A recent trend in the NCAA basketball tournament is the for a ton of Big East teams to be chosen and ranked highly and then to have most of those teams flame out early. OK, we already knew that, but let’s look a little closer. The figure below shows the tournament ranking of teams by conference. A scale of perceived conference strength is based on the number of teams selected from each conference and the average ranking of those teams. The higher the number, the stronger the conference is perceived. We compare that to the winning percentage of each conference in the first round for the 2010 and 2011 tournaments. What we see is that most of the major conferences are grouped close together (Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12). However, a few patterns do emerge. First, the Big East was consistently given more teams with higher ranks than the other conferences while winning their first round games at a lower rate. The ACC won more often (not surprising) even though having a mediocre rating overall, though much of this was driven by two fairly well known teams. Even so, we are only looking at first round games so there are still limits to how much the heavy hitters can raise conference performance. The PAC 10, which had few teams chosen and generally lacked high seeds, won all their first round games. This is even more striking when you consider the number of games against opponents that were seeded higher. Before taking this too far though, it should be noted that there were not very many PAC-10 teams to analyze, so this result might be a little flimsy. Understanding that, however, the data does hint at an east-coast bias.
Are the Big East teams being ranked higher for some reason or are those teams underperforming in the tournament? It’s difficult to say, but the teams play in big games all season, so they should be prepared as any for the circus that awaits them in March. Perhaps travel is something that Big East teams don’t have to deal with as much as their PAC 10 counterparts? On the other had, Pac 10 teams don’t make it very deep into March. With no higher seeds, the Pac 10 has not had a team advance past the sweet sixteen in the last two years. Perhaps conferences that have 1-2 elite teams have some sort of inertia that extends to the ranking of their lower seeds? Difficult to speculate what’s behind this pattern, but fans can always enjoy the argument.