Monday, November 27, 2006

Why Butler Won't be a Single-Digit Seed

The 21st century media machine can turn anyone from underrated to overhyped in days. Case in point is Butler, a Horizon League team that up to this point has only really been known for messing up brackets in March. They looked tough from the opening tip this season, catching my eye after a very good comeback win against Indiana. Suddenly, they get hot and knock off Tennessee and Gonzaga in a row and they've been annointed the new... well, Gonzaga. The new polls this week have them 18th and 19th in the entire country. In other words, the pollsters would put Butler as a #5 seed in the tournament right now? Really? Two reasons that they can forget about that:

Butler Isn't One of the Top 25 Teams in the Country:

We talk a lot in sports about momentum, about how teams can get hot and outperform their abilities for a short period of time. It's how George Mason made a run into the Final Four. Not a single fan of that team thinks they'd have won a Best-of-Seven series against that UConn Huskies team. And, obviously, Butler was on a hot run through that NIT. Isn't it possible that their run through Tennessee and Gonzaga was no different from George Mason's run? But of course, at BasketballPredictions we need some deeper analysis than that. So, the response to the "Butler just got hot" argument is obvious: They beat a Gonzaga team that was also hot. The Zags had just knocked off a superior Tar Heels team, and was clearly on a run themselves. Which brings me to an issue not talked about nearly enough in sports: The Letdown game:

It's normal for a team to get jacked up, to look forward to one big game. A defining game, a game so big that it's impossible for a team to look past it. And teams almost always perform better in those games. They are too excited and motivated to not perform to their best that game. But after that big win, the natural reaction is to rest back. Suddenly, the team thinks that they deserved that win because they were better - not because they were just motivated for a defining game. Meanwhile, the media hypes the team, thinking the same thing, and fills them with unreal expectations. Naturally, the team is due for a letdown. It's why the Sports Illustrated cover curse isn't a curse, it's a natural side-effect of a situation. Look at what happened to Big East football this year. West Virginia heard all the talk about a National Title run and ran into a Louisville team playing what was considered the biggest game in the history of the state of Kentucky. This led to Louisville hearing daily how they deserved a shot against Ohio State and running into a Rutgers team playing its own "biggest game in school history." Naturally, Rutgers responded to its own National Title talk by coming back to Earth and getting creamed by Cincinnati the next week.

Now, Gonzaga's game against North Carolina wasn't exactly a school-defining game, but it was clearly the game of early season for those kids. They had looked forward to it for 8 months, and played their hearts out winning one of the biggest games in school history. It's only natural to expect them to come out flat the next game. And they did, letting Butler run up an early lead before chipping into it the rest of the game. Also, the Zags didn't come out of that UNC game on a "hot streak" - they expected to be good. They view themselves as one of the top 25 teams in the country and view any good win as just performing to their potential - not as a fluke. They weren't saying "Oh boy, maybe we can take out Butler and win this whole thing!" They said, "Great, all we have left is Butler" and they paid for that with a slow start. Of course, Butler has their own letdown games to worry about. As I predicted, Butler had a very tough time with Kent State. They're due to return to Earth soon. They have a good solid senior core, and might even have enough of a resume already to merit serious at-large consideration if they lose in their conference tournament. But it just doesn't make sense to consider them a top-20 team right now.

Even if they are, they're not getting a single-digit seed anyway:

Butler fans need to realize that no matter how good the team is, it's incredibly hard for a team from a weak conference to get a top seed. For one thing, the tournament selection committee doesn't like to give high seeds to small conference schools. With a school like Butler, you can't expect to divide their national ranking by 4 and correctly predict their seed. It's why Gonzaga has continually struggled to get a top seeding. And they only put themselves in contention for top seeding by dominating their conference. They had to win every game, because they simply had no "good losses" in conference. Last season the Zags successfully made an undefeated run through conference play - wearing them out psychologically, but keeping them in the hunt for a good seed. Butler is in the same situation - there are no "good losses" in the Horizon. What happens when they lose to Wright State or Detroit? They're going to plummet in the polls. Butler needs to win every game to stay up in the polls, and whenever they lose it's impossible to move back up the ranking ladder because they're beating Illinois-Chicago while other schools are beating BCS conference teams. The Missouri Valley is probably the strongest exception to this rule. There are a lot of teams that the pollsters consider "good" losses/wins. Schools like Southern Illinois won't get punished for losing to Northern Iowa or Missouri State the way that Butler will for losing in conference. It's not fair, but that's how it is.

No comments: