Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Release The Brackets

What Happened Last Week: Yale (NCAA), Princeton (NIT) and Columbia (CIT) learned who and when they will play next. Penn’s women topped Princeton for the outright championship. The Ivy League announced its postseason awards, and the 14-Game Tournament is no more.

Postseason previews:

NCAA Tournament: No. 12 Yale vs. No. 5 Baylor, 2:45 pm Friday (CBS) — For the fourth time in seven years, the Ivy League representative earned a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament. This is most reminiscent of 2014, when Harvard was about a two-point underdog to Cincinnati in a 5-12 game (and ended up winning). Yale has risen to #38 in KenPom, a rank befitting of a 10-seed, and they’ll get to play close to home in Providence. KenPom and FiveThirtyEight each give the Bulldogs a 39% chance of advancing to the second round, where they could get a rematch with Duke.

I’m probably a bit more bearish (no pun intended, honest!), because Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod won’t have the same physical advantage they had in Ivy League play, so the onus will be on the Bulldogs’ backcourt to make plays and defend. Ivy teams since Cornell haven’t done well when these games become shootouts (their upsets have come in low-scoring, ground-out games), and the Bears’ offense ranks 13th nationally per KenPom. Yale’s best chance is to focus on defense, keep the pace down, and hope its guards shoot like they did at Columbia and in the first half of Ivy play.

NIT: No. 6 Princeton at No. 3 Virginia Tech, 8 pm Wednesday (ESPNU) — The Tigers had been hoping for an NIT home game, but according to seedings, they were one of the last two teams in (with Long Beach State). On paper, home-court advantage will be most of the margin separating the two opponents, who are within seven slots in KenPom and Sagarin’s ratings. The Hokies were strong at home this year, going 7-2 there in ACC play (including wins over Virginia and Miami). But their signature skill is getting to the foul line (a nation-best 49.7 free-throw rate) — which, Penn and Columbia fans will remind you, is something the Tigers’ defense is disciplined about avoiding.

Ivy teams are 3-6 in the NIT’s modern era, but two of those wins came from the 1998-99 Tigers, perhaps this year’s team’s best historical match. If Princeton wins, it will likely draw a trip to BYU, which had issues with another Ivy team earlier this season.

CIT: Columbia vs. Norfolk State, 7 pm Wednesday — Columbia’s seniors will get to play at least one more home game. They will host Norfolk State, which is 0-9 against top-200 teams this season, including a home loss to Princeton in early January. The Lions will be heavily favored to make that 0-10. Last time they were in the CIT, they reached the quarterfinals before losing to Yale. Columbia will be one of the most talented teams in this year’s tournament, so an even deeper run is possible.

Last week’s news:

-Princeton almost blew a 17-point lead at home to Penn, but it was spared when the Quakers couldn’t get off a shot down one on the final possession. Much more was on the line in the matinee, when the Quakers won an outright title at Jadwin for the second time in three years. Penn will return to the NCAA tournament, while Princeton has a fun evening of waiting ahead (see below).

-The Ivy League announced its individual awards, which weren’t too different from our own picks. Justin Sears, to no one’s surprise, won his second Player of the Year trophy. Evan Boudreaux was named Rookie of the Year, meaning Dartmouth has had the top newcomer in back-to-back seasons (as well as last year’s real ROY, the @DartmouthMBK Twitter account). I also invented some more awards with shot-chart data.

-The league also announced a conference tournament, which will begin in 2017. My thoughts are rather mixed: I’m sad the ’14-Game Tournament’ is gone, while also looking forward to the fun of a playoff.

Three other thoughts:

1. After this year, maybe we can finally stop worrying so much about ‘depth’ in the Ivy League? It’s a nice talking point for coaches and fans, and it sounds like something that should have an outsized impact in the back-to-back grind of Ivy play. But it hasn’t stopped teams from winning titles. Though plenty fretted about Yale’s depth this year, especially after Jack Montague left the team, the Bulldogs still went 13-1. Harvard was just as thin in the backcourt in 2015, and even thinner in 2013 (when its four guards ranked in the league’s top five in minutes per game), but the Crimson went dancing both times. On the women’s side, although Penn’s rotation was down to 6-7 players by the end of this season, they still outlasted the deeper Tigers. Depth is better than no depth, but front-line talent wins Ivy championships.

2. Tonight marks the last chance for a true #2BidIvy — an at-large bid without a conference tournament. It’s also the best chance we’ve ever had in the modern era. Princeton’s women have a 23-5 overall record and rank 37th in RPI. Four of those losses are to other top-50 opponents (the fifth at #82 Dayton), and they blew out #18 Duquesne. The efficiency metrics love the Tigers — they’re 29th in the Sagarin rankings — and their reputation might still get a boost from last year’s undefeated season.

Taking an Easy Bubble Solver analogue (average of RPI and Sagarin rank), Princeton is way clear of the bubble, ranking 23rd of 32 at-large selections. (This method gives the Tigers an 8-seed, with Penn at 11). But the actual bracket is much dicier; ESPN’s bracketology has Princeton as the fourth team out. The men’s and women’s selection committees are completely separate, but today’s results still seem like a bad omen…

3. For several years, there has been very little outrage about the NCAA tournament selections and snubs. Fans of excluded teams always moan, but the actual field usually matched what experts (and objective systems like EBS) expected; Sunday’s main complaints involved seeding and bracket balance instead.

This year, however, the selections were a disaster. In particular, almost every bubble spot went to major conferences (including the American) over mid-majors, which is especially frustrating for those of us who identify with the proverbial Mid-Majority.

There’s been some RPI-blaming this evening, but that’s not really the culprit. The metric that was constantly used to explain selections was “Top-50 wins” (and its cousins). Sure, there’s some logic behind it (the NCAA tournament will feature the top 50-ish teams, so reward teams that beat similar opponents). But the flaws are blindingly obvious: (1) By definition, major-conference schools play many top-50 opponents in league play, while mid-majors play few or none. (2) Mid-majors have no clout in scheduling, so they have to go on the road to face top-50 opponents (if those opponents are willing to play at all). Meanwhile, major-conference teams get half their top-50 games at home in league play. So all told, a mid-major team will have both fewer “Top-50 wins” and a worse record in such games than the exact same team in a power conference.

Thus, a team like Tulsa gets included because of four “top-50 wins”, even though it was bad against great teams when adjusted for home/road splits. And a team like Monmouth gets left out for three “sub-200 losses”, but it played 11 of those opponents on the road — and it didn’t do much worse in such games than bubble teams in aggregate. Switching the “top 50” from RPI to KenPom or whatever would be a slight improvement, but it wouldn’t address the real issue.

I’m reminded of an insight from behavioral psychology (I believe it was Daniel Kahneman, though I can’t find the source now), that even very simple statistical models often make better decisions than human judgment — because although humans are better at spotting ‘outliers’, that causes us to think we see ‘outliers’ even where there are none. The adoption of “top-X wins” is similar: If the committee had just used each team’s actual RPI—which includes its performance against top-50 teams, sub-200 teams, and every other team! — Monmouth was ahead of Tulsa.

So add my vote to those pushing for a fully objective selection system. My preference would be for something like EBS (which would also be the least radical change), but any objective model will at least make the tradeoffs clear.

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