Monday, March 17, 2008

Addressing The Arizona/Arizona State Issue

Every time I turn on a sports analyst, all anybody wants to talk is about what a travesty it is that Arizona State got in over Arizona, and I just want to address why I had Arizona in the bracket over Arizona State and why that was the correct decision:

1) So Arizona State swept the season series... so what?
It has been stated over and over again that head-to-head match-ups are not the be-all-and-end-all of selecting teams. Before I get to why, a quick example: Hofstra sweeping George Mason and getting denied from the Tournament in 2006. The fact that George Mason then made the Final Four certainly encouraged the Selection Committee. Now, why do we ignore the head-to-head match-up? The answer is that we don't ignore it, and it's very important. But if you say that all that matters is the head-to-head sweep, then are you saying that we ignore the OTHER 30 games in the season?

The fact is that any team can win on any given day. The best team doesn't always win. Recall last season when Virginia Tech swept North Carolina and then got swept by North Carolina State. By the logical transitive properties of those results, doesn't NC State need to be in the Tournament and UNC out? Of course not, anybody would have argued, UNC was clearly better over the entire season.


The fact is that a game is a game is a game, and Arizona State's wins over Arizona are just two games to look at. If the overall Arizona resume is still better, then it's still better, and we can write off the regular season sweep as an upset, and nothing else. When analysts continue with "Arizona State swept Arizona and had the better conference record" they're actually being a big disingenuous, since Arizona State went 9-9 and Arizona went 8-10. If we recall the regular season sweep, Arizona actually went 8-8 against the rest of the Pac-10, and Arizona State only went 7-9.

Okay, so is it all about the RPI then?
I sure hope not. I heard the head of the Selection Committee say last night that Arizona State would have been the lowest RPI selected in the Tournament history, and I hope that was a coincidence and nothing else. The RPI should be essentially ignored, because it's such a poor metric compared to the better computer rankings. Now, despite the fact that the RPI stinks, the fact that Arizona was 39th and Arizona State was 82nd has to mean something, right?

If we go to the better computer rankings, they rank the teams a bit closer. Sagarin has Arizona 28th and Arizona State 41st, and Pomeroy has them 22nd and 43rd respectively.

If we stick our toes into the numbers, we see Arizona 10-12 against the RPI Top 100, and Arizona State 7-10. Also, Arizona went 7-7 in true road games while Arizona State was only 4-6.

If we go a little bit deeper, we just see that Arizona performed better against the most important subset of teams, the teams around the 30th-90th of the rankings. When you are playing Top 25 teams, you're never going to win too many. Arizona has three wins over the RPI Top 25 (Washington State twice, and UNLV), and Arizona State has two (Xavier and Stanford). But when you look at that middle gap of teams, you just see that Arizona really took care of business there, especially at home. A big game that stood out to me for Arizona State was losing at home to a mediocre California team on February 16th. Look at Arizona's regular season Pac-10 losses (ignoring the Arizona State sweep): UCLA twice, USC, Oregon twice, Stanford twice, at Washington. So, one mediocre loss, although it's always hard to beat Washington on their home court. As for Arizona State's regular season Pac-10 losses: UCLA twice, Stanford, USC, Cal, Washington, at Oregon, Washington State twice. So Arizona State has that win over Stanford and USC, and Arizona has a win over USC as well, and a sweep of Washington State. That's kind of a wash. But Arizona State's "bad" losses at home to Cal and Washington are much worse than Arizona's lone "bad" loss on the road at Washington.

Now we have to add in the fact that Arizona State swept Arizona, while Arizona got swept by Arizona State, and we give the slight edge in conference to Arizona State. But it's only slight.

If we head to the out-of-conference, Arizona has that close loss to the always-tricky Virginia. They then had close losses to Kansas and Memphis, so nothing embarrassing there. After that, they won every other game, including wins over UNLV, Texas A&M, San Diego State and Cal State Fullerton. Arizona State did have that win over Xavier, but what is less often mentioned is how atrocious the rest of that out-of-conference resume is. They lost to mediocre Illinois and Nebraska teams, and their best win (other than Xavier) was over LSU. That means they had all of ONE out-of-conference win over the RPI Top 175. Arizona had six of those.

You want the exact numbers? Arizona had an out-of-conference strength of schedule of 5th, and an out-of-conference RPI of 5th. Arizona State had an out-of-conference strength of schedule of 296th, and an out-of-conference RPI of 110th.

That massive out-of-conference disparity is what gave the Arizona the significantly better computer numbers. Arizona State should have put together a harder out-of-conference schedule if they wanted to earn a Tournament bid. Like Florida, they put together a patsy first two months in order to ease in the youngsters. And like Florida, they got snake-bit by that very schedule.

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