Saturday, March 31, 2018

College Basketball Tiers

A significant portion of my readership was likely concerned for my safety. Like clockwork, I have posted YPP and APR recaps of each FBS conference every Thursday. However, this week in honor of the Final Four I want to do something a little different. Don’t worry, we’ll pick back up with the MAC APR next Thursday and continue unabated through the remainder of the FBS conferences.

Last year over this same weekend, I wrote that conference expansion (driven primarily by football) has been making March less mad. That trend continued in the 2017-2018 season. Shortly after that post, Wichita State officially joined the American Athletic Conference further consolidating power into eight conferences (ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC). Those eight leagues each sent multiple representatives to the 2018 NCAA tournament and accounted for all of the at-large bids save one. Teams like Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee State were passed over in favor of teams from those eight conferences like Syracuse and Arizona State. Of course, St Mary’s and Middle Tennessee were not perfect at-large candidates, especially considering St Mary’s non-conference schedule and Middle Tennessee’s stumbles to close the season, but it was indicative of a disappointing (in my opinion anyway) trend. Read that previous post for a full numerical analysis of recent at-large bids. But I digress. That lone additional bid went to Nevada of the Mountain West Conference. And speaking of the Mountain West, rumors are presently swirling the league will add Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference. The move would be great for Gonzaga and the Mountain West, but it would make garnering an at-large bid for other West Coast Conference teams (like St Mary’s) infinitely more difficult. Anyway, I don’t have a whole lot more to say about mid-major teams getting at-large bids. Nothing much has changed since last season. However, I still wanted to do a numbers based basketball post.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to sports talk radio and somehow the name Fran McCaffery came up. I remembered McCaffery from his time at Siena in the late 00’s. I did not remember him at all from his time at UNCG and Lehigh prior to that. I knew he was at Iowa and I reckoned he had probably been there close to a decade. I remembered seeing Iowa in my NCAA tournament bracket a few times and thought McCaffery had done a decent job at Iowa. Has he? Iowa has made three NCAA tournament appearances (three straight from 2014-2016) in his eight season at the helm. Is this good? Or, more accurately I suppose, does this qualify as success at Iowa? Does making the tournament not quite half the time qualify as success? Obviously, McCaffery would have been run out of town were he the coach at Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or some other literal or figurative blueblood program. At Iowa though, that seems like a decent track record. Looking at McCaffery’s record made me wonder what would be considered ‘success’ at every major conference school? Since those eight conferences I mentioned in the previous paragraph account for pretty much all the at-large bids nowadays, I decided to calculate the total number of NCAA tournament appearances for each program in those eight conferences (Super Eight?) and divide them into tiers based on how often they qualified for the NCAA tournament. Fans and aspiring athletic directors can use this data to determine if it might be time to make a change at the top.

Before we dive into the results, here a few housekeeping notes. I looked at all NCAA tournament appearances since 2001. The 2001 season provides a nice arbitrary starting point since that is the year the NCAA instituted the (don’t call it a) play-in game pitting the lowest rated automatic qualifiers to determine who would advance to the main bracket as the final 16 seed. A decade later, the tournament again expanded, adding three additional play-in games and dubbing them the ‘First Four’. Going back to 2001 gives us a large cross-section of data (18 seasons), but keeps us grounded in relatively recent history. There are 101 teams in those eight conferences. Fastidious readers will notice I have only included 99 of them in the following tables. As conference membership has been quite volatile since 2001, I included any current member of a Super Eight conference as long as they were a member of a conference in the past that could at least conceivably receive an at-large bid. Thus, the only teams that were eliminated were UCF, which spent time in the low-major Atlantic Sun during this time period, and Davidson, which was a long-time member of the Southern Conference. The Southern Conference certainly has a great history, but the league has never produced an at-large NCAA tournament team. Using these criteria, UCF and Davidson are excluded, but a school like East Carolina, which has not had any recent success on the basketball court, but did play in the CAA and Conference USA before joining the American is included. If you are mad about that, well, you probably don’t have a lot to be mad about in your life, so I envy you. Finally, I included total tournament appearances and not percentage of times making the tournament. If a team was ineligible for the tournament, those extenuating circumstances did not factor into the results listed here. If you are disappointed with that decision, I recommend your team either stop cheating or start cheating better.

Anyway, with this long intro out of the way, let’s start with a list of teams that are main stays in the NCAA tournament. Teams highlighted in yellow (in each table) have appeared in at least one Final Four.
Duke, Kansas, and Michigan State. Those are the only three major conference teams (I see you waving frantically Gonzaga) to have appeared in every single NCAA tournament since 2001. If I had compiled the data before this season, Wisconsin would have joined them, but the Badgers missed out on the tournament for the first time since 1998. The other mainstays include one surprise (at least to me). Xavier has been a consistent NCAA tournament force this century despite losing four coaches to ‘better’ jobs. Going back even further, their last six coaches all won enough at Xavier to merit jobs at ‘better’ locales. Has Xavier been that good at nailing their hires or is there something in the university’s culture and infrastructure that allows them to continuously put good basketball teams on the floor regardless of the man in charge?

These next few teams have been consistent NCAA tournament participants, missing a tournament here or there, but for the most part you can expect them to appear on Selection Sunday.
It’s funny a team that just finished up a winless conference season appears as a consistent NCAA tournament team, but the Pitt Panthers have a solid history this century. This list has a vintage Big East flavor, with five teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Villanova) spending significant portions of their time in that conference.

These teams miss a tournament here or there, but more often than not, they wind up in the Big Dance.
To me, the most interesting team on this list is Connecticut. The Huskies have participated in eleven tournaments since 2001, or exactly one more than Creighton, but they have made the most of their appearances. They have won three championships (2004, 2011, and 2014) and have another Final Four appearance (2009). Along with Maryland (2002), they are the only team in the third tier or lower to win a national title since 2001.

Now we come to your ‘average’ major conference team. These teams make the tournament about half the time.
Unlike the previous three tiers, there are not a lot of Final Four participants to be found here. Whereas over 78% (25 out of 32) of the teams in Tiers 1-3 had played in a Final Four, just a quarter of the teams in Tier 4 have made it to a national semifinal.

This next group of teams sometimes makes the tournament. Casual fans know they have a basketball team, but probably don’t give them much thought.
The impetus for this exercise, Fran McCaffery’s Iowa team, appears on this list. I would say McCaffery has slightly exceeded expectations based on Iowa’s recent history, but he’s no Tom Davis. Remember when Georgia Tech made a run to the national title game? Me neither, but it did buy Paul Hewitt seven more years in Atlanta. That’s more time than a deep tourney run bought John Brady though. He was out of a job less than two years after leading LSU to the Final Four in 2006.

These schools make sporadic appearances in the NCAA tournament, but you would probably be surprised to see them in your bracket.
Most of the teams on this list are either football schools (or schools that typically invest more in football) or members of the Atlantic 10.

Finally we come to the chaffiest of the chaff. These teams have made at most one appearance in the last 18 tournaments.
Thankfully Ray Meyer and George Mikan are not around to see how much the DePaul program has imploded. The Blue Demons along with other woebegone programs in major cities like Northwestern, TCU, Fordham, and Rutgers have failed to utilize their proximity to elite talent in building their basketball programs. There is evidence that some of the teams on this list are at least trying now. TCU just made their first NCAA tournament appearance in two decades, Northwestern made their first ever appearance last season, and Tulane has a former NBA coach on the bench (though he might be past his sell by date).

So there you have it. You can tell a lot about your team by the company they keep. Which tier does your college basketball program fall under? Is the new coach pushing your team into another tier or is he dragging them down? Or do you not even know the basketball coach’s name? These tiers can serve as a starting point to determine if your coach is meeting expectations. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming next week. Thanks for reading.

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