Mythbuster #3: “To succeed in March, you need to be hot coming into the dance.”

I’ve heard three different basketball analysts this weekend proclaim, in one way or the other, that momentum was critical to tourney success. The value of pre-tournament momentum isn’t as clear-cut, however, as the pundits would lead you to believe. For one thing, it’s hard to define who’s hot and who’s not coming into the dance. For another, the dynamics of the tournament have changed in one very significant way over the last decade. And finally, momentum can have a bigger or smaller impact depending on the nature of the team. Let me explain.

There are a couple of ways I measure momentum in my Bracket Science database. For all 1856 teams in the 64-team bracket era, I’ve tracked the number of wins tallied in the last ten pre-tourney games. This includes games played in conference tournaments. The other way I measure momentum is by tracking each team’s winning streak coming into the dance.

If you just look at the overall numbers for “wins in last 10,” you’ll see that the impact of momentum on tourney performance is mixed. I calculated the performance against seed expectations (PASE) of one through twelve seeds with succeeding numbers of wins in their last 10 games. Here’s what I found:

  • Fewer than six wins in last 10: +.099 PASE
  • Six wins in last 10: -.087 PASE
  • Seven wins in last 10: -.020 PASE
  • Eight wins in last 10: -.057 PASE
  • Nine wins in last 10: +.102 PASE
  • Undefeated in last 10: +.025 PASE

The highest class of overachievers is teams with nine wins in their last 10 pre-tourney tilts (+.102). But they don’t beat seed expectations that much more than the coldest teams with fewer than six wins in their last ten (+.099). And teams that are perfect in their last 10 perform barely over expectations (+.025 PASE). Every other class—six, seven and eight wins—plays below seed expectations. That includes the hottest teams, the ones undefeated in their last 10 dance tune-ups (just +.015).

Of course, looking at the overall “last 10” numbers masks an important distinction between teams. The numbers for Big Six conference teams (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC) are significantly different than those of Mid-Major and Small conference teams. That’s, in part, because Big Six teams are more likely to get at-large bids even though they’re struggling, while Mid-Majors and Smalls rarely make the dance limping down the stretch run. Most need to win their conference tourney. Just look at this chart:


The impact of momentum for Mid-Majors and Smalls (on the right side of the chart) doesn’t seem to follow much of a pattern. The teams winning fewer than six games in their last 10 are solid underachievers, but they aren’t the worst. That distinction is reserved for six-win teams (-.260 PASE). However, non-conference teams with one extra win are the only overachieving group. And the hottest Mid-Majors and Smalls? They’re all underachievers. Odd.

The value of “last ten game” momentum is a more pronounced for Power conference teams, but still not exactly linear. Squads from Power conferences that limp into the dance with less than six wins actually beat expectations at a strong +.135 PASE rate. By my way of thinking, these teams play in tough conferences with some of the best teams in the country, so four or five wins in the final 10 games may not necessarily be a sign that they’re playing bad basketball. They just could’ve run into a rugged scheduling stretch.

I’m not sure how that line of reasoning fits in with the fact that Power teams with six, seven or eight wins in their last ten are all slight underachievers. But there you have it. At least the hottest Big Six teams are also the biggest overachievers. Teams with nine wins in their last ten (+.271 PASE) and perfect stretch runs (+.165 PASE) solidly beat seed-projected win totals.

Now let’s look at the impact of winning streaks on performance in the dance. Here, the numbers are somewhat different from the chart we just saw. I broke down Big Six and Mid-Majors/Smalls into five streak categories: a losing streak of two or more games, a single loss before the dance, a winning streak between one and three games, a streak between four and seven, and a streak of eight or more wins. Here’s how the PASE numbers broke down:


Just as with “wins in last 10,” the worst Mid-Major and Small conference teams are the coldest heading into the dance. Teams with a two-game losing streak or more are massive -.254 PASE underachievers. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem to matter what sort of streak a non-Power conference has coming into the dance. Whether they’ve lost a single game heading into the dance, own a modest win streak or are on a long run of success. non-Big Six teams all underperform against expectations at virtually the same rate.

The numbers, again, are different for Big Six teams. Teams with a losing streak of two or more games narrowly fall short of expectations, while those with a single loss heading into the dance slightly beat seed-projected win totals. ] But think about it: most Big Six teams come into the dance on the heels of one loss—the ousting from their conference tourney. There’s no shame in that…and it certainly doesn’t suggest that the team is cold. In fact, 64% of 1-12 seed Power teams come into the tourney with one loss (568 of 881). Only 10% (85) have had an legitimate losing streak.

What’s interesting is that teams with 1-3 straight wins are by far the biggest underachievers (-.183 PASE) among Power schools. What gives? Well, many of these teams won those three games in their conference tourney. So they peaked after the regular season. But this short spurt of success didn’t carry over onto the national stage. Curious. It’s the 4-7 win streak teams that are the big overachievers (+.196 PASE). They carried strong late regular season play through their conference tourney and into the national dance. It seems, however, that too long a win streak might subject Big Six to the law of averages. They’re slight underperformers (-.032 PASE).

The win streak numbers for Big Six teams mask a big change that occurred in 2002. That’s the year that the Big Ten and Pac-10 joined the rest of the Power conferences in having a post-season tourney. The numbers before and after this year are markedly different. Take a look:


Before every Big Six conference had its own tourney, coming to the national dance with a losing streak wasn’t necessarily a sign of an underachiever—probably more an indication of a tough late-season schedule. Now, Big Six teams with two or more losses are massive underachievers. Single-loss teams still play pretty much to expectations.

As far as Power conference winning streaks go, every team since 2002 that has 1-3 straight victories did so just by getting hot in their conference tournament. But the 20 teams in this category are big-time underperformers. Meanwhile, the 4-7 win Power teams—the ones that were hot going into their conference tourney and carried that momentum through—are even bigger overachievers since 2002 (+.441 PASE). They’re the squads to keep your eye on. Of course, recent Big Six teams with long winning streaks aren’t too shabby either. They’re +.232 PASE overachievers. Curiously, these teams were underachievers before all the big conferences went to year-end tourneys.

I did one other momentum analysis out of curiosity. I looked at two types of teams: 1) those with records over .800 who lost at least three of their last ten games, and 2) those with records under .750 who won nine or ten of their last ten tilts. The teams in group one were playing great, but stumbled down the stretch. The teams in group two weren’t playing all that well, but ramped it up heading into the dance. Not surprisingly, group one underachieved at a -.101 PASE rate. Group two beat expectations with a +.095 PASE.

The Verdict: While hot Mid-Majors and Smalls don’t necessarily beat seed expectations, hot Big Six teams are certainly overperformers. But it isn’t enough for a Power conference team just to get hot in time to win their tourney (think Kansas last year or Vanderbilt in 2012); they need to have carried their momentum from late in the regular season through their conference tournament. In short, be selective in the teams you credit for having momentum.

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16 Responses to Mythbuster #3: “To succeed in March, you need to be hot coming into the dance.”

  1. Tyler says:

    Great article.
    My guess why power conference teams with only 1-5 wins out of their last 10 games beat seed expectations is because they got penalized seed-wise for faltering down the stretch more than they should have, considering they’re probably quite good teams if they still made the dance while losing all those games late

    • larry k says:

      I like your theory here Tyler. wouldnt it be great if either:
      (1) the NCAA selection committee were required to give their rationale or basis for each team’s given seed, or
      (2) cameras/recording-devices were allowed in the selection room when everything was being decided. i dont think this is so far fetched an idea, as can be witnessed by the live video now available from within the ‘war rooms’ of many NFL teams during their draft day.


      • Blazer! says:

        Doubt that they will ever do that. The selection commitee are never to trust in terms of seeding, or anything period. I suspect they intentionally mis-seed teams to ruin everyone’s bracket. Lately, it is getting easier to spot upsets, just you need to find more than one crazy upsets.

    • John says:

      I agree. I those teams faltering down the stretch probably get the last few spots in the tourney. It seems they always play with a chip on their shoulder. Think of Missouri in 2002. Plus with the low seeds they aren’t expected to win any games.

  2. Tommy says:

    KU last year won 10 of its last 11 games going into the tournament. Problem was, that the one loss happened to be in the regular-season finale, so when the Jayhawks won three straight to win the Big 12 tournament, they fell into that 1-3 game win streak underachievers group.

    A good warning: A team could be ultra hot going into the tournament, but based on the winning streak, might actually fall into an underachievers group based on where that one loss came.

  3. Gary Diny says:

    So many things to consider, but how often does the previous game affect the next game for teams. Certainly getting on a roll and winning 6 straight is necessary to win the NCAA tourney. TEams that have shown the ability to do that against good comeptition are in good position to do so. BUT it will come down to game to game matchups in the NCAA. 2011 UCONN is an example: undefeated prior to Big East conference play, struggled in conference, got hot (white hot) in the BIg East tourney and continued on through to the NCAA title. 2013 Michigan was also like that. Might be Wisconsin this year???

  4. Blazer! says:

    I agree, momentum doesn’t tell much. What Gary Diny points out, 2011 UCONN was an example. And look at what happened to 11 seeded Minnesota of last march. Lost 7 out of 10 last games prior to the ncaa tournament, yet defeated 6 seeded UCLA. Even cold streak teams can pull a upset or two.

    • ptiernan says:

      And…to add to Gary’s point…Minnesota was the worst possible matchup for UCLA. The Bruins struggled to prevent teams from grabbing offensive boards, while the Gophers were one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.

  5. Blazer! says:

    One to watch out: “filler teams”. These are power house teams seeded 9-12 that did not get an automatic bid; they are in just to fill up the bracket spot. Their records aren’t impressive, but they get in regardless. Last season’s team include: #9 Villanova, #10 Oklahoma, #11 Minnesota, #10 Iowa State, #10 Colorado, #12 California, and #10 Cincinnati (not going to count #9 Missouri). How much success do these team has? Last season, they went 3-4.

  6. Gary Diny says:

    Some of these middling teams that are successful early in the season, then suffer through a conference schedule where teams really know their system and how to expose weaknesses, when getting back outside of their conference face teams less familiar with them. Short turn around games can allow these middling teams to move on in spite of their flaws. Poor coaching is unable to expose their flaws and a short NCAA tourney run results for some.

    It might be interesting to look at teams that have a really good pre-conference record, then struggle in conference and see how they fare out of these “momentum” analysis.

    March is here soon and getting a bit excited to pour through the info. Sucks I have a big presentation in early April that I need to get past….will leach some time from the needed number crunching.

    • Andy says:

      That is an interesting point, to which I would like to bring up the other side. What about the teams that struggle in non-conference play, but excel in their conference? Obviously, that will be the case for a bunch of the smaller conference teams that end up with 13-16 seeds, but one team in a big conference really sticks out this year in that regard: Virginia. In their case, all of the advanced metrics like the Hoos, as Ken Pomeroy currently has them at #4, Jeff Sagarin at #10, and the BPI at #12. In fact, ESPN ran the top 5 BPI’s since January last night during one game, and Virginia was #1 at 94.0, even above Arizona (who was 92.6, probably a function of their recent offensive slump). But this is still a team that played three locks for the NCAA tournament in the non-conference, and two bubble teams, for a total of five potential tournament teams. Their record against these teams is a scary 1-4, including a blowout loss at Tennessee (who is in grave danger of missing the tournament). Yet, here they are on a roll in ACC play, now leading the conference after Syracuse’s recent slump with a good shot at winning it.

      What do we make on a team like that? Have they figured things out and are ready to make a run, or are they only playing teams whom they are familiar with on a yearly basis and thus know better how to prepare? Or could it be a combination of both?

      • Tyler says:

        As a Virginia fan I might be biased in this answer, but after having watched every single one of UVA’s games, I can honestly say they are a different team after the Tennessee lost. UVA retooled their offensive system, going back to the playbook/style used in 2011-2012, and I think that’s been helpful and shows that something actually, concretely changed with this team between the OOC and in-conference. But the most important difference in this team has been chemistry and confidence. UVA’s turnover rate was really bad in the OOC, but in conference play it’s been amazing (our Freshman PG leads the ACC by a wide margin in Ast/TO ratio in ACC play) – and when you play at a slow pace and limit possessions like the Hoos do, turnovers can be killer. UVA has 3 new starters this year, and a bunch more depth than anytime in Tony Bennett era, and I think it really did take some time for the new rotation to be figured out and gel. Our defense has always been very good, but our rotations and screen-hedging and help-side defense that’s so critical in Bennett’s packline system has benefitted a lot because of the chemistry developed. Also, the emergence of SG Malcolm Brogdon as a consistent scorer (double-figures in all ACC games, which is an amazing streak) alongside Joe Harris has been huge.

        • ptiernan says:

          The OE numbers have definitely improved. Big game today againast Syracuse, Tyler. It’s my one to watch for today. What about your vaunted Wheaton Thunder? I lived in Wheaton for a couple years way back when.

          • Tyler says:

            Did you really! I’m loving it there (a sophomore currently). And Wheaton has a pretty good basketball team of their own, and I try to catch the bigger games we play. But my heart still resides is D1 with my Cavaliers. I was very impressed with the game against Syracuse yesterday – I think it pointed to all the areas that make UVA such a good team and caused the turnaround after the Tennessee game: balanced scoring, low turnovers, great rebounding, and tremendous heart. I was worried when Cooney and Cuse got hot from 3 in the end of the first half and beginning of the second, since hot 3pt shooting is the Packline’s achilles heel, but I was and continue to be impressed with the consistency and determination this UVA squad plays with. They’ve 100% bought in to Bennett’s philosophy and the team effort principle. Do you think UVA could land a 2 seed? Also, what is your take on Bennett’s NCOY chances?

          • ptiernan says:

            If they’re not a two, a three is fine. And they won’t slide to a four, which is a much tougher seed. As for Bennett’s NCOY chances, you’d have to like them. McDermott is going to get some consideration, simply for the Shockers’ undefeated accomplishment. Go Thunder!

  7. Ed says:

    Does anyone have a chart for of current team’s momentum coming into March Madness?

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