Ironically, the college football team that was erroneously over-ranked and misplaced in the College Football Playoff—Oklahoma—is now the erroneously over-ranked college basketball team that would have gotten a number one seed if this week’s AP poll had been used to seed teams in the NCAA Tournament. The AP poll ranked the Sooners #4 before their crushing loss at Kansas State. The RPG system had the Sooners at a more realistic #15. That would have been a #4 seed in the tournament.
This difference is important because #1 seeds enjoy an overwhelming advantage over all other seeds in the tournament. Number one seeds have never lost an opening game because they play the weakest opposition. Number one seeds win 86.4% of their second-round games—because they play the weakest competition—and, on average, 3.5 of the four #1 seeds reach the Sweet Sixteen. In the third round, #1 seeds win 80.7% of their games and 2.79 of the 3.5 #1 seeds in the Sweet Sixteen reach the Elite Eight. Only then do #1 seeds face stiff opposition, but they still win 59.8% of their games and, on average, 1.67of the 2.79 #1 seeds that reached the Elite Eight, make it to the Final Four. And, half of all tournament winners have been #1 seeds. The odds are heavily against a team seeded lower than #3—only four such teams have won the title in the last 39 years—and the odds are heavily in favor of #1 seeds.
You might think that this overwhelming advantage is the result of #1 seeds being vastly superior to all other teams in the field but that would be incorrect. Two factors give us the real answer: 1) the committee makes mistakes in their selections of #1 seeds; and, 2) the tournament format is poorly constructed and biased toward high seeds.
According to the RPG system, the committee got three of the four #1 seeds wrong last year (only North Carolina deserved its #1 seed). One of the three wrongly-seeded teams—Gonzaga—reached the title game because of their advantage. The Zags should have been seeded #3. Another of the wrongly-seeded teams—Villanova—was beaten in the second round by #8 seed Wisconsin. But, it wasn’t an upset; both teams should have been #2 seeds.
The more influential factor is the tournament format. The best 12 teams are spread across four regions so that a #1 seed won’t meet a #2 or #3 seed—the other teams with a shot at winning the title—until the Elite Eight. A #1 seed can’t meet another #1 seed until the Final Four. Before that, best-against-worst matchups (#1 against #16, then against the #8/#9 winner, and so forth) provide the #1 seeds with clear sailing to the Elite Eight. With any luck, #2 and #3 seeds will have been upset in earlier rounds, making the task even simpler. Last year, #3 Florida State and #2 Arizona were knocked off before Gonzaga had to face them. To make matters even sillier, both Florida State and Arizona should have been #4 seeds, so the Zags were never going to play an appropriate Elite Eight opponent in any event.
Which brings us back around to Oklahoma and the importance of correctly ranking teams before the tournament. Ironically, again, the reasons for over-ranking the Sooners’ basketball team are essentially the same as the reasons for over-ranking the Sooners’ football team: both teams were fun to watch. They were fun to watch because they played at a fast pace; they were fun to watch because both teams scored a lot of points; and, they were fun to watch because their quarterback/point guard were stars who were fun to watch. That’s right, Trae Young is Baker Mayfield is Trae Young. Our eyeballs are biased toward fast paced, high scoring teams led by charismatic superstars.
However, the numbers—the correct numbers—tell us something very different. While the Sooners score the second most points per game behind only Duke, their fast pace deceives us. The Sooners play the most possessions per game by far, five more possessions than Duke, possessions potentially worth ten to fifteen points per game. When pace is properly accounted for, we find that the supposedly powerful Oklahoma offense is only the tenth most efficient at points per possession. That’s the middle of our 18-team pack. Like the football Sooners, the basketball Sooners are dead last on defense among our ranked teams, and one of only two teams to yield more than a point per possession to the opposition. The reason for the poor defense is that the Sooners are last in opponent floor shooting percentage (opponents run layup drill on the Sooners) and give up more second chance opportunities than all teams except Kansas and Kentucky.
So, rankings are important and can’t depend upon the eyeball test or box score statistics. For an explanation of how best to rank teams, buy my book, 128 Billion to 1: Ten Steps to Beat the Odds and win Your NCAA Tourney Office Pool. For a limited time, if you sign up on my Website, www.nemosnumbers.com, I’ll send you a free copy.