Monday, March 13, 2023

2023 Bracket Advice: Is Houston a Safe Bet?

Its that time once again where we take a brief respite from reviewing the previous college football season and try to give you free advice to win your March Madness pool. Before we get started, I'll refer you to my magnum opus on the subject from the tourney that didn't happen three years ago (in other words, don't pencil Purdue in for the Final Four). 

Heading into the 2023 NCAA Tournament, Houston has earned a number one seed. This marks the Cougars fifth consecutive tournament appearance with the team having earned a top six seed each time. Considering Houston appeared in one tourney between 1993 and 2017, this is an amazing accomplishment for the program and in particular head coach Kelvin Sampson. His hair may not be long, but Sampson has done some heavy lifting since becoming head coach prior to the 2015 season. This is the second ever top seed for Houston, with the other coming courtesy of the revered 1983 Phi Slama Jama squad. While Houston is slated to join the Big 12 next season, they concluded their run in the AAC in 2023. And that simple fact may bias some college basketball fans against the Cougars when filling out their brackets. Can you really trust a top seed from a 'lesser' conference? As much as you can trust any top seed in March, the answer may surprise you.

To get an idea of what we can expect from Houston in the 2023 NCAA tournament, we first need to look at other top seeds that did not come from power conferences. What do I mean by power conferences? That typically means the Power Five football leagues (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) and the Big East. However, throughout college basketball history, you can argue other leagues, like Conference USA, were power conferences at some point. I went through each top seed since 1985. The NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, but 1985 coincides with the expansion of the tournament to 64 teams and other changes shortly thereafter (the adoption of the shot clock in 1986 and the addition of the three point shot to the tournament in 1987) make 1985, in my humble opinion, the beginning of the modern era of college basketball. By my accounting, there have been 14 previous top seeds since 1985 that came from outside the power conferences. They are listed below along with their conference and their tournament run. 
Those 14 teams had a pretty successful March in aggregate. One won the title, three more played for the title, seven made the Final Four, and all but two made it to the second weekend. However, we need context for the success (or lack thereof) for those 14 teams. How do number one seeds typically perform? To get a better idea of how those 14 teams performed, we need to compare them to the other 134 teams to have received one seeds since 1985. 

We'll start with a simple comparison. These are the aggregate tournament winning percentages of each group. 
The 14 mid-majors performed in line with the other one seeds. While those 14 teams finished with a slightly lower overall wining percentage, the difference is not significant. Now we'll dive into the data a little deeper. How do those 14 teams compare with other one seeds in terms of winning in the first and second round? 
Once again, the mid-majors are on par with the other one seeds. All 14 won their first round game and only two were knocked off in the second round. Gonzaga's 2013 loss was a bad look for mid-major apologists like myself, but Wichita State deserved better in 2014 than facing an under-seeded Kentucky team. For the power conference one seeds, Virginia is the lone top seed to ever lose in the first round and the other one seeds have been knocked off in the second round at about the same clip as the mid-major one seeds. Like the first comparison, this is a push. Now lets see see how the two groups of one seeds perform in third and fourth round games. 
Here the 14 mid-majors outshine the power conference top seeds. Nearly 79% of the mid-major one seeds have advanced to the Elite Eight compared to 67% of the power conference one seeds. In addition, fully half of the mid-major one seeds advanced to the Final Four compared to 40% of the power conference one seeds. Finally, how do the mid-major one seeds compare once they get to the Final Four?
This is where the mid-majors fall short. They have advanced to the national championship game at better rates than the power conference one seeds, but they have not been able to close the deal like their power conference brethren. UNLV is the only squad to actually cut down the nets, representing just 7% of mid-major one seeds. Meanwhile, more than double that percentage (17%) of power conference one seeds have won the national title. However, the difference is not as profound as you might think. Since we are dealing with a sample size of 14 teams in the mid-major one seed category, an additional victory could have a dramatic impact on the percentages. What if Mario Chalmers did not make that heroic shot to tie the 2008 championship game with Memphis where Kansas eventually prevailed in overtime? If Memphis wins that game, the mid-majors have two titles which moves their percentage up to 14% and drops the power conference percentage down to 16%. Gonzaga is responsible for the other title game appearances by mid-major one seeds and while they were dominated in their most recent championship appearance, they led North Carolina at the half in 2017 and that game was in doubt until the final minute. 

So what can we conclude? Houston probably won't win the national title in 2023. But you can say that about the other 67 teams in the NCAA Tournament as well. The Cougars are as good a championship selection as any other number one seed, conference pedigree be damned.

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