We’re about 50 hours away from Selection Sunday. So that means we’re about 50 hours and one minute away from some college basketball pundit spouting a completely unsupported axiom about what it takes to make a deep tourney run. You’ll hear all sorts of B.S. (hey! aren’t those the initials for Bracket Science?) over the next week. And we’ve created this Mythbuster series to separate the facts from the fiction.
Here’s one argument some former coach is sure to advance: “Well, Jay, they’ve got a senior-laden squad, they know their system inside and out, so you know they’ll be dangerous.” There’s an assumption in a lot of sports that veterans have a natural advantage of youngsters. Is it true in the tourney?
I looked at team age in two ways: 1) by the number of seniors in the starting lineup, and 2) by the average class of the starting unit, where a freshman equals one, a sophomore equals two and so on. Then I did a standard PASE analysis of one through six seeds over three nine-year periods—1987 to 1995, 1996 to 2004 and 2005 to 2013. (I don’t have team age data for 1985 and 1986). The reason I stuck with the top six seeds is that they’re the likely deep advancers in the tourney. And I broke the analysis into three eras because, with the one-and-done rule and other changes in college basketball, there could be a trend in the team age dynamic.
In fact, for both the analyses I did, there is a trend—and it’s decidedly against older teams. Let’s look first at the PASE performance comparing teams with different numbers of senior starters:
Teams with more than two senior starters have performed progressively worse against seed expectations over time. In the earliest era, they were slight +.077 PASE overperformers. Then they dropped in the middle years to -.148 PASE underachievement. And in recent years, they’ve fallen short of seed expectations by nearly half a game per tourney. Meanwhile, the teams with no senior starters have always been overachievers, as have those with one senior starter. Since 2005, however, the senior-less teams are clearly the best performers of the four groups.
The story is basically the same when we run the numbers based on the average age of starters. The youngest teams (averaging less than 2.8 on the 4-point scale) were narrow underachievers way back between 1987 and 1995. But since then, they’ve been the biggest overachievers of the three groups. Meanwhile, the oldest teams (greater than 3.0—or all juniors—on the 4-point scale), were decent overperformers early, but have been getting gradually worse over time. Check it out:
Interestingly, the youngest teams used to be the only age group that didn’t meet seed expectations. Now, they’re the only age group that exceeds them.
The Verdict: Do not listen to any expert claiming that a squad of grizzled veterans is better prepared for a deep tourney run. The evidence doesn’t support it. Let’s face it: in this one-and-done era, the teams with older starters are less likely to have star talent. Otherwise, that talent would’ve already jumped to the NBA.