Every year, a handful of elite teams come into the tourney with super thin benches—and the experts never fail to fret over their chances to survive the rigors of March Madness. I have to admit: I’ve been guilty of scratching teams from my bracket because I worried that their short rotations would catch up with them, either through fatigue or foul trouble. All things considered, teams with deeper benches have to be better off—right?
The numbers suggest otherwise. I did the same sort of analysis I’ve done in the other mythbusting pieces. I calculated the PASE performance of one through six seeds with the thinnest and deepest benches over four seven-year periods dating back to when the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The thinnest benches got more than 84 percent of their points from the top five scorers. The deepest got less than 74 percent.
What I found is that teams that rely the most on their top five players have a slightly better record of overachievement in the tourney. Here’s what the chart shows:
For the full 28 years of the modern era, the 131 most starter-reliant teams beat expectations at a +.052 PASE rate, while accounting for 18 Final Four combatants and eight champions. The 141 most bench-reliant teams play ever-so-slightly under expectations (-.004 PASE), account for 19 Final Four teams and five champs. As the chart shows, starter-reliant squads outperformed bench-reliant high seeds much more in the first half of the modern era than in the second half. In fact, an argument could be made that deep teams have played better than thin teams since 1999. But the PASE numbers are so close, it’s hard to say there’s a significant correlation either way between bench play and performance.
One thing is for sure though: when it comes to top seeds, starter-reliant teams fare much better in the tourney. Of the 17 one seeds that get more than 84 percent of their points from their top five scorers, 10 (59 percent) have reached the Final Four and five have cut down the nets. Overall, their PASE has been a sizeable +.507—more than half a game overachievement per team. Meanwhile, only 10 of 31 bench-reliant teams (32 percent) have made the Final Four and just four have won the tourney. Their overall PASE is a disappointing -.278.
The bottom line: while the PASE numbers for one through six seeds are too close to call the importance of bench play a myth, it’s clear that it isn’t a significant advantage. If anything, starter-reliant teams perform better in the tourney—and that’s particularly true of the top seeds.