Younger teams better in dance since one-and-done rule

I’m going to write a series of blogs early this hoops season that examine the big trends in tourney performance over the last few years. My stats on the dance go all the way back to 1985, the first year of the 64-team tourney era. But while the structure of the tournament is substantially the same as it was 28 years ago (don’t get me started on this 68 team business), the game itself is different. And the key indicators of tourney performance have changed as well.

Team age is one of the big factors that has changed. Unlike many of the other factors I’ll examine, you can point to the year that youth gained supremacy over experience. 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 was immediate. Before the 2006 tournament, the youngest teams were the biggest underachievers. Since then, they are by far the biggest overachievers. Here’s what I did to validate that: I took every teams’ five highest scorers (my unscientific way of determining starting five) and assigned them a point value for their age class—freshmen got a 1, sophomores a 2, juniors a 3 and seniors a 4. Then I averaged the point values across the starting five. A team with a 3.0 value would thus have an average top five of juniors. Practically speaking, that might mean they started a freshman, sophomore and three seniors. But this is a way to compare relative age.

What did I find? Not only are a higher percentage of the favorably seeded teams (those with seeds one through six) younger, but they overachieve at a higher rate and get to the Final Four more often. Here’s the breakdown of teams seeded one to six with a starting five whose average class is younger than 2.6 (three sophomores and two juniors or younger) before and after the one-and-done rule was instituted:

Here’s what the numbers say: before the one-and-done era, only 53 of the 456 teams seeded one through six (11.6%) had top five players younger than a 2.6 class average. Just 24 of those 53 teams managed to beat seed expectations (that’s what SOAR, or “seed overachievement rate,” measures). And only eight of the 53 (15.1%) were able to reach the Final Four—as noted in the ARFF column above.  Altogether, the 53 teams had an underachieving performance against seed expectations of -.041. If SOAR is the frequency of overachievement, think of PASE as the degree.

Now…contrast the performance of younger teams before the one-and-done rule and after. Since 2006, a higher percentage of favored seeds have been younger teams (31 of 168, 18.5%), they’ve overachieved more often (18 of 31, 58.1%), reached the Final Four at a much higher rate (13 of 31, 41.9%)—and own a whopping +.596 PASE. That’s like beating seed expectations by more than half a game per tourney.

It used to be that we’d look at junior- and senior-laden teams and think that their experience would serve them well in the dance. 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. I’ll leave you with one last thought. Before the one-and-done rule, only four of 21 champions had a starting five with a class average less than 2.6. Since that rule, four of seven have been that young.

A quick check of the top ten as of Black Friday shows that there are just three teams that have starting fives with a class average younger than 2.6. Here’s how they break down:

  1. Indiana (Older)
  2. Louisville (Older)
  3. Ohio State (Older)
  4. Michigan (Younger)
  5. Duke (Older)
  6. Syracuse (Older)
  7. Florida (Older)
  8. Kentucky (Younger)
  9. North Carolina (Younger)
  10. 10. Arizona (Older)

If youth is to be served again this year, it looks like Kentucky, Michigan or North Carolina are going to be the ones to do it.

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