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.