Last month marked the beginning of the most unique playoff systems in all of Division I college basketball. One that challenges its competitors with postseason pressure from tip to buzzer from mid January to early March.
The 14-Game Tournament.
Yet the question persists: Should the Ivies follow the rest of Division I and institute a year-end conference tournament to determine which team will collect the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament?
This debate has been broached on an annual basis on this site’s message board and has been the subject of some consideration by the league office for years as well. I don’t intend to get into the qualitative arguments that have been hashed and rehashed in the usual back-and-forth banter.
The purpose of this exercise is not to try to change anyone’s mind or to advance a point of view. Instead, this work will examine some of the statements that are commonly made during the debate and will seek to quantify their effect on the likelihood of the league’s representative advancing in the Big Dance.
All data used in this study comes from America East 1980-2004, Colonial Athletic Conference 1983-2004, Northeast Conference 1982-2004, Patriot League 1992-2003, Southland Conference 1981-2004, Horizon League 1986-2004, Mid-Continent Conference 1986-2004, Southern Conference 1985-2003, Ohio Valley Conference 1984-2004, and where applicable, the Ivy League 1985-2004.
A weekend trumps two months
The conference tournament makes it possible for a team to get lucky for a weekend and undo the two months of dominance displayed by the regular season champion.
There are 188 data points from the nine non-Ivies in this study and the breakdown of NCAA tournament representatives is as follows.
Top seed: 113/188 (60.1 percent)
Second seed: 45/188 (23.9 percent)
Third seed or below: 30/188 (16.0 percent)
Since it is possible that a team could be a second or even third seed and still be in a tie atop the league standings, we’ll go a bit further and break this down by winning percentage differentials between the team that won the conference tournament and the one which won the regular season title.
0.00 or higher: 130 out of 188 (69.1 percent)
-0.10 to 0.00: 16 out of 188 (8.5 percent)
-0.20 to -0.10: 19 out of 188 (10.1 percent)
-0.20 and below: 23 out of 188 (12.2 percent)
The data shows that 69 percent of the time one of the conference winners takes home the tournament title, and that about 78 to 84 percent of the time a qualified team (that is, one which was within a position or a game of the regular season crown) grabs the automatic bid.
That being said, between 16 and 22 percent of the time, a team which is relatively unqualified or lucky takes home the tournament crown. This leads us to our next issue.
The seeding difference
How does the league benefit if a bad team takes the automatic bid, gets a 16 seed, and loses by 50 points?
For the nine non-Ivies in the sample, the average seeding for teams which won the conference tournament title but not the regular season crown was 14.4. If the team also won the regular season title, it saw a boost of nearly a full seed to 13.5. Thus, the data shows that sending a regular season champion to the Big Dance over a conference tournament surprise is worth almost one whole jump in seeding.
But whether or not a one seed jump is important depends on the given seeds in question. Regression analysis reveals the following margins of defeat for the different seeds:
16 seed: 27.1 points
15 seed: 21.2 points
14 seed: 12.7 points
13 seed: 14.0 points
12 seed: 9.8 points
11 seed: 6.1 points
So, if the difference between sending a regular season champion and a tournament champion is the difference between a 12 and a 13 seed, it’s not that big of a deal. If it’s the difference between a 14 and 15 seed, that could be cataclysmic. Excluding Princeton’s miracle run to a 5 seed, the Ivies have averaged a seed of 13.0 since 1985.
A two-bid league?
A conference tournament would make it possible for the Ivies to get two teams into the Big Dance.
Since 1985, Ivy League teams have been slotted in the following seeds:
5 seed: 1
8 seed: 1
11 seed: 5
12 seed: 2
13 seed: 3
14 seed: 2
15 seed: 3
16 seed: 3
We should break that down into three different categories – likely at-larges (10 seed and above), possible but by no means an at-large lock (11 seed), unlikely at-larges (12 seed), and no chance at an at large (13 seed and below)
Likely: 10 percent
Possible: 25 percent
Unlikely: 10 percent
No chance: 55 percent
Using the 69.1 percent figure as the percentage of time that the possible at-large team would win the conference tournament, we see that even under the most liberal estimates (i.e. assuming all 12 seeds lost in the tournament and got in at large), two teams would represent the Ivies just 13.9 percent of the time. Under the most conservative estimates (i.e. no 11 or 12 seeds get in), two teams would advance to the Big Dance just 3.1 percent of the time. The conservative figure might be better to use, considering that any scenario withn at-large bid would involve the regular season champion losing an extra game, which would probably lower its seeding as well.
In my first economics class at Harvard, the professor began by explaining the difference between “positive” and “normative” statements. Positive statements explain the facts with no indication of one’s approval or disapproval. Normative statements are subjective interpretations or opinions.
So, this is where I shift my tone from positive to normative. I personally am in favor of a postseason Ivy League tournament to decide the NCAA tournament bid. But I’m for it because of a normative judgment that I have made based on the data above.
I don’t believe that having a mediocre team steal the automatic bid two out of every 10 years is such a bad thing. I don’t believe that the difference between a 13 and 14 seed is terrible for the league’s hopes of garnering a first-round upset. And most of all, I think that even a three to 10 percent chance of getting two representatives in to the Big Dance is worth it.
Armed with the numbers presented above, feel free to return to your respective corners and make some normative judgments of your own.