Who’s REALLY Going Dancing?

Around this time of year, there’s lots of talk about who’s in and who’s out and who’s on the bubble. Plenty of chatter about what may or may not get your team into the Big Dance. Tons of discussion of big wins and bad losses.

I’ve spent the past few weeks posting my Achievement S-Curve, an objective, reward-based system of who should be in the tournament if the season ended today. But the season is not going to end today, despite how much Murray State may have wanted it to end before they took their first loss to Tennessee State tonight. It’s interesting and fun to play committee member and decide the fates of 345 college basketball teams more than a month before the actual brackets are released. But what we really should be interested in is what is going to happen the rest of season.

It’s cool to see that overachievers like Murray State and San Diego State have climbed into the top half of the bracket, but if we know they’re likely to come down to earth a little bit that’s much more insightful. Conversely, underachievers like Alabama or Saint Louis might be on the bubble right now but if they’re going to work there way off of it and into the bracket, we shouldn’t really care too much.

The Solution: Simulation

I did not write this post just to complain. I’ve put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I queued up the rest of the regular season docket, loaded in the conference tournament schedules, and dusted off my matchup predictor. I simulated the remainder of the season 1,000 times, added in the games that have already been played, and then calculated my Achievement S-Curve for each simulation to see who’s really in and out.

Wins and losses that have already happened are “banked” (games are updated through Wednesday, February 8th), so overachievers get to keep those extra wins and underachievers are saddled by those additional losses (“extra” and “additional” meaning compared to what you might expect based on their true team strength). Okay, this is boring, you don’t really care about the technicalities. Let’s see some results.

Who’s Going Dancing?

#1 Seeds

It’s really a 5-team race for the 4 #1 seeds, with Duke, Baylor, and Michigan State having outside shots at cracking the top line. Ohio State–who my ratings have as the best team in the nation–are a near lock to grab one of them. Syracuse, Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas are fighting for the last three spots.

TeamTrue StrengthAvg Achievement Score% #1 Seed
Ohio St.111.396
Michigan St.106.68

*The easiest way to interpret Achievement Score is to read it as the number of wins that team has over what we’d expect from an average tournament team against that team’s schedule. For example, I expect Ohio State to end the season with over 11 more wins than an average tournament team would win against their schedule.

In addition to those 8 teams, there are another 31 teams that are virtual locks, making the tournament either via winning their conference’s automatic bid (i.e. winning the conference tournament in my simulation) or garnering an at-large berth (i.e. according to my Achievement S-Curve for that simulation). That’s 39 teams that are 90% or better to make the tourney. Nearly all of these teams have an at-large ticket waiting for them should they fail to win their automatic bid, but one of these virtual locks is there simply because they are such overwhelming favorites to take home their conference’s auto bid: Harvard.

Conference Favorites

Here are the 10 biggest conference favorites (with a tie for 10th), led by Harvard.

TeamTrue Strength% In% Auto% At Large*
Harvard (IVY)39999667
Long Beach St. (BIGWEST)44897458
Murray St. (OVC)78996996
Belmont (A-SUN)2967670
Memphis (C-USA)28976690
Davidson (SOUTHERN)8166653
Saint Louis (A-10)1110062100
UNLV (MWC)2210062100
Ohio St. (BIG10)110059100
Miss. Valley St. (SWAC)27157570
Iona (MAAC)53695726

*Team’s at-large chances in instances where they don’t win the automatic bid.

A team’s chances at winning an automatic bid are a combination of the gap between that team and the rest of its conference counterparts and the advantages offered by the structure of the conference tournament. Some conferences give byes or “double byes” to its top seeds, give home court advantage to higher seeds, or re-seed the bracket to ensure the top seeds always get to play the lowest remaining seeds. All of these can benefit the top teams in the conference, but Harvard benefits from the best structure of all: no tournament. They simply have to win the regular season title, and that combined with a large gap between them and the other seven Ivy League teams makes them by far the most commanding favorite to win their conference’s automatic bid.

Long Beach State is the second-most likely auto team. They benefit from the Big West re-seeding the semi-finals so when LBSU wins the top seed, they are guaranteed to play the #8 seed in the first round and then the lowest remaining seed in the semis. Murray State’s dominance over the OVC bottomdwellers is well-documented but they also get a huge advantage from a bye directly to the semi-finals (when they get a top 2 seed), meaning they have to win just 2 games to reach the dance. Memphis lucks out by getting to host the conference tournament on their home floor, regardless of their seed. That actually works against Belmont, since the A-Sun tournament is played on Mercer’s home floor–the Bruins biggest competitor. However, Belmont is good enough to overcome that disadvantage and win their conference two-thirds of the time.

The Bubble

Ah, the bubble. What I’m calling the bubble–essentially teams with between a 10% and 90% chance at an at-large berth–is about 23 teams big. Those 23 can be split almost in half, with 12 teams on the good side of the bubble (better than 50%)  and 11 on the bad side (less than 50% shot). First, the good bubble:

TeamTrue Strength% In% Auto% At Large
Mississippi St. (SEC)4885284
Florida St. (ACC)3285883
Northwestern (BIG10)4279079
Connecticut (BIGEAST)3576375
Vanderbilt (SEC)4172372
Texas (BIG12)3472171
Cincinnati (BIGEAST)3868367
Oral Roberts (SUMMIT)64793965
Seton Hall (BIGEAST)5666165
California (PAC12)36682558
Long Beach St. (BIGWEST)44897458
Miami (FL) (ACC)5157256

Northwestern fans should rejoice, as I have the fighting purple with a 79% chance to go dancing for the first time ever.

And now the bad bubble:

TeamTrue Strength% In% Auto% At Large
Xavier (A-10)4646941
BYU (WCC)52411034
Iona (MAAC)53695726
N.C. State (ACC)6523122
Massachusetts (A-10)8919218
UCF (C-USA)7920515
Arizona (PAC12)73241313
Washington (PAC12)70241213
VCU (CAA)58504312
Pittsburgh (BIGEAST)4911110
Iowa (BIG10)5910010

Iona and VCU aren’t completely out of luck should they fail to win their respective conferences, but they’d be wise to cash in on their 50/50 chance on auto bids instead of leaving it up to the at-large gods to determine their fate. The Pac-12 could very well be a one-bid league, especially if Cal takes the automatic bid. Arizona and Washington are the next best bets for at-large berths, and they are hovering just about the 10% mark.

Future Applications

There are many interesting things to look at using the season simulation results. I have a few ideas, but if you have others, feel free to drop them in the comments. We can answer questions like: How does a team’s outlook change based on whether we win or lose a specific game? Who’s schedule is helping or hurting them the most? How many wins does my team need to get to get in?

Let’s use Northwestern as an example of that last question. Here is how often the Wildcats make the tournament based on their record the rest of the way:

Rest of SeasonLikelihood of happening% In Tournament
4+ Wins54.3100

As you can see, 4 or more wins and they’re a lock, while 3 wins leaves them in great shape and 2 wins leaves them sweating it out on Selection Sunday. Luckily for Northwestern fans, they have just notched one of those 3 necessary victories tonight against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Two more and for the first time ever Northwestern may very well be going dancing .

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