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March 16, 2011
Sighs of Texas
Measuring March Woes

by John Gasaway


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Texas is that no one's talking about them. But how can you not?

Start with the fact that even at this late date Ken Pomeroy's laptop still regards the Longhorns as the nation's fourth-best team. Certainly Rick Barnes' team lost some games starting in mid-February, but UT did at least make it to the Big 12 title game. It's not particularly their fault that the consensus second-best team in the country, the Kansas Jayhawks, plays in the same conference. In fact on a possession-for-possession basis Texas was equal if not superior to KU in Big 12 play.

So how come no one expects the Horns to do anything in the tournament as a No. 4 seed? History -- as in very recent history. Though Barnes has in fact reached two of the last five Elite Eights, people tend to have short memories. And the most recent memory under "Texas in the NCAA tournament" is of the Longhorns losing to Wake Forest in the round of 64 last year. Considering that last year's Horns were ranked No. 1 in the nation in January, it was a very long fall. After a 17-0 start, Texas went 7-9, entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed, and promptly lost to a program that was about to fire its head coach.

Of course the Longhorns aren't alone when it comes to disappointments in March. For better or worse teams like Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are also commonly perceived as having underperformed in recent NCAA tournaments. The Panthers haven't been to the Final Four since 1941, while the Irish haven't glimpsed the Sweet 16 since 2003. That's a lot of March heartbreak -- all of which can be found on the upper seed lines of the 2011 bracket. We've seen that Texas is a 4 this year. Pitt secured a No. 1 seed, while Notre Dame received a No. 2 seed. Something's got to give, right?

Well, maybe. Let's borrow the measurement known as performance against seed expectation (PASE), which is based on how many wins each seed line has produced since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. How do Texas, Pitt, and Notre Dame measure up to their expectations? I'm going to start somewhat arbitrarily with the 2004 tournament, since 2003-04 was Jamie Dixon's first season as head coach of the Panthers. Over the past seven tournaments, here's how well these three teams have performed relative to their seeds.

Expected vs. actual NCAA tournament wins 2004-10

       Exp.     Actual
Texas  10.3       10
Pitt   12.2       10      
ND      3.6        1

At first glance these numbers might be a little misleading. After all, Pitt and, especially, Texas look like they're performing pretty close to expectation, right? Why can't people get off these teams backs?

Keep in mind that the "expected" wins figure is the average of what all teams have done in that seed position since 1985. And no one wants to be average in March. Tom Izzo, for example would be expected to have won just eight or nine games over the past seven tournaments given the seeds Michigan State has received. In fact the Spartans have won 16 games and been to three Final Fours over that span.

What these numbers tell me is that Texas, Pitt, and Notre Dame have found three different ways to break their fans' hearts. With the Longhorns the disappointment often starts before the tournament. Barnes' teams last year and in 2011 raised expectations that they'd be able to attain higher seeds than the No. 8 and No. 4 that they were eventually given by the selection committee. By the time the Horns arrive at the tournament, however, they've already been branded as a disappointment and little is expected of them. Last year that turned out to be a correct assessment.

On the other hand Pitt's brandishing its second No. 1 seed in three seasons. The Panthers, of course, were just a Scottie Reynolds layup away from the 2009 Final Four. Instead Villanova won the game and went to Detroit while Pitt went home. Still, 2009 at least showed that Dixon's team could break new ground. Before that tournament the Panthers hadn't reached the Elite Eight since, you guessed it, 1941 (when the entire field consisted of just eight teams).

Then there's Notre Dame. The Irish have been to just three tournaments since 2004, each time as either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. And in those three visits Mike Brey's team has won just one game. Twice they lost in the round of 64 to a lower-seeded opponent, including last year's one-point loss to Old Dominion. Once they lost to a higher seed -- by 20. In other words Notre Dame has provided first-weekend heartbreak just about every way it can be provided.

The question now is whether these three heartbreakers can parlay their high seeds in this year's bracket into some long-anticipated March success. Pitt's in the best position of the three to do so quite simply because they hold a No. 1 seed. The Panthers' chances of reaching the Final Four have been estimated at roughly one-in-three by Pomeroy. By the same token as a No. 2 seed Notre Dame appears to have an excellent shot at reaching their first Sweet 16 in eight years. If the Irish can survive an opening game against Akron they will meet either Texas A&M or Florida State. Both are solid teams that play tough defense, but neither was able to score points at a rate equivalent to their league's average in conference play.

Which brings us back to Texas. The Longhorns open against Oakland, and while UT figures to prevail we have definitely seen weaker No. 13 seeds than the Golden Grizzlies. If Barnes' team does indeed advance they'll face the winner of Memphis vs. Arizona. Texas would be favored, both by the committee's seeding and by me, in a match-up against Derrick Williams and the Wildcats. Then again if Memphis were to somehow knock off Sean Miller's team it would make the Horns' path to the second weekend far less taxing. Note for example that the Tigers were actually outscored by their opponents during the C-USA regular season.

Either way, Texas has a surprisingly good chance to overcome their recent history and make it to the second weekend. If that happens people will, at last, be talking about the Longhorns in March in a more positive light.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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