Mythbuster #1: “The tougher the schedule, the better the tourney.”

Remember back in the 2010-11 season, when Tom Izzo scheduled the world’s most grueling run of non-conferences games? The Spartans played Connecticut, Washington, Duke, Syracuse and Texas. They were 8-4 before they had even started the meat grinder of Big Ten play. Then they dropped six of their first 11 conference tilts and their record stood at 13-10. The prevailing opinion among pundits then was that Izzo would get off the bubble and that all those tough games would have the Spartans poised for a surprise tourney run. To this day, you’ll hear college basketball analysts insist that the teams with the tougher schedules are best prepared for deep tourney runs.

Is it true?

This is the first in a series of posts on what I’m calling “tourney mythbusting.” I’ll examine some of the common platitudes that pundits spout about the dance and determine which are valid and which are fallacies.

When it comes to playing tough schedules heading in to the tourney, the numbers suggest a Goldilocks phenomenon. To a point, the tougher a team’s schedule, the better they perform in the dance. But the teams saddled with the very toughest schedules actually underperform in the tourney. I divided the 320 1-4 seeds that have played in the tournament since SOS was born into eight roughly equal groups. Then I calculated the PASE of each group. Here’s what I found:


The high-seeded teams playing the softest schedules were in fact the biggest underachievers. Only 24 of 58 contending seeds (41%) with SOS rankings worse than 50 beat seed expectations. Overall, they underachieved at a -.273 PASE rate and made the Final Four 10% of the time. That said, three of them—Florida in 2006 (#66 SOS), UCLA in 1995 (#80) and Arkansas in 1994 (#62—cut down the nets.

High-seeded teams with SOS rankings between 16 and 50 are mostly overachievers, but the trend certainly isn’t linear. Of the thre groupings that make up these rankings, the 36-50 group owns the best PASE (+.266), the highest SOAR (44%) and the most champions (five). The grouping with the toughest SOS, the 16-25 set, have an underachieving PASE (-.023) and only two champs.

High seeds with schedules rated from the 15th to the sixth hardest would seem to support the theory that tough competition yields tourney success. The 11-15 group beats expectations at a +.110 PASE clip, while the 6-10 set does even better. More than half the teams beat expectations (22 of 42), almost one in three reach the Final Four (13) and they own a strong +.312 PASE. More importantly, six champions come from this group, including Louisville last year, Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2010.

So if a hard schedule leads to a deep tourney run, a really hard schedule must yield even better performance, right? Um…no. The high seeds with the very toughest schedule in the land, among the top five in SOS, actually fall solidly below expectations. 21 of 46 teams beat seed-projected win totals (46%), 11 reached the Final Four—and just one cut down the nets. That would be UConn in 2011. Some of the more notorious underachievers in this category include Duke in 2012, who lost to Lehigh in a 2v15 shocker, and top seed Kansas in 2010, second-round losers to ninth-seeded Northern Iowa.

Verdict: It’s important to play a reasonably strong schedule heading into the tourney. But the evidence suggests that breaking your back with a brutal schedule actually might wear you down. In fact, the 18 teams that have come into the dance with the #1 SOS in the land are -.518 PASE underperformers, have only made one Final Four…and have never cut down the nets.

Oh yeah. And remember that Spartan team I was talking about? They squeaked into the dance as a ten seed. Then they promptly lost in round one.

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5 Responses to Mythbuster #1: “The tougher the schedule, the better the tourney.”

  1. Matt says:

    So, this is the year to avoid Kansas…who Jerry Palm says has played the toughest schedule in 20 years

  2. Tyler says:

    Is there a strong correlation between high SOS and low scoring margin? And since we know scoring margin is a key predictor of tournament success, I guess it’s not too surprising that really high SOS isn’t a good thing. I bet, though, that you’d get one of the best predictors by combining SOS and scoring margin. but in some ways that’s what the BPI is about.

    I think another cause of underperformance of top SOS teams is that the committee seeds them too high in the bracket, rewarding them for the toughest of schedules and overlooking some losses because their SOS was so high

    • ptiernan says:

      Here’s a quick analysis of teams with SOS 1 to 5 and high margins (>12 ppg): 19 teams, 6 FF, 1 championship, -.274 PASE). Now, teams ranked 6-10 in SOS with >12 ppg margin: 17 teams, 9 FF, 6 championships, +.978 PASE). Interesting. As for BPI versus RPI versus KenPom versus etc. I did a blogpost last year that showed, at least as predictive models, they all weren’t that much better than just picking the higher seed to the FF and going with the higher margin team from then on. I should redo that study to incorporate last year.

  3. Taylor says:

    Kansas wasn’t champion in 2012, we were runner up to Kentucky.


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