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November 23, 2011
Tourney Tested
Does Success Now Matter in March?

by Kevin Pelton


When it came to tournaments, last season's Connecticut Huskies truly could not be beat. Jim Calhoun's charges played in three tournaments--the Maui Invitational this time a year ago, the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies swept all three, going 14-0 against some of the toughest competition on their schedule. The only team that could rival Connecticut's tournament prowess was Butler, which won the Diamond Head Classic and the Horizon League Tournament before suffering its first single-elimination loss to UConn in the championship game.

The success enjoyed by both Connecticut and Butler presents an obvious hypothesis: Teams that succeed in the crucible of preseason tournaments tend to fare better in the NCAA tournament. A cursory glance at the list of recent champions seems to support that notion. Of the last seven teams to win the NCAA tournament, five won preseason tournaments. Three of them, including UConn, won the Maui Invitational, which is good news for the winner of tonight's Duke-Kansas tilt. And since the 2007-08 Jayhawks did not play in a preseason tournament, just once in the last seven seasons has the eventual champion lost a game on a neutral floor before conference play. (That lone exception is the 2006-07 Florida Gators, who lost to Kansas in OT in the Las Vegas Invitational.)

Of course, looking at a sample of seven teams is insufficient to really answer the question of whether tournament success in November matters in March. To try to come up with more definitive evidence, I went through the winners of every major preseason tournament over the last decade. My definition of "major" was subjective and varied by year; for example, the Great Alaska Shootout used to be a major tournament but no longer qualifies because newer tournaments have usurped the Shootout's prominence. Looking at NCAA tournament performance offers a natural cutoff because, naturally, teams that don't make the tournament can't be used. However, we're also not interested in situations where one team is clearly the class of the field, like Kentucky's win in the 2009 Cancun Challenge. I also required the tournament to involve at least eight teams, ruling out competitions like the CBE Classic in which each team plays just two games.

To evaluate tournament performance, I used the familiar concept of wins versus expectation. A top seed is expected to win four games if things go according to seed, while a No. 7 seed is expected to win a single game and any wins are unexpected for teams seeded ninth or lower. This method is inexact, but good enough for the purposes of aggregating performance in a study like this.

Maui Invitational

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2010    Connecticut       3    6    4
2009    Gonzaga           8    1    0
2008    North Carolina    1    6    2
2007    Duke              2    1   -2
2006    UCLA              2    4    1
2005    Connecticut       1    3   -1
2004    North Carolina    1    6    2
2003    Dayton           10    0    0
2002    Indiana           7    1    0
2001    Duke              1    2   -2

Average WVE: +0.4

It should come as no surprise that Maui annually draws the best field of competitors in the nation. More than half the time, the winner of the Invitational has drawn a top-two seed. Once we account for that, Maui winners aren't really much more successful in the NCAA tournament than teams of similar seeds. The positive wins versus expectation total comes largely from the fact that champions always score at least +2. Oddly, the least successful Maui champion in March has been Duke, which got knocked out early in both 2001 and 2007, a bad omen should the Blue Devils win tonight.

NIT Season Tip-Off

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2010    Tennessee         9    0    0
2009    Duke              1    6    2
2008    Oklahoma          2    3    0
2007    Texas A&M         9    1    1
2006    Butler            5    2    1
2005    Duke              1    2   -2
2004    Wake Forest       2    1   -2
2003    Georgia Tech      3    5    3
2002    North Carolina    N/A        
2001    Syracuse          N/A        

Average WVE: +0.4

The tournament formerly known as the preseason NIT has been less consistent as a predictor of future success. Teams like Tennessee a year ago have beaten strong competition to win at Madison Square Garden only to flop the rest of the season. That was especially true at the start of the decade, when both Syracuse and North Carolina ended up out of the NCAA Tournament. The 2003-04 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are the best UConn comp here, having reached the title game as a No. 3 seed.

Coaches vs. Cancer Classic

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2010    Pitt              1    1   -3
2009    Syracuse          1    2   -2
2008    Duke              2    2   -1
2007    Memphis           1    5    1
2006    Maryland          4    1   -1
2005    Florida           3    6    4
2004    Syracuse          4    0   -2

Average WVE: -0.6

The last three seasons, a win in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic has acted as jinx; Pitt, Syracuse and Duke, all top-two seeds, fell short of the regional final. Before that, the 2005-06 Gators went on to win the title and Memphis reached the championship game in 2007-08.

Old Spice Classic

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2010    Notre Dame        2    1   -2
2009    Florida State     9    0    0
2008    Gonzaga           4    2    0
2007    N.C. State        N/A        
2006    Arkansas         12    0    0

Average WVE: -0.5

Just one of the five winners of the Old Spice Classic has gone on to reach the Sweet 16; last year, Notre Dame flopped in the second round of the NCAA tournament, though their win in Orlando did serve as a springboard to a strong regular season.

76 Classic

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2009    West Virginia     2    4    1
2008    Wake Forest       4    0   -2
2007    USC               6    0   -1

Average WVE: -0.7

The 76 Classic is definitely on the borderline as far as inclusion; last year's field included just one NCAA tournament team (winner UNLV), and this year's group isn't much better. The 76 Classic did produce a Final Four team in West Virginia in 2008-09, but the winners the previous two seasons lost early come March.

Great Alaska Shootout

Year    Team            Seed   W  WVE
2005    Marquette         7    0   -1
2004    Washington        1    2   -2
2003    Purdue            N/A        
2002    Charleston        N/A        
2001    Marquette         5    0   -1

Average WVE: -1.3

It seems like a very long time ago that the Huskies waded through a difficult trio of opponents (Alabama, Oklahoma and Utah were all seeded sixth or better) to win the Great Alaska Shootout in 2004. Even back then, a pair of Shootout winners fell short of the NCAA tournament and all three teams that did reach the tournament underachieved relative to expectations.

Overall, preseason tournament winners have performed slightly worse than expected in the NCAA tournament (-0.1 wins versus expectation). The numbers are better for the higher-profile competitions, which might reflect their added difficulty but can more easily be explained by the presence of eventual champions in the field. If there is such a thing as tournament skill, it's unlikely to be revealed by performance over a three-game span. The reason the teams that win preseason tournaments often end up victorious in March is a simple one: they're the best teams in the field.

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

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