Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 31, 2010

Of course Brad Stevens is a “quant guy.” He’s 33.

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:23 pm

I’ve always been interested in the idea that coaches can be “hot,” as in: Butler is “led by a white-hot coach, Brad Stevens, who is 33 and looks 20 years younger.” I hope Stevens has a wise man Friday whispering in his ear this week, “All glory is fleeting. Uh, unless you’re Tom Izzo.” Just look at the example of Stevens’ predecessor at Butler.

Not that I’m forecasting doom for Stevens, mind you. Hot coaches can go on to do big things. Heck, Bill Self alone has pulled off a veritable hot trifecta: Tulsa in 2000, Illinois in 2003, and Kansas in 2008 (when Oklahoma State tried to lure him away from Lawrence). I’m just suggesting that “hot” is something more than a coach happening to be really outstanding at his job. It is additionally something that happens to a coach, as he becomes the unwitting receptacle of our accumulated (and, of course, doomed) hopes for The Perfect Coach.

And when that hot coach is precociously young like Stevens and holds the promise of literally decades of Perfect Coaching to come, well, as the newly retired Dick Enberg might say, Oh my. That’s pretty much what I’ve been thinking this week, Oh my, as I’ve read about Stevens’ self-declared predliection for what “Pardon the Interruption” called statistical analysis. (Much of this week’s Stevens talk, including the PTI clip, was helpfully brought together by Kevin Arnovitz at yesterday: “Butler’s Brad Stevens: Quant Guy.”) I draw a somewhat different lesson from his predilection, though, than the “So that‘s how he beat Syracuse and Kansas State! He’s got stats!” reaction.

Every coach watches hours of game tape, the advantage comes when one coach watches it more perceptively than another. By the same token, using reality-based stats is the new normal for D-I staffs. The fact that it’s a new normal is the fault of the stats, not the coaches. There were no reality-based stats for this sport up until the past few years.

Butler stands out not because they use this tempo-free stuff but because their head coach has stated publicly and repeatedly that he uses this stuff. Moreover, Stevens all but shrugs as he says it: Why would you not use accurate information on your opponent? You will see that shrug more and more often as basketball people in Stevens’ age cohort ascend to head coaching positions. Accurate information is simply what they’re used to now.

Not that there’s a perfect correlation between birth date and a willingness to use reality-based information, of course. Far from it. Bo Ryan is 62 and he’s all over this stuff. (Not to mention Dean Smith is 79 and he invented this stuff. Stevens is speaking for us all when he says “We’re followers.”) But, Ryan notwithstanding, your head coaches who have boldly come clean and admitted yes, this stuff does actually help, do trend toward a more youthful demographic, to wit: Buzz Williams (37), Eric Reveno (44), and Dino Gaudio (52). Of course those are just some examples of head coaches who know their way around a rebound percentage. I’ve noted before that the vast majority of coaches who contact me out of the blue are assistants, for whom the whole tempo-free shtick is old hat.

It is old hat. Smith was analyzing possessions 50 years ago, and even Smith’s followers have been around for a while now. Yesterday said I’ve been doing this for “years,” which I suppose is correct in a scary-sounding way. Just keep in mind I still have all my own teeth and, more saliently, I still get yelled at for peddling dangerous new heterodoxies. Speaking of which….

BONUS together-we-got-Capone note! I think rebound margin really did die this year, though I don’t flatter myself for an instant that it was my kill. I’m like Eliot Ness. I just happened to be there when the wheel came around. In the past few days I’ve seen rebound percentages used in the New York Times’ recap of TennesseeMichigan State, I’ve heard them from Bill Self’s lips in the CBS studio, and I’ve watched with delight as an accurate and timely graphic based on them was deployed and narrated by no less of an experienced eminence than Len Elmore.

You’ll of course still be able to see rebound margin behind a pane of glass in various museums of antiquities (conferences’ official stat pages, etc.), but at this point the unicorn stat is safely in captivity and poses no threat to the general cognitive populace. Here endeth the lesson.  

March 30, 2010

The Real Lopez Upside

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:36 pm

I couldn’t fit this in my column today about the impact of Robin Lopez‘s injury on the Phoenix Suns’ hopes, but I’ve been meaning to write about it since November, so I’ll stick it here. The other reason it’s improbable we’re discussing Lopez’s injury as a big deal is that, along with Goran Dragic, he’s the first draft pick to provide Phoenix any value since Leandro Barbosa was acquired on draft night in 2003. The Suns famously sold off four first-round picks in a three-year span from 2005-2007, preferring the instant cash infusion to adding Nate Robinson, Sergio Rodriguez, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Fernandez.

Selling those picks forced Phoenix to overpay for Marcus Banks to back up Steve Nash and limited the team’s bench (which, granted, might not have gotten much playing time under Mike D’Antoni). While I’ve taken GM Steve Kerr to task for his dismantling of the Seven Seconds or Less roster, he deserves a lot of credit for embracing the draft and young talent. Only one of those picks was sold on Kerr’s watch, and that year the Suns kept another first-round pick (unfortunately, Alando Tucker failed to pan out).

Lopez and Dragic suffered through poor rookie seasons, but they’ve helped Phoenix this year. Add in Louis Amundson (signed as a free agent), Jared Dudley (part of the Suns’ trade with Charlotte last season) and Channing Frye (free agent) and Kerr has done a very good job of cobbling together depth without spending much more than Phoenix ever has on its bench. For a combined salary of less than $8 million, those five players have contributed 13.4 total Wins Above Replacement, with all five of them above 2 WARP. That fivesome is the biggest reason that, despite an aging core and Shaquille O’Neal being dealt for cap relief, the Suns remain competitive in the Western Conference.

March 25, 2010

Applying a New Mexico correction

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:26 am

New Mexico won 15 straight games this year, and under the “Did you lose? No? OK,” heuristic applied by polls and conventional wisdom alike, that was good enough for the Lobos to earn a three-seed in the NCAA tournament. At the time, I thought that was generous. Per-possession performance in a conference with perfect round-robin scheduling is the nearest thing we have to the Platonic ideal of accuracy, and on that basis the Lobos were effectively the third-best team in a league without much in the way of recent NCAA tournament success. Nevertheless, Steve Alford‘s team earned a three, whereupon they beat Montana by five in the first round before falling to Washington by 18. 

I’m not saying the Lobos’ early exit was inevitable. Worse teams than the 2010 version of New Mexico have made runs deep into March. Anything can happen, whether it’s the third-best team in the Mountain West going on an NCAA run or Northern Iowa beating Kansas. Anything can happen.

My point is simply that we knew prior to the event that probability was the enemy of the Lobos. And what we owe to the entire field is seeding that is based on the best information we have at the time. Nevertheless, New Mexico was overseeded. An overseed (and, of course, New Mexico’s not the only example) is unfair to the teams in the three brackets where it doesn’t occur. It gives an advantage to the team that gets to play the overseed.

We can avoid this in the future by applying a New Mexico correction in the seeding process.

As vividly demonstrated annually by Wisconsin and the Mountain West Conference, a gaudy efficiency margin is no guarantor of March success. On the other hand a middling per-possession figure in conference play has proven to be a handy mark of doom for a simple reason. The odds always favor doom. All teams, but one, are doomed, eventually. It’s been six years since a major-conference team with a middling per-possession figure made the Final Four. It’s been five years since a major-conference team with a negative efficiency margin made the second weekend.

The other day I remarked half in jest that there should be one committee, using existing means, that selects the NCAA tournament field and another entirely separate committee, using reality, that seeds the field. Actually it doesn’t matter how many committees there are, of course, as long as reality intercedes during the seeding process. Using per-possession performance as a uni-directional correction to bump seeds down but not up would quiet fears that a margin-aware seeding process will encourage teams to run up the score. A New Mexico correction will apply only to middling teams. If you can only beat Air Force at your place by three, we probably don’t need to stay up nights worrying about you intentionally running up the score. 

None of which is to take anything away from this particular New Mexico team, which won the Mountain West regular season title and did, after all, outscore its conference opponents by a healthy 0.11 points per trip. Alford has built a consistent winner in Albuquerque (note that the Lobos were underrated last year), and that’s exactly my point: New Mexico didn’t do anything to find themselves in the position of Easily Foreseeable Overseed poster child. Being in this position is something that simply happens to a team. You win an unusually and unsustainably large number of close games. It happens every year to a small number of teams.

And you know what? As long as doing so doesn’t give you a higher seed than you should have, there’s no harm there whatsoever. I see a day not far off where we merely slap such a team on the back and say, Way to go! Keep it going! instead of What? A three-seed? Are you crazy? 

March 20, 2010

Why You Lost

Filed under: Uncategorized — jsheehan @ 1:10 am

I just watched Houston lose 89-77, capping the 32 games in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They shot 20-32 from the free-throw line, which doesn’t look out of line, but at one point in the second half they were 8-20 in the half. Even making 13-20 at that point would have made a huge difference in the game. Houston was never able to close the gap in way that threatened Maryland, and while free-throw shooting was just one reason–they missed a lot of bunnies and rebounded poorly–missing 12 of 20 FTs in a stretch of the game when they were getting to the line like a Scottie Reynolds tribute band was crippling.

Maybe this is bugging me because Houston has so much company. Too many teams lost games in the first round simply by not meeting a minimum standard of competence from the line:

Vanderbilt lost 66-65, going 17-29 from the line
Texas lost 81-80, going 20-33
Wofford lost 53-49, going 6-13
New Mexico State lost 70-67, going 13-22

You also have UNLV, Montana and Florida State, for whom the line from…well, the line…to the airport isn’t quite as direct, but who went home in some partbecause they failed to make enough unguarded 15-footers for which you can go through a set routine before taking.

Think I’m overreacting? I bet Paul Hewitt doesn’t. I bet Travis Ford doesn’t. Georgia Tech scored 64 points tonight, 24 of them from the line in 25 attempts by a team that was hitting less than two out of three coming into tonight, ranking in the bottom 50 of NCAA teams. Not teams in the field, not teams in major conferences–all teams.

This isn’t some jeremiad about fundamentals. This is about one task, the first basketball skill we learn when we discover our big brother’s basketball sitting unguarded under the slanted hoop on the cracked driveway. One task, the easiest in the game short of the routine, undefended inbounds pass–the easist way to get points, easier than a layup or a dunk or an open jumper in game flow.

Four teams went home because they failed at that task, and at least four others have failing at it on their short list of reasons. I think New Mexico State got screwed, too, but if they go 16-for-22 at the line–which I’m pretty sure my mom could do–we’re not talking about a lane violation, but about overtime.

Miss foul shots. Lose games. Few things in basketball are so simple.

March 18, 2010

Gonzo hoops eerily similar to Gonzo journalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:01 am

Bobby Gonzalez, who was fired by Seton Hall yesterday, has always baffled me. With other coaches who seemed like jerks from a distance, I could at least intuit that they were probably exceptionally good at what they did. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that is why such coaches get away with jerk-like actions. Their employer is trading day-to-day misery for wins. But I never saw what the Hall was getting out of their trade. Not when the team was 25-42 in the Big East under this particular coach.

Gonzalez is the first coach in my memory to combine: 1) behaving like an imperious and self-absorbed despot with 2) overseeing a program that is completely and self-evidently out of control. See, the whole point of the coach-as-dictator is that he runs a tight ship. This was apparently lost on Gonzalez. To have a player punch an opponent in the groin and have another (ex-) player arrested for kidnapping, robbery, burglary, and possession of a weapon–and mind you, both the punch and the arrest happened on the same day–has to represent a new low in the category of SID’s Worst Day Ever.

Seton Hall is now in the happy position of being able to hit a comparative home run with anyone they hire. Literally, anyone. Open the South Orange phone book and point to a name. “Myra Rappaport”? Come on down! She will be better for the SHU program than the previous coach, guaranteed.    

March 17, 2010

It was Kent’s bad luck to be lucky

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 9:58 am

Oregon would have fired Ernie Kent yesterday even if the Ducks hadn’t made the Elite Eight as recently as 2007, of course. Who knows, maybe Kent would have been let go even sooner without that luminous entry on his resume. But I can’t help thinking that luck plays an outlandishly large yet completely overlooked role in how college basketball and football coaches are perceived, including and especially how those coaches are evaluated by their athletic directors.

The Ducks were extremely fortunate to find themselves just one game away from the Final Four three years ago. I’ll spare you the Courier, but take it from me. In terms of performance in-conference, the Oregon outfit that went 11-7 in the Pac-10 in 2007 is easily the weakest of the last 24 teams to reach the regional finals. Here’s a nifty visual sum-up of the Ducks’ improbable success, courtesy of my favorite website from back then.

The next year Oregon returned Tajuan Porter, Malik Hairston, Maarty Leunen–everyone, really, except Aaron Brooks. With the core of an Elite Eight team returning, big things were expected for 2007-08. They were ranked in the top 15 nationally in the preseason in both major polls and picked to finish third in a very strong Pac-10 in that year’s preseason media balloting. And sure enough, in Pac-10 play in 2008 Kent’s team duplicated their performance from the previous year–outstanding offense and hideous defense–with eerie precision, but the breaks of the game yielded just a 9-9 record that season. The memory of 2007 was still strong enough for the selection committee to overseed the Ducks as a nine, but Porter and company fell in the first round to Mississippi State, 76-69. Unfulfilled expectations! Must be bad coaching!

Oregon hasn’t glimpsed the NCAA tournament since that loss to the Bulldogs, going 9-27 in the Pac-10 over the past two seasons. A 9-27 record is a 9-27 record, but the pinnacle preceding that downfall, a run to the Elite Eight, should have been regarded and celebrated in Eugene as a fortuitous gift from unusually benevolent hoops gods, not as a true assessment of where this program stood just 36 short months ago.

Reality-based information is on the march, however, and soon ADs will know this kind of stuff when they sit down for those dreaded “year-end evaluations” with their coaches. It wouldn’t have changed Kent’s fate yesterday, but people making decisions based on reality is a good thing.   

March 16, 2010

Plan B. Plan C. Plan D.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jsheehan @ 4:46 pm

The NCAA tournament kicks off tonight in Dayton as Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff play in the Opening Round game, which is the “play-in” game to the parts of the world not in thrall to the NCAA. As befits the game between the two lowest-seeded teams in the field, two bad offensive teams, the matchup is likely to be a little ugly and low-scoring. I like Winthrop, which is the better team, to advance in a game played in the 40s.

Three other tournaments kick off tonight as well. Let’s take a brief look at each.

National Invitation Tournament

It’s appropriate that teams who don’t win enough quality road games end up the tournament that allows them to play at home, often three times. The NIT does some very blatantly unfair things in its process, but it’s honest about its motivations: to fill arenas and make a few bucks. That’s how North Carolina, which shouldn’t even be in the field on merit, gets a home game in the first round. See also, Connecticut.

Virginia Tech should feel comfortable, playing an Atlantic Sun team in Blacksburg tomorrow night, a game that will fit right in with the rest of their nonconference schedule. They’re the book favorite to advance, but don’t overlook Northeastern, which got screwed by having to play a road game at an inferior team in Connecticut, but may win anyway. Northeastern plays very good defense and has seniors who will be looking to extend their careers. Given UConn’s no-show in the Big East tournament, Northeastern is a good bet to advance to play Tech in the second round. I’ll take them to reach the Garden, winning three road games along the way.

In the “Upper Left” bracket-no, really, that’s how they’re labeled-Ilinois is the #1 seed but has to play its first game at Stony Brook tonight due to a Cirque du Soleil show at Assembly Hall. The Illini have been wildly unpredictable all season, so guessing how they’ll handle a road game in a gym that has never seen an opponent like this is hard to do. Even if they beat Stony Brook, they run a distant second to Cincinnati in this bracket. The young Bearcats, led by Lance Stephenson, are physical and improving, and will head back to New York later this month.

The Lower Left bracket features a great second-round game between underseeded Seton Hall and Arizona State, a contrast of styles that will make for entertaining basketball. The Hall as a #4 is a bit incongruous next to Cincinnati as a #2, but this is the NIT. The winner of the Pirates/Sun Devils game wins this bracket; I’ll go with the Fighting Jeremy Hazells.

The Lower Right bracket is the softest. Mississippi State has a clear path to the semifinals. William and Mary will win at the Dean Dome for their third ACC road win of the season. No one but me will care.

If by some miracle I’m right about all of this, I’ll take Mississippi State over Seton Hall in the final.

College Basketball Invitational

The CBI and tournaments both ask teams to post a fee to participate, causing many good teams, high-visibility teams, to pass on participating. Both nominally aim for “mid-majors,” but they would struggle to get BCS schools even if they didn’t do so. St. Louis, George Washington (?), Oregon State, Colorado State, Duquesne, Marshall, Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech are the only teams from top-ten leagues in either tournament. Both of these tournaments’ fields fell off in quality this year, and I’m not sure what the survival rate of either event will be if that trend continues.

The best team in the CBI is Virginia Commonwealth, and it’s not terribly close. They get stuck going on the road to GW in their first game. Saint Louis, Oregon State and Hofstra are the favorites in the other quads. Oregon State won this event last year, and they could well repeat. If the final is St. Louis vs. Oregon State…man, that’s going to be some tough basketball to watch, and I say that as someone who likes both Craig Robinson and Rick Majerus. Tournament

The CIT doesn’t bracket teams, instead matching them up after each round’s games are played, presumably to save on travel costs and maximize attendance. The CIT gave an automatic bid to South Dakota, the winner of the Great West Conference, which won’t have an NCAA bid for a few years, and only then if it somehow holds together a group that, geographically, makes the WAC and Atlantic 10 look positively sensible.

This field is competitive with that of the CBI. The best teams are Fairfield, Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Portland. The lack of a bracket makes it impossible to predict a final four or championship matchup, but Marshall and Louisiana Tech open with home games and seem likely to get others, so make them the favorites.

“Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees”

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:23 am

The high-water mark of Iowa basketball in recent years is a March Madness highlight for the opposing team. Northwestern State beat the Hawkeyes in the first round in 2006, thanks to Jermaine Wallace hitting a buzzer-beater from the corner. “Stun” was definitely appropriate in this instance.

To the nation it’s remembered simply as a spectacular play by a heavy underdog from the Southland (“Cinderella has come to Auburn Hills!“), but to Iowa fans it represented the blindingly sudden death of a tournament run they’d been anticipating for the better part of three seasons. Featuring in-staters Greg Brunner, Jeff Horner, and Adam Haluska, as well as Texas import Erek Hansen, that was a very good Hawkeye team, one that played outstanding defense. The three seed Iowa secured in the tournament that year was the highest of any Hawkeye team since 1987. But when Wallace hit his shot, Brunner, Horner, and Hansen came to the end of their eligibility.

Steve Alford lingered one more year after Death by Wallace, but by that time the coach-school relationship had, for whatever reason, taken on some decided George and Martha coloring. When the avuncular, self-effacing, and earnest Todd Lickliter replaced Alford on April 3, 2007, the sense of almost physical relief in Iowa City was palpable. For a while.

So when I heard yesterday that Lickliter had been fired as Iowa’s head coach, I remembered that post-Alford sense of renewal, but I also thought of the following bit about the Hawkeyes from our book this year:

Then came what I trust Hawkeye fans refer to as the Friday Night Massacre: March 27, 2009. On that day no fewer than four Iowa players made plain their intention to go elsewhere:

  • Starting guard and leading scorer Jake Kelly, who tragically lost his mother in a plane crash, announced he would leave Iowa to be closer to his home in Carmel, Indiana. He ended up at Indiana State.
  • Kelly’s fellow starting guard, Jeff Peterson, also declared that he would depart. Specifically citing the Hawkeyes’ slow tempo as a factor in his decision, Peterson eventually elected to transfer to Arkansas.
  • Junior college transfer Jermain Davis, who started 11 games for the Hawkeyes in 2008-09, announced he would transfer yet again, this time to Division II Minnesota State. “The style that we play is just so slow,” Davis was quoted as saying on his way out the door.
  • Lastly, junior college transfer David Palmer declared that he too would leave Iowa. He ended up at Division II Southern Indiana.

The departure of these four players was announced in an official Iowa athletic department release under the headline, “Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees.”

In the world as seen through D-I men’s basketball web sites, everything’s great all the time, even for the winless teams. Every loss is a tough loss, the kids are working hard, the coaches are teaching, and better days lie just ahead. Always.

And I’m not mocking that, necessarily. Speaking strictly as an English major, if there’s a better idea for the correct tone of voice for such sites I’d like to hear it. One thing I do know. First-person sincerity (“Boy, that freshman Jones that I recruited is a huge disappointment!”) would raise more issues than it would solve. So third-person “Up With People!” fatuousness remains the default.

But the Pravda tone does mean, inevitably, you’ll get blatant time-delay ironies like “Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees.” Lickliter was hired three years ago, at the same time as John Beilein at Michigan and Tubby Smith at Minnesota. The coach was coming off a tremendous season at Butler, one where the Bulldogs had lost by eight to defending and eventual repeat national champion Florida in the Sweet 16. That Butler team led the nation in taking care of the basketball, giving it away on just 15.5 percent of their possessions. And they very nearly led the nation in the slowness of their pace. Lickliter was hired to win that same way in Iowa City.

He got the pace he wanted, of course, but at Iowa his teams always turned the ball over more than one in every five times, mostly because he had a revolving cast of characters. Certain major-conference programs–a disproportionate number of which for some reason are located between the Mississippi and the Rockies–can reach a point where their progress or regression can be measured most saliently in pure human-resources terms like retention and turnover. Iowa under Lickliter set that standard.

The Lickliter hire in 2007 may not have been an out-of-the-park coup, but it was certainly acknowledged as a very good hire at the time. And while there are of course challenges inherent to the position (one NCAA three-seed in the past 23 years, low attendance, etc.), a three-season record of 38-58, even in a challenging position, is not what was expected by Lickliter, by Iowa, or by us. Meaning this was a surprise, possibly even a large one. But large surprises that are revealed this gradually never afford us the opportunity to be startled.  

Maybe those outlandish salaries don’t really owe their existence to coaches being a superior strain of exceedingly rare and sagacious human after all. Maybe those dollars represent hush money for the consciences of athletic directors. If I pay this guy $2.5 million, that must mean this guy represents a superior strain of exceedingly rare and sagacious human, right? But if I pay him $30K, he’ll coach like a $30K schlub.

It might be that large salaries adhere to the positions–D-I coaches or NFL quarterbacks–where totemic visibility and an unusual degree of unpredictability intersect. If I can ratchet down that unpredictability for coaching hires, as has been done in large though not of course total measure for draft picks, I can truly eye the future, like what I see.  

We broke 100!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 2:01 am

I’m not actually sure when it happened. I was reading through tonight’s game recaps and box scores and made a mental note of another bout of high-scoring games. It seems like there have been a lot of them lately. So I checked my league-wide numbers and, sure enough, the average team is scoring 100.2 points per game in the NBA this season. The last time I took notice of this number–back in early December, I believe–it was still below the 100-point threshold. It’s not significant that scoring has gone up since then. Scoring always gradually rises over the course of the season. It is significant that the league is back over 100 points per game. It hasn’t happened in 15 years. Scoring fell as low as 93.4 points per game in 2003-04, save for the lockout season in 1998-99. Since this was the topic of my very first piece for Basketball Prospectus way back in November of 2007, I felt compelled to share my joy.

2009-10   100.2
2008-09    99.95
2007-08    99.92
2006-07    98.7
2005-06    97.0
2004-05    97.2
2003-04    93.4
2002-03    95.1
2001-02    95.5
2000-01    94.8
1999-00    97.5
1998-99    91.6
1997-98    95.6
1996-97    96.9
1995-96    99.5
1994-95   101.4

March 15, 2010

Paths to the Final Four

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:35 pm

As an addendum to this morning’s post on the importance of seeding, how about the most difficult and easiest paths to the Final Four? (By the way, the reason I’m ignoring Final Four is that, no matter how much people on TV may scream about how Syracuse should have been the second or third No. 1 and not the fourth No. 1, there’s not much evidence those rankings make any difference by that point. For that matter, I couldn’t even find any order from last year other than Louisville as the overall No. 1, which shows how much people cared then.)

This is a little more complicated than just adding the ratings of the opponents, because for an elite team the difference between playing a .450 team and a .550 opponent in the first round is fairly meaningless. So I brought back the log5 method and assumed each schedule would be played by a .950 team–about the level of West Virginia this year. The rankings are ordered by the odds of that team reaching the Final Four based on the actual opponents faced by each team from 2006-09.

The easiest trips:

Team          Yr   Sd   Rd 1   Rd 2   Rd 3   Rd 4    Tot

UCLA          06    2   .438   .859   .860   .950   .275
Louisville    09    1   .528   .820   .871   .954   .269
Kansas        08    1   .634   .874   .892   .949   .236
Connecticut   06    1   .595   .916   .938   .909   .215

Lo and behold, by the numbers it was actually a No. 2 seed that had the best time of things, and it had little to do with upsets. Instead, the issue is Gonzaga’s low ranking by Pomeroy’s metrics in 2005-06, one Ken has already disavowed. I watched that Elite Eight matchup, and you probably did too. There was nothing easy about it, though in Memphis the Bruins got a relatively light No. 1.

Louisville makes more intuitive sense. The Cardinals did not face a team seeded better than ninth until last year’s regional final, when they were knocked off by Michigan State. Kansas faced 12th seed Villanova and 10th seed Davidson in the regionals, though the Pomeroy ratings agree that by that point the Cougars were a difficult foe. Lastly, Connecticut drew No. 11 George Mason in the regional final–but famously could not beat the Patriots. So much for schedule.

The hardest draws:

Team          Yr   Sd   Rd 1   Rd 2   Rd 3   Rd 4    Tot

UCLA          07    2   .377   .952   .957   .984   .052
Missouri      09    3   .684   .929   .977   .975   .054
Xavier        08    3   .804   .939   .950   .983   .056
Memphis       07    2   .409   .864   .978   .981   .058
Texas         08    2   .465   .901   .958   .986   .062
UNC           07    1   .401   .954   .938   .979   .074

UCLA shows up again. The Bruins had a tough second-round game against Indiana in 2007, then faced a brutal Kansas team in the regional final but came away victorious nonetheless. So much for schedule. Missouri last year had back-to-back games against No. 1 seed-quality teams in the regionals, beating Memphis before losing to UConn. Xavier had a very challenging first-round foe in the Georgia team that won the SEC Tournament but was seeded 14th, then couldn’t overcome a tough UCLA squad in the regional final.

Memphis in 2007 came up against two tough teams in the regionals, including an Ohio State squad on its way to the title game. There’s a similar story for Texas the following year, when the team bound for the title game was … Memphis. Lastly, the 2007 Tar Heels faced the toughest slate of any No. 1 seed, getting a very difficult second-round draw against Michigan State before finally falling in OT against a Georgetown team that easily was No. 1 seed quality.

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