Beware backing season’s big overachievers in NCAAs

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Notre Dame says it’s not thinking about a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Maybe that’s a good thing. The lower the expectations, the better.

The Irish went from unranked in the AP preseason poll to No. 4 in the latest edition. At 26-5 overall, it’s been a banner year for Mike Brey’s team, which would certainly qualify them as one of the season’s biggest overachievers. Also in that group is Texas, which is ranked 10th.

Problem is, those kinds of overachievers (unranked to Top 10 entering the tourney) haven’t reached the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 65 teams in 1985. That’s right, 0-41.

That includes eight teams that went from unranked to No. 1 seed, and 17 that were unranked and then No. 2 seeds.

As Nate Silver writes in the N.Y. Times, it’s almost certainly a case of reversion to the mean. Those poor overachievers simply set themselves up for not living up to the new expectations.

That’s an important note for those filling out brackets – as are preseason polls. I’ll let Silver explain:

Even though the college basketball season is fairly long, however, it turns out to be a mistake to entirely dismiss preseason expectations, even late in the year. Instead — I’ve studied this issue in preparation for the N.C.A.A. tournament projections that we’re going to release next week — the optimal blend for predictive purposes turns out to be something like five parts in-season performance to one part preseason expectations.

Obviously, this implies that in-season performance — such as measured by computer power ratings — ought to be weighted much more heavily. But preseason expectations do deserve some consideration, and accounting for them might allow you to win an extra game or two in your tournament pool. Teams that have vastly overachieved expectations, like Notre Dame or San Diego State this year, are decent picks to be upset.

But before you go backing schools like Michigan State and Kansas State, consider that those underachievers, which usually snag lower seeds, also rarely reach the Final Four. Only ’88 Kansas and ’00 North Carolina did so. Pick those underachievers to pull an upset or two. That’s it.

And those overachievers? Put them down for two wins as well.

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