Judging NCAA Teams by the Company They’ve Kept

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 11, 2014.

Wichita State will be the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. But here’s the bad news for the 34-0 Shockers: History suggests their weak regular-season schedule could result in a short stint in the Big Dance.

To measure a team’s strength of schedule, the Count examined average opponent’s RPI, which takes into account each of the schools a team has faced during the season. Since the 2007-08 season, 40 teams seeded No. 8 or better have entered the tournament with an average opponent RPI outside the top 60. Only seven (17.5%) made it to the Sweet 16, with three teams (7.5%)—Butler in 2011 and Butler and Michigan State in 2010—advancing to the Elite 8. In contrast, 20% of all No. 11 and 12 seeds have made it to the Sweet 16 during this span, with half of those teams having a top 60 average opponent RPI.

Each year during that span, at least two Final Four teams began the tournament with a top-17 average opponent RPI, including four of the last five champions. If that holds true this year, expect at least one of the teams to come from the Big Ten or Big 12; seven schools from those conferences are in the top 17.

Last year, No. 1 seed Gonzaga (96th) got tripped up after winning only one tournament game. Coincidentally, the team that beat them was Wichita State, which made a run to the Final Four without facing a team with a top-60 average opponent RPI until the Elite 8. This year, the Shockers, a likely No. 1 seed with an average opponent RPI of 114, along with defending champion Louisville (101), will have history working against them.

Bill Parcells, the Hall of Fame football coach, once said, “You are what your record says you are.” In college basketball, perhaps you are what your opponents’ opponents’ records say you are.

(photo by Dirk Hansen)

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