The Florida Gators are the team that frustrates you, going 0-6 in games decided by six points or less. They have had an opportunity to win most of those games late, but couldn’t execute, blowing big leads against Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
They are the team that entices you, when they are on, they have been dominating. A win over Wisconsin by 18. A win over Marquette by 33. A dominating win over Missouri at home by 31, and it was not even that close. Florida beat their SEC opponents by 22.7 points on average, never winning a game by single digits.
All those close losses mean that Florida has dropped to a 3 seed. Florida is #1 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings entering the tournament, and that is not unusual, because virtually any objective predictive power rating system that includes margin of victory has them top 3. (Here is Pomeroy back in early February on Florida).
When Florida is at their best, they have one of the best interior rebounding power forces in Patric Young, and one of the best “stretch” power forwards in Erik Murphy, who can pull other big men out and is hitting almost 46% of his threes on the year. When they are at the worst and lose those close games, they get a little jumper happy on offense, and need to get more aggressive going to the basket. Kenny Boynton has been a divisive figure, because he has taken the most outside shots (but only hits 32.5% of them) and the ball seems to wind up in his hands late in all these close games.
So, the question remains, what do we make of Florida as we enter the tournament? Seth Davis referred to them this morning as “the most overrated team in the tournament.” They are going to be the team that makes or breaks a bracket pool, because enough teams will pick them to reach the Final Four, and perhaps win the title, while others will have them losing by at least the Georgetown game in the Sweet Sixteen.
Let’s get one thing straight, though. Florida is not some test case for whether teams that show dominance but perhaps lose close games are better predictively than their record. I disagree with Mike DeCourcy there when he says “One thing metrics people can’t avoid: Florida is ultimate test case.”
They are just the latest example. I went back through Ken Pomeroy’s rankings through 2003 (when they began) and then used the simple rating system for seasons back to 1985 (when the 64 team field began). I found any team in the top 6 of the ratings who was seeded as a 3 or worse. Since the ratings include all games, there is some potential for creep thanks to a good tourney run. Looking at the list and the magnitude and results, I think it is minimal. It affects the extent of the results, but not the ultimate direction.
Anyway, here is every team listed in the top 6 of Pomeroy/SRS seeded 3 or worse, and the results, along with the average expected wins for a team with that seed.
Billy Donovan and Florida are no stranger to this list, as he has had “underachieving” teams in the past who were highly rated but seeded down because of close losses. The 2000 team went on a championship game run as a #5 seed. Two years later, also as a #5 seed, they were felled in the first round by a double overtime last second three pointer by Creighton (video below). In 2006, they were a #3 seed that finished atop the ratings (top 4 when the tournament began), and went all the way to a National Title. That team also lost six close games. In the tournament, they only had to win one as they dominated the field–coincidentally, against Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen.
On average, those teams won 2.4 games in the tournament, playing from seeds where the average expectation was 1.6 wins. Not surprisingly, then, they outperformed their seeding as a group.
Ten of the thirty-four teams reached the Final Four, six went to the title game, and three won it. In hindsight, we can try to say those teams were different. They had some things in common with Florida. Michigan in 1989 had lost several close games in conference play, including two 1-point games to Indiana, and a close loss to Illinois. They had a reputation for not winning the big one. Arizona in 1997 had lost six straight close contests to end the season, dropping to a 4 seed. They won six close contests on the way to a national title, including two in overtime.
Now, I am not sure that this Florida team has the NBA talent of some of those teams. I don’t think there is a Joakim Noah on this roster, though Murphy (because of his shooting) and Young (as an undersized rebounding 4) will both be in the league. That Michigan team from 1989 had a lottery pick in Glen Rice, and several guys that played in the league. I don’t think they are the #1 favorite to win. I do, however, think that the regular season performance shows that they are in the mix.
Should you take them far? That depends on what kind of pool you play in. The number one rule in the NCAA tournament is “anything can happen.” The next rule, to counter that, is that the best teams tend to win more often than not, but nothing is guaranteed. Even the top teams have no better than a 20% chance to win. You will likely not get the national champion right.
If you are in a pool with Ken Pomeroy’s relatives or a bunch of math professors from small liberal arts colleges, you may want to look for value elsewhere. If you are situated between Bloomington and Louisville and in an office with a bunch of Big Ten and Cardinals fans, Florida may be the smart risk. In one of my pools where you get bonuses for lower seeds winning, you can be sure I will take that risk instead of picking a 1-seed. It all depends. It is all a risk, but at least with Florida, the reward at the end, looking at past similar teams, provides the potential for winning it all.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]
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