Every year, someone will talk about how much parity there is college basketball and most analytically-minded people will roll their eyes. I can’t speak for others, but in my case it’s because there really isn’t much change in parity from season to season. It just seems like a boilerplate statement used to generate a feel-good story, and it’s never hard to find a coach willing to support that line of thinking. “Our league is so hard to win this season. There is just so much depth in our league,” said coach of every team favored to win its league.
This season, though, might actually be worth talking about in this regard. There are a few things computers do better than humans in the college hoops world and measuring parity is one of them. And there is less of a difference between the second best team in college basketball and the 20th than we normally see.
Let’s look at the difference between the second-best and 20th-best teams (based on efficiency margin multiplied by 67/100):
- 2014, January 23 – 4.69
- 2003-13 Average – 6.21
This analysis ignores the top-ranked team because Arizona has a large cushion on the rest of the field right now. I’d guess that the number of times that #1 changes hands in the AP poll is largely what leads to pieces about parity. We haven’t had much of that so far and we’re getting deep enough into the season that if Arizona does lose they’ll still get some consideration to stay at #1, especially if Syracuse and Wichita State have lost by then.
What struck me about this article is the fact that the question of parity has even drawn Ken Pomeroy’s attention. As he admitted himself, Ken is not one to adopt these sorts of blanket positions lightly. It got me to thinking: I’ve been focused all season on the extraordinary weakness of the top teams. Is there a way to quantify both the relative quality and parity of this year’s so-called elite?
Here’s what I did: for the last ten tourneys (every year that I have KenPom data), I took the Pythag average of the top four teams and the teams ranked 17th through 20th. This would be theoretically equivalent to the top seeds and the five seeds. Then I plotted them on this chart:
As you can see, the average Pythag of the top four teams in 2014 is markedly lower than that of any year since KenPom data was available. The weakest top four before this season was in 2009. But in that year, the fifth-seed grouping was markedly weaker than the top teams—by a wider gap than this year.
In fact, the gap between the one-seed and fifth-seed groupings is tighter this season than is has been since 2007. That year, however, the top seeds were the second strongest of the 10 years, while the fifth seeds were the strongest. Curiously, this was the year that there were only three upsets…and the Madometer recorded its remarkably low reading of 4.1% madness. I guess that when you have unusually strong top seeds, a tight parity gap doesn’t lead to tourney craziness.
But what happens when the top teams are historically bad AND the middling seeds aren’t that much worse? I suppose that 2009 is the closest corollary—and it was surprisingly the second chalkiest dance in 29 years. Actually, in the last three tourneys, which were all remarkably crazy, the gap between the best teams and the fifth seeds has been the widest of the decade. It makes sense, I suppose, if you consider that weak middling seeds are primed for first-round upsets.
So maybe, with relatively strong four to six seeds, we won’t see as many 4v13, 5v12 and 6v11 upsets in round one. Maybe, the craziness will get delayed a round or two—and the top seeds will fall to some of these tough, underappreciated squads. Right now, the teams ranked 17 through 20 in Pythag are Oklahoma State, Ohio State, San Diego State and Iowa State. Can you see them surprising a one seed? I can.