Obviously, as this is the average across all the thousands of simulations, the individual figures obscure the fact that sometimes, they got more bids, and sometimes they got less. In some simulations, all the Big Ten teams made it to the dance. In some simulations, it was a one-bid league. But this is not a very satisfying explanation, so I thought it wise to dig into how those bid totals were distributed. Just how often did each conference end up dominating the field vs bottoming-out. After all, the same average value can come from many different distributions.
- Atlantic Coast Conference
- Ivy League
- Big Ten
- Patriot League
- Big East Conference
- Colonial Athletic Association
- Northeast Conference
- America East Conference
- Metro Atlantic Athletic
My biggest takeaway from the table above is just how wide a spread there is. When I saw the ACC estimate of 2.7 bids, I assumed the distribution would be close to “60% of the time, they got 3 bids, 40% of the time it was 2.”
So it was shocking to see that in 9% of the simulations, the ACC was a one-bid league. Moral of the story: there is no iron-clad rule that traditional powers need to dominate the NCAA field.
In fact, as talent spreads out around Division 1, having some surprising one-bid leagues is probably going to become more likely.
The other thing that was a bit surprising was the fact that the distributions were generally skewed to the low end. In the case of the ACC, there was a much greater chance of a single bid than of all 5 teams making it.
I was thinking that a conference can be really good or really bad and the high and low end of the distributions would be equally likely to occur.
In retrospect, this is obviously not the case, and I can think of two reasons. First, is the presence of bid thieves. Come the end of April, the number of available at-large spots is still unknown because anything can happen in conference tournaments.
In just about every conference outside the B1G and ACC, there is a non-negligible chance of a lower-tier team stealing a bid via an upset in the conference tournament. Every time that happens, another bubble team, who might get in normally, is left out. This naturally depresses the chances of a conference’s 4th or 5th best team sneaking in.
The other factor is cannibalism (no really). For a conference to get a large number of teams in, their lower-ranked teams have to, by definition, have strong resumes. Strong resumes mean a relative paucity of losses.
But for all teams in a league to have a relative paucity of losses, that means those teams have to really dominate the OOC portion of their schedules. If they didn’t, then the OOC losses, plus the conference losses would mean at least some teams do not have a tournament-worthy resume.
Another way to think about it is that resume-boosting wins have to come out-of-conference because if all the teams in a conference are muddled up, none of the conference wins will stand out.
My guess is that the only way the ACC, for example, could get 5 teams in is to have all 5 teams fall between 5 and 11 in the final RPI. If any of the ACC teams are ranked higher than 5th, it probably means that at least one of them is going to fall below 11, which is generally the end of bubble safety.
It is early and a lot can happen
I should have pointed this out at the top of the post, but all the projections I’ve written about so far were based on the final Lax-ELO ratings from 2019. This was probably a mistake on my part, because it means that they reflect the final strength of last year’s team rather than the actual strength of this year’s team.
Now that said, we don’t know how strong each team is yet, so last year is probably a pretty good starting place. But as games start to become finals instead of hypotheticals, each team’s true strength will start to reveal itself. So when you consider that every team is still an unknown at this point, a more realistic assessment of any team’s chances at post-season success is probably even wider than what the numbers suggest.
So while the NEC is probably not going to magically end up with 3 teams in the field, it could happen. And while the chances of the ACC getting one-bid seems fanciful right now, it could happen. These teams are not playing a lot of games, and while the ball is round, it can still bounce in funny ways. All it takes is one or two games going a different way for a team that looked like a lock to become a bubble team (remember the Terps last year?).
And then there are injuries, snow-storms that cause pivotal games to be cancelled, and a whole host of other things that we didn’t see coming. Point is, extrapolating from last year is dangerous. Who saw the rise of Albany 2 years before it happened? When they were at their peak, who would have thought they’d be looking up at Vermont already?
I’m fond of inter-sport metaphors, and this seemed like a good time for one. In the 90’s, Nebraska football was on top of the world, and they had top-tier pedigree to go with it. This was a team that defined college football, and they had the W/L record to back it up.
Two decades later, and where is Nebraska? An also-ran in the Big Ten.
There is nothing built in to the system that says that the ACC or Big Ten needs to have the most teams in the NCAA field. There is no rule that says that Hopkins has to be good. There is no reason that a team like High Point or Richmond or freaking Quinnipiac can’t become the Albany of the 2020’s.
And as the table at the top shows, as we start this 2020 season, just about anything is possible.