Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bo Ryan Really Should Have Been to a Final Four By Now

Another successful season has come and gone for the Wisconsin basketball team. In some ways, it was a surprisingly successful season. After Josh Gasser's injury, my expectations for this season plummeted. But they were still a good team. They had the ability to make a run in this year's tournament. Instead, they lost in the first round—for just the second time in Bo Ryan's 12 trips to the tournament.

Based on the current Ken Pomeroy ratings (including all tournament games played so far), this year's Badgers were expected to win 1.58 games. They were big favorites against Ole Miss, and would have been favored to win in the second round, too, even if Kansas State had beaten La Salle. Their performance of -1.58 is the lowest of the Bo Ryan era—even worse than the 2-seeded 2008 team that lost to UNLV in the second round. (That team was expected to win 2.3 games and won one, for a -1.30 performance.) Indeed, it was one of the most disappointing results of the past 11 seasons. Here are the worst tournament performances (as compared to expected wins) since 2002-03:

One thing you'll notice about that list is that it is a who's-who of college basketball. Kansas has had three of the six most disappointing seasons. Georgetown is (unsurprisingly) on it twice, as is Duke. And Pitt shows up (though not this year's Pitt team, despite its disappointing first-round exit). The lesson is: high expectations mean bigger disappointments. Indeed, this is is one of life's core insights, which is why I try always to keep expectations low.

Yet the question arises, after so many years of very good Badgers teams that couldn't make a run in the tournament: what should we expect from the Badgers? To answer this question I used the final Kenpom numbers from every year since 2003 and ran 10,000 simulated tournaments for each year. Here are the results for the Badgers:

What you see is several years where the Badgers had a decent chance (greater than 10%) to make the Final Four.* (Ironically, they made their deepest run, to the Elite Eight, in one of the years (2005) when they had their lowest chance at the Final Four.) Overall, the number suggest that in the average universe the Badgers have been to 1 or 2 Final Fours over the past 11 seasons. Their chance of making at least one Final Four (that is, the inverse of the chance that they would have missed the Final Four every year) in that period is 76%.

The numbers don't lie. Bo Ryan's Badgers deserve to have gone to a Final Four. Why haven't they? Dan Hanner asked this question last week, and proposed a number of possibilities:
Does a system based on making fewer mistakes than your opponent fail when you get into the tournament and every opponent is playing fundamentally sound basketball? Is Top 100 talent more important in the tournament than in the regular season? Does the slow tempo mean that even if Wisconsin is better, they do not have enough possessions to pull away from their opponents? Does the dependence on outside shooting make the Badgers less consistent? All of these things are probably true to some degree. But it is also quite possible that Bo Ryan has just had a string of bad luck.
I will consider (and debunk) these hypotheses in my next post.

*Of course, this data leaves out Bo Ryan's first year. But it's safe to assume that team had basically no chance of making a Final Four—probably 1% at best, which is the average for 8-seeds in my data.

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