Armed with the last 11 years of Selection Sunday data based on KenPom’s new mismatch-free formula, I’ve been doing some analysis into what I call the “quality curve” of the 52 teams. The more I look at the numbers, the more convinced I am that, while the relative quality of the tourney field has some impact on whether the dance will play out chalky or chaotic, it’s the mis-seedings that have a bigger influence on tourney madness.
If teams were seeded strictly according to Pythag, the first four teams on the KenPom list would be one seeds, the next four would be two seeds, and so on. The top 52 teams would thus occupy the top 13 seed positions. (I’m ignoring the longshot 14-16 seeds for this analysis.) I ranked the Pythag values of the top 52 teams. Then I calculated the averages in 13 four-team groupings for the 2007 tourney, when the Madometer read an all-time low 4.1% deviation of higher-seed supremacy, and the 2013 tourney, when the dance reached record 20.8% madness. Finally, I did the same calculations for today’s top 52 KenPom teams. Then I plotted the results on a line chart. Here’s what it looked like:
If the Selection Committee had used KenPom data to seed the 2007 and 2013 tourneys, and did the same for this year, the three quality curves wouldn’t be dramatically different. There are, however, some differences that might’ve foretold the chalkiness of 2007 and the chaos of 2013. You may have to squint at the lines above, but this is what I see:
- 2007 (in blue) would have slightly weaker one seeds than 2013 (in orange), stronger two seeds, markedly weaker three and four seeds, and similar five and six seed.. You might conclude from this that the one and two seeds would have less trouble in Sweet 16 matchups against their most likely seed rivals. In fact, the top two seeds were 7-0 in 2007 and 2-3 in 2013.
- While five and six seeds would almost be the same, 2007 would have stronger 11 seeds and slightly better 12 seeds. This might be expected to lead to more 5v12 and 6v11 upsets in 2007. But it didn’t work out that way. In those matchups, the higher seed was 6-2 in 2007 and 4-4 in 2013. We’ll get an idea why in a minute.
- Seven through 10 seeds would be generally weaker in 2007, making second round matchups versus one and two seeds easier. Indeed, one and two seeds were 7-1 in round two of the 2007 dance, and 5-1 against those same seeds last year.
Of course, the teams weren’t seeded according to Pythag in 2007 and 2013—and they won’t be this year either. Instead “mis-seedings” contributed to easier paths for the highers seeds in 2007 and tougher upset matchups in 2013. Take a look at this chart comparing the average Pythag values of the top 13 seeds in 2007 with their 2013 counterparts:
The way the seeding shook out, the top seeds in 2007 (in blue) were actually a touch stronger than the 2013 top seeds (in orange), as were the two seeds. And the three, four and five seeds were all historically weak—much, much weaker than average (in white). That paved the way for seven one and two seeds and a single three seed in the 2007 Elite Eight.
As for the 4v13, 5v12 and 6v11 matchups in the two years, while it’s true that fours and fives were weak in 2007, so were 12 and 13 seeds. And six seeds were stronger than average that year, while 11 seeds were considerably weaker. The result: the higher seeds were 10-2 in the first round of the 2007 tourney.
Now let’s look at 2013. Notice how much stronger three, four and five seeds are compared to 2007? This might explain why we saw four teams with these seeds in the Elite Eight last year. But there were also a good number of 4v13, 5v12 and 6v11 upsets in 2013. The higher seeds were just 7-5 in these matchups. That might be because, the way the seeding fell out, 11 and 12 seeds were remarkably strong. You got a hint that this might be the case in the “top-52” curve above, the seed selections amplified the strength of these seeds.
So what does all this have to do with 2014? The key takeaway is that, while we might be able to make some generalizations about the relative madness of the tourney from the top-52 curve (the first chart), we really have to wait and see where the Selection Committee slots the teams into the bracket.
If I look at the red line in the first chart (that shows today’s top 52 KenPom teams in 13 four-team averages), I see these things:
- Top seeds are much weaker than either 2007 or 2013, two and three seeds are about the same as last year, and four seeds are nearly as bad as the 2007 crew. This says to me that, while the top seeds may skate by soft four and five seeds, they could have trouble against two and three seeds.
- 11, 12 and 13 seeds are all weaker than 2007 and 2013. And their higher seed opponents look at least average. Does this mean that we won’t have as many 4v13, 5v12 and 6v11 shockers as we had last year?
- Six, seven and eight seeds are all slightly stronger than the other two tourneys. Does that spell trouble for the higher seeds in round two?
None of these questions can really be answered until the teams get seeded and we have the kind of view you see in the second chart. I’ll say one thing though: bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have Arizona, Florida and Wichita State as their top seeds, with a disagreement between Kansas (Joe) and Villanova (Jerry). Those are the first, third, sixth and either seventh or eight best Pythag teams. So…it’s likely that the actual top seeds will be much weaker than the already weak “optimal” top seeds.
And this is frightening.