28 March 2013

Rating Systems Challenge: Regional Preview

This post is one in a series investigating how the various college basketball rating systems predict the men's NCAA Tournament. Click here to read the rest.

The Men's NCAA Tournament returns tonight at 7PM EST, bringing with it the potential for some exciting upsets on the way to the Elite Eight. Ten schools that were not the top seed in their region when the tournament began have a chance to advance. Two of those original top seeds—1 Gonzaga and 2 Georgetown—have been eliminated, clearing the way for Cinderellas such as 9 Wichita State, 13 La Salle and 15 Florida Gulf Coast.

In fact, with Wichita State and La Salle facing off against one-another, we are guaranteed to see a 9-seed or lower advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since, well, 11-seed VCU reached the Final Four two years ago.

Unfortunately—but unsurprisingly—none of the rating systems under review picked any of those underdogs to advance that far. The gutsiest picks of these systems were 4 Michigan (picked by the two preseason polls and Sports Reference), 3 Marquette (picked by the ESPN Preseason Poll) and 3 Florida.*

*Florida is such an "underdog" that fifteen systems originally picked them over Georgetown. Of course, Florida won't play Georgetown; they'll be attempting to teach FGCU what midnight feels like, a likely win nobody would call an upset.

Most of these upsets would play a role only as spoilers. If Florida advances, just about every system wins. If any of the major upsets occurs, few of the systems will benefit directly (some may benefit indirectly by eliminating their competitors' Final Four picks). However, a win by Michigan could do some damage, elevating the preseason polls and giving Sports Reference a significant lead heading into the Regional Finals.

It may in fact be more informative to focus on what the systems have lost rather than speculate on what they may gain. Every team in the Challenge has lost at least one Elite Eight pick, some more than one. Take a look at how this might affect the various systems:

Gonzaga's loss, while shocking, was not particularly disastrous. Since nearly every system made that mistake, the relative damage of that upset was small—and the systems that benefited (I'm looking at you, Nolan Power Index) made too many other risky choices to gain from this one. The systems that picked Georgetown (I'm looking at you, Nolan Power Index) are in a much weaker position, as are the systems that took chances on 3 New Mexico, 5 Wisconsin and 6 Butler.

Lunardi RPI is on the shakiest ground of all. Three of their eight picks to reach the regional finals—1 Gonzaga, Georgetown and 3 New Mexico—are all heading back to campus empty-handed. Seven systems are missing two picks, while the rest are missing only one. These systems are going to need big wins from Duke or Indiana to rectify their errors and separate themselves from the pack (a win by Louisville would win them points, but as the most favored team it would win points for too many other systems as well).

This illustrates the problem of making picks in March. You can't be too conservative, but when you take risks you have to take the right ones. We've seen a number of exciting upsets in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but very few that the systems have been able to capitalize on. The best approach is to pick plausible upsets that are not too popular. From this standpoint, the systems that picked Michigan have the best shot going forward. Perhaps it's not too surprising that two of them—Sports Reference and the ESPN Preseason Poll—are in the lead.

Will they stay there? Following along with the 2013 Rational Pastime Rating Systems Challenge during tonight's action, then tune in tomorrow to see how these systems did.

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