Tonight, two ACC teams will battle in the Final Four for a spot in the 2016 National Championship game. This comes a week after the second day of the Sweet 16 looked more like the ACC Tournament semi-finals. Yes, the next basketball super-conference has officially been born, and it stretches from South Beach to Upstate New York. Don't believe me? Check out some of these stats:
- Regardless of who wins this year's title, the ACC is guaranteed to break the NCAA record for most number of units earned (i.e. games played) for one conference in one tournament.
- A year after tying the all-time record for Sweet 16 teams from one conference (five teams, tying the Big East in 2009), the ACC broke the record with six.
- The 11 Sweet 16 entrants over the last two years is as many as the Pac-12 has sent to the Sweet 16 in the last seven years. It's also just one and two fewer than what the SEC and Big 12 have respectively sent over the last seven years.
- Prior to the Final Four, the ACC has a combined 35-10 record over the last two NCAATs, with 3 of the 10 losses coming to other ACC teams. That's more wins in that time period than the Big 12 and the Big 10 combined (34-27 combined record). It's also more wins than the Big East, SEC, and Pac-12 combined (33-29 combined record).
- Syracuse, a 2016 Final Four team, lost more games in conference play this season than ACC teams have lost to non-ACC teams in the 2015 and 2016 NCAATs combined.
And yet, there is one stat the ACC does not lead the country in over the last two years--number of tournament bids.
# of NCAAT Bids Last Two Years
If the ACC is so clearly dominating the rest of the nation in the NCAA Tournament--and there is zero argument to be made otherwise--why are they seemingly "just another power conference" when it comes to earning NCAAT bids?
Ask enough people and you'll hear answers ranging from committee biases, to bad luck, to seven or eight teams just being the natural cap on how many teams from one conference can be selected. But after looking at some data, I think there are two tangible reasons for why the ACC hasn't been getting its just due: 1. The sheer volume of elite teams; 2. The Committee's continued reliance on the outdated RPI.
1. The Sheer Volume of Elite Teams
The truth is, not all tournament teams are created equally. As with any bell curve, the difference between team 1-20 is far greater than the difference between 21-40. And in college basketball, the difference between 1-10 is about the same as the difference between 30-50.
However, when Selection Sunday rolls around, you don't hear a lot of talk about records against the elite teams (for the sake of having a cut-off, let's say "elite" equals top 20 on kenpom, which is the just over the top 5% of college basketball teams). Instead, we hear about records against "top 50," "top 100," or top 150."
Beating top 50 or top 100 teams is one thing. Beating top 20 teams is quite another. And beating top 20 teams on the road...well, good luck. As an example, FSU played 12 games against Kenpom top 40 teams in 2016, going 5-7 in those games. Of those 12, six were against top 20 teams, and the Noles went 1-5. And herein lies the problem for the ACC.
The ACC currently has five teams in the Kenpom top 20, the most in the country (and a sixth is 22nd). In fact, it's as many as the Big East, SEC, and Pac-12 combined. Sound familiar? In 2015, the story was exactly the same: the ACC led the country with 5 teams finishing in the Kenpom top 20...which was, again, as many as the Big East, Pac-12, and SEC combined.
Now, for the five elite teams in the ACC, this really isn't a big issue. They rack up enough wins elsewhere that a few road conference losses might only be the difference between a 2 seed and a 3 seed. But for the merely "good" teams situated between 21 and 50, this results in losses piling up.
Consider that non-Oregon teams in the Pac-12 only played one "elite" team in conference play this year. And Oregon didn't play any! Teams in the SEC not named Texas A&M and Kentucky played two elite teams in conference play this year, while the Aggies and Wildcats played one each. Compare that with teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech, FSU, and Pitt that had to play 5 different "elite" teams in ACC play. Not surprisingly, those four teams lost 37 conference games and only one of the four made the NCAAT.
This places middle-of -the-pack ACC teams in a quandary: Do you make the cardinal sin and schedule a weak OOC schedule in order to ensure you finish with no more than 10 or 11 losses on the year? Or do you hope the committee recognizes that finishing 8-10 in the ACC is a tougher accomplishment than finishing 10-8 in the Big 10, or even 11-7 or 12-6 in the SEC, Pac-12, or Big East?
In college football, it seems to be a common assumption that a 1-loss SEC team is equal to or better than undefeated teams from all other conferences. Heck, some people would assert that a 2-loss SEC team deserves inclusion into the CFP over 1-loss or undefeated teams from lesser conferences. But so far, the college basketball committee does not seem to extend similar assumptions to ACC teams with higher loss counts.
Speaking of the Committee, this brings us to the second point.
2. The Committee's Continued Reliance on the Outdated RPI
The RPI is a crude tool. It has its place in college basketball, but in no way should it be the ranking system that the bulk of the NCAAT Committee's data is based on. And yet, every year all those "top 50," "top 100," and "sos" conversations revolve around the RPI. And this is a problem.
While Kenpom says the Pac-12 has one elite team in 2016 (Oregon), the RPI says they have three, adding Utah and Cal. Utah, the 38th ranked team on Kenpom is 8th in the RPI. The Committee awarded them a 3 seed, right in line with a team ranked 8th, but far above a team ranked 38th.
But it doesn't stop there. Four Pac-12 teams are in the Kenpom top 50, compared to six in the RPI top 50, with a 7th at 51. Now it starts to make a little more sense as to why the Pac-12 and the ACC received the same number of bids in 2016.
The biggest issue with the RPI is it is easily manipulated, and conferences who do manipulate it set up a house of cards effect.
The RPI gives more credit for away and neutral site wins than it does home wins. A lot more credit. So schedule some road games against below average teams and you'll be rewarded in the RPI.
The RPI also judges a 30 point win over any team with a 21-10 record exactly the same as a 1 point win over any other team with a 21-10 record. In the real world, this would mean beating Wagner (21-10 out of the NEC) by 1 point is treated the same as beating Iowa (21-10 out of the Big 10) by 30 points. And this is the ranking system on which NCAAT selections are based?!
Now, those who say, 'Well, the ACC should just do a better job gaming the system," I don't disagree. I do wish FSU (and Clemson, and GT, and all ACC teams) would schedule smarter. But that "solution" is also ignoring the real problem. If the goal is to select the 36 best at-large teams into the NCAAT, why are we continuing to rely on data that is clearly flawed? Why are we incentivizing teams and conferences to manipulate a flawed system, as opposed to fixing the system?
As we look forward into the near-future, it's not hard to imagine continued dominance by the ACC. Five of this year's top 11 recruiting classes currently belong to ACC programs. Only one other conference has three in the top 15, and no other conferences have more than two in the top 12.
But while the 800-pound gorilla doesn't look to be releasing it's grip on college basketball anytime soon, will the committee start to recognize this dominance?