Putting VCU and Butler's Runs In Historical Perspective

Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are both in the Final Four, playing each other on Saturday night, so we know that one of these teams will be in the Championship game the following Monday. How improbable are these two participants? I know that some people like to give grief to the “stat guys” for how this tournament has played out. For the most part, the team ratings mirror the seedings pretty well. This thing called the actual seeding from the NCAA tournament committee has massively underperformed in 2011 as well at a historic level, because this is the highest combined total for the Final Four teams since seeding began (26 total, previous high was 2000, 22).

I find it mildly amusing, then, that the tournament committee is being praised for the inclusion of VCU, in a year in which the seeding has held up worse than any other. (You rock because the teams you thought would win have lost to the teams you thought should barely make it!) I know that Jay Bilas has taken alot of heat for blasting the selection of VCU. My opinion, as I said in the weeks leading to the selection, is I would not have gotten worked up over teams “on the bubble” as there was a lot of mediocrity and it wasn’t worth the energy. If you want to blast anything, blast the ridiculousness of getting worked up over teams that were all roughly equal and mediocre. That includes VCU. This run, though, is truly astonishing when you look at their regular season, one in which they lost 11 games, and lost more than half of their final 8 regular season games in the Colonial Athletic.

So, just how crazy is this meeting of Butler and VCU in the Final Four? I looked at the simple rating system ratings at college basketball reference, going back to 1985. The simple rating system is what it says, simple–it looks at two things, margin of victory and strength of schedule to rank teams. Looking at those rankings for all 108 Final Four teams, Butler and VCU come in at #107 and #108. That’s right, the two lowest rated teams in a Final Four in the last 27 years, in the same season. These weren’t teams that, based on their regular seasons, were tragically underseeded because they came from non-power conferences that did not appreciate their brilliance against a weak schedule. Butler is 52nd in the simple rating system rankings this year; VCU is down at 70th, even including the tournament results. Here’s a list of the ten lowest rated Final Four teams since 1985 by simple rating system, prior to this year’s Butler and VCU:

  1. George Mason, 2006, #11 seed, 35th in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  2. Butler, 2010, #5 seed, 28th in SRS, lost in Championship Game
  3. Wisconsin, 2000, #8 seed, 25th in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  4. Villanova, 1985, #8 seed, 24th in SRS, won National Championship
  5. Michigan State, 2010, #5 seed, 23rd in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  6. North Carolina, 2000, #8 seed, 22nd in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  7. Florida, 1994, #5 seed, 22nd in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  8. LSU, 1986, #11 seed, 21st in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  9. Mississippi State, 1996, #5 seed, 20th in SRS, lost in National Semifinal
  10. Kansas, 1988, #6 seed, 19th in SRS, won National Championship

These two teams got here two different ways. For VCU, they were either sandbagging during the regular season or have been playing out of their gourds for two weeks. They were not this good in the regular season. They have, however, been very, very good in the tournament. As noted by Jay Bilas and others, they have hit 12 three pointers in a game three times all season; all three games are in the NCAA tournament. They handled USC, blew out Georgetown, jumped all over Purdue, and had a decent lead against Florida State before almost blowing it. Other than the end of that FSU game, they won comfortably. Then against Kansas, they jumped all over the Jayhawks in the first half and played aggressively, and looked every bit the deserving winner. One has to wonder how this team lost 11 games.

For Butler, the story is one of a team that started 14-9, and looked lost after three straight defeats in the Horizon League in January. They haven’t lost since, rolling up 10 straight victories before the tournament. But let’s not pretend that this has been some dominant run to the Final Four that we should have all seen. They’ve done it with band-aids, sticky tape, lots of guts, and yes, plenty of good fortune. They won 3 games by 2 points or less or in overtime in the Southeast Regional, winning on a final play put back in the opener against Old Dominion, beating Pittsburgh in one of the craziest finishing sequences ever in the tournament, and prevailing over Florida in overtime despite opting to not go two for one, and giving the Gators the last shot twice (something Florida seemed more than willing to squander). They were as good as any other team in the Southeast, just not any noticeably better. One bounce here, a free throw made or rebound askew there, and Butler is out of this tournament on any of three separate occasions.

Does this diminish the tournament in anyway, just because two of the most improbable runs in tournament history have combined to meet? I don’t think so. I’ll certainly be watching and rooting for these teams. Just because I like to look deeper at statistics doesn’t mean I don’t love it when the improbable happens. I also wanted to check to see how much the seeming randomness of March Madness compares to college football when it comes to determining a champion. Here is a comparison of where the champion of the two sports ranked in simple rating system ranking since 1985 (I used AP national champion for seasons prior to 1998 where there was a split in football):

1   11   8
2   5   4
3   5   5
4   3   4
5   2   0
6   0   1
7   0   0
8   0   1
9   0   1
10   0   0
Other   0   2

Football comes out slightly ahead, as 42.3% of its champions (compared to 30.8% for basketball) were the “best team” using the same point differential and strength of schedule measure. The number of champions ranked between 2nd and 4th by SRS in the two sports is identical (50% of each). For both sports, the numbers are slightly elevated since 1998 in terms of better teams winning–remember that in the last five years we’ve also had the only Final Four with all #1 seeds, and the “best” team by SRS has won the previous three national titles before this crazy tournament. The entire difference between the two sports, despite the different ways of deciding a championship, is 2 massive upsets (and a smaller one) in basketball where the #1 team by SRS did lose an improbable championship game. Those heavy favorites survived the single elimination randomness of the tournament to that point to get a chance for the title. Those championship game upsets were #1 Georgetown losing to Villanova in 1985, #1 Oklahoma losing to Kansas in 1988, and #1 Kentucky losing to Arizona in 1997. Everyone can apply there own interpretation to that, whether a 11% drop in the likelihood of the best team winning is worth the rest of the excitement of a 64 team tournament.

If we wanted to maximize the likelihood of the best team actually winning in the two sports, we would probably expand the college football playoffs to about 4-6 teams, and minimize the basketball tournament to about 16-24. But I’m not saying maximizing should be the only goal. I’m perfectly happy with an occasional run by a VCU or Butler, or a title by a Villanova or Kansas, in exchange for all the excitement it brings with it.

[photo via Getty]


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