Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ohio State: Team of Destiny or Team Destined to Lose?

Warning: This is going to be a long blog post.

Over at WIS I examined Oregon’s first round escape against Miami of Ohio in light of recent trends. Here on the blog (why on the blog? Because I am driving my editors crazy with the overload of March Madness columns) we are going to look at second round nail biters and what they mean to a team going forward. Once again, the question is this: is a close win more likely to propel a top team to a title run, or reveal them as flawed and doomed?

It seems appropriate to shift this analysis to second round games involving higher seeded teams (top seeds are narrowed from 1-5 seeds to 1-4 seeds) because this has already been the Year of the Favorites in the NCAA Tournament. When VCU was vanquished by Pitt in an overtime thriller and Winthrop was pummeled by Oregon, the last of the Cinderellas were gone … and the tournament was only 96 hours old.

That said, the arguments for parity in college hoops really didn’t take too much of a hit. Other than Kansas, all the top seeds had a difficult time advancing past the second round and popular Final Four picks like Georgetown, Texas A&M, and UCLA all survived harrowing contests over the weekend. Heck, you could have swapped the seeds for Wisconsin and UNLV and no one would have known the difference. Just because the favorites often survived doesn’t mean the games – and the teams – weren’t close.

No greater example of that can be found than the Ohio State-Xavier game. The Buckeyes were outplayed by the Musketeers and only won after receiving the Golden Sombrero of College Basketball Luck: Bad Call, Missed Free Throw, Bad Coaching, and Miracle Three. Without that exact sequence (all in 10 seconds), Ohio State is done.

No sooner had the final horn sounded when approximately 7,422 sportswriters were all online, arguing that Ohio State’s scare was the best thing that could have happened to them. True statement? As with Oregon and first round scares, we are going to take a look at the close second round games involving top seeds this decade. Using the five points or less (or overtime) as the measure for a close game and looking at 1-4 seeds, we can look to 17 such games played over the past seven seasons.

Sweet 16 Losers

As with first round teams, top seeds that squeak out second round games often go down in flames the very next time out; in this case, the loss comes in the Sweet 16 round. Of the 17 teams that survived close second round contests, eight of them lost in the regional semis.

2000 - (1) Duke edged (8) Kansas in round two before losing to (5) Florida
2000 - (4) Syracuse beat (5) Kentucky before getting drilled by (1) MSU
2000 - (4) Tennessee defeated (5) UConn and then lost to (8) North Carolina
2000 - (4) LSU snuck past (5) Texas before being crushed by (8) Wisconsin
2001 - (3) Ole Miss defeated (6) Notre Dame and then lost to (2) Arizona
2002 - (4) Kentucky edged (12) Tulsa and then was bounced by (5) Maryland
2004 - (3) Pittsburgh beat (6) Wisconsin before losing to (2) Oklahoma State
2004 - (3) Texas defeated (6) UNC and then lost to (7) Xavier

The list above shows that just under half the second round survivors were immediately knocked off in the Sweet 16, but the other nine were able to advance. So far, this gives Ohio State just over a 50% chance of getting past Tennessee. But what about the rest of the tournament?

Ability to Advance

In the column about Oregon, we saw that a top seed that survives a first round scare and then wins in the Sweet 16 tends to go all the way to the Final Four. Granted, only five of the 27 qualifying teams even made it past the Sweet 16, but all five of those advanced out of the region. The opposite effect seems to occur with teams surviving second round scares.

Of the nine teams in this decade that snuck by in round two and then won against in the Sweet 16, only three of them managed to win the regional final. They are:

2004 - (3) Georgia Tech (title game)
2006 - (2) UCLA (title game)
2006 - (4) LSU (final four)

As for the six teams that reached the Elite Eight, only to lose, the list reads like this:

2002 - (2) UConn and (2) Oregon
2003 - (1) Arizona
2004 - (1) St. Joes’s
2006 - (1) Villanova and (1) UConn

These two lists tell a pretty interesting story. For starters, we arrive at an interesting breakdown when looking at various seeds. Here are some key records:

Sweet 16 Games
(1) 4-1
(2) 3-0
(3) 1-3
(4) 1-4

Elite Eight Games
(1) 0-4
(2) 1-2
(3) 1-0
(4) 1-0

Here, as with the research in the Oregon column, we see that the higher seeds tend to fare better in the Sweet 16. However, beyond that, seeding doesn’t seem to help at all, and if anything, lower seeded teams tend to do better. The lone 3 and 4 seeds both gained more momentum as the tournament unfolded, while the top seeds couldn’t get it revved up. This seems to indicate that the 1 seeds that barely survive in the early rounds are unlikely to get things figured out as they go along. Given this information, recent history suggests that Ohio State, as a top seed, has an 80% chance of defeating Tennessee, but almost no shot of beating the winner of the A&M/Memphis game.

Quality of Opponents

It is also helpful to look at the quality of the teams these survivors are facing as opponents. Since we are assuming probable success for Ohio State in the next round, let’s look at the Elite Eight winners and losers and see who they had to play.

2004 - (3) Georgia Tech over (4) Kansas
2006 - (2) UCLA over (1) Memphis
2006 - (4) LSU over (2) Texas

2002 - (2) UConn lost to (1) Maryland
2002 - (2) Oregon lost to (1) Kansas
2003 - (1) Arizona lost to (2) Kansas
2004 - (1) St. Joes’s lost to (2) Oklahoma State
2006 - (1) Villanova lost to (3) Florida
2006 - (1) UConn lost to (11) George Mason

Until last year, the Elite Eight losers were being defeated by the highest possible seed they could face in that game, but then Nova and UConn both went down to lower seeds. Meanwhile, among winners, only Georgia Tech got to play against a lower seed than expected. On average, winners have defeated a seed of 2.33, while losers have been defeated by a seed of 3.33. Even if you took out the George Mason game, the 1.80 seed average faced by the previous five losers still doesn’t indicate that big of a difference in the level of competition, This is particularly true when you note that all three of the winning teams also beat the highest possible seed in the Sweet 16 round.

Impact on Top Seeds

Since the level of seeding doesn’t seem to matter much – and since Ohio State will be playing either a 2 or 3 seed anyway – we have no choice but to rely on the raw data above: that 1 seeds typically don’t recover from a shaky early round game. When you consider that no top seed has had a win of less than five points in this decade, the above data represents all of the “close” wins on the first weekend. One, Duke in 2000, lost in the Sweet 16, and the other four all lost in the Elite Eight.

In fact, even if you go back further to include a larger sample size, top seeds don’t fare much better. Only one top seed from the last 20 years has won a close game during the opening two rounds and gone on to win it all – UCLA in 1995. It was that game, featuring the famous Tyus Edney shot, that I believe causes people to buy in to the mythology that “a bunch” of number one seeds have survived an early scare only to go on to a title. Going back to 1986, we find 12 additional top seeds that survived such a scare; 10 teams had their brush with disaster in the second round, one in the first, and one (Michigan State in 1990) in both. Of those 12, only UCLA won it all, while Michigan (1993) and Kentucky (1997) reached the title game and UMass (1996) and North Carolina (1998) reached the Final Four. Three teams lost in the Elite Eight and four lost in the Sweet 16.

Therefore, folding in the last 20 years, here is how top seeds have fared after dodging a close one during the opening weekend:

Sweet 16

Elite Eight

Final Four

Title Game

Even if we give Ohio State the benefit of the doubt by going back further in history, they still seem to face difficult odds. While they have a 71% chance of winning their next game, the Buckeyes historically have only a 29% chance of reaching the Final Four, and a 6% chance of winning it all. And considering that this decade features more parity than ever before, you have to believe that the more recent trends (80%/0%/0%) will hold even stronger, which means that Ohio State's odds are probably 75%, 20%, and 5%, or something along those lines. You will note that the Buckeyes' odds of winning based on this analysis are actually lower than the odds of them winning based simply on the number of teams remaining. As one of four left in the South region they have a 25% chance of reaching the Final Four and as one of 16 in the field, they have just over a 6% shot of winning it all.

Ohio State’s lucky win over Xavier might have seemed like destiny and brought back memories of UCLA in 1995, but according to the record books, the Bruins are the only top seed that Ohio State is going to want to compare themselves too. It is far more likely that the Buckeyes will wind up like one of the other 16 on that list and come up short of a national title.

Based on the research, a narrow win in an early round is not a stroke of good fortune on the paved path to a title, but rather the first glimpse of fatal flaws soon to be exposed.

Of course, that shouldn’t stop Ohio State from trying. After all, there is a second time for everything.

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