Tim Hardaway of Michigan: would you say he’s a future NBA player? I think he’s a classic tweener myself.

  2. JFI says:

    I wonder if these numbers shake out differently at lower seeds. You make a good point about the lack of NBA-caliber players on older elite teams. But I tend to think experience is more of a factor for lightly-regarded mid-majors pulling an upset. The superior talent of elite teams wins out over the course of a full tournament, but it seems that the composure of senior-laden midmajors overcomes the talent of blue-chip squads with some frequency in the early rounds. I would be interested in seeing a PASE analysis by “age” of teams seeded 10-14.

    • ptiernan says:

      Excellent point, JFI. I’ve been focused on the high seeds in these analyses, because they’re the big advancers in the dance. That said, since 2006, the 32 “oldest” 7-12 seeded teams own a +.201 PASE. And the youngest middling seeds are -.166 PASE underperformers. As for the 10-14 breakdown, youngest own a +.008 PASE, oldest are +.062 PASE. Thanks!

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