Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Last Word On Wichita State

There probably hasn't been another topic with more #HOTSPROTSTAKES in college basketball this season than Wichita State's undefeated season. Are they an elite team that isn't getting respect because they're in a small league? Or are they a fraudulent team that hasn't beaten anybody and wouldn't be able to last in a big league and will shamefully steal a 1 seed from a more deserving major conference team? You can be sure to hear both sides of this debate repeatedly during game broadcasts, pregame/halftime/postgame shows and on "embrace the debate" type tv shows (Pardon The Interruption, First Take, etc).

The thing is that absolutely none of this is new. We went through it last season when Gonzaga got to #1 in the country and earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We go through it basically every college football season when some mid-major team is 12-0. These same dumb arguments repeat over and over again, debated to death, with nobody ever getting anywhere.

So to save us all time down the road, I'm going to plow through all the typical arguments you've heard in excruciating detail. I'm pretty sure that below I've covered some version of every argument you've lately heard on television, though if I've missed one feel free to let me know in the comments below:

Why Your Anti-Wichita State Arguments Are Wrong:

It's outrageous that they're going to earn a 1 seed! They haven't beaten anybody! If Wichita State is still undefeated on Selection Sunday (and that's no gimme as Arch Madness will probably present two realistically difficult games), Wichita State will be a 1 seed. Will they deserve it? Yes. Without question. For all the media talk about the Selection Committee taking into account "the eye test" or Pomeroy or BPI or whatever... none of it happens. Teams are given seeds according to their resume.

Now, how you want to define the best resumes is up for debate, but historically the best measure (and the one that actually correlates with NCAA Tournament seed on Selection Sunday slightly better than RPI historically) is the Sagarin PURE_ELO. That rating has Wichita State #1 in the country. In fact, the only measure of resume that I can find that doesn't have Wichita State with one of the four best resumes in the country is RPI, and it's because the RPI is dumb and Wichita State is getting punished for all of the teams with horrible RPIs in their league. Wichita State has, at the moment, one of the four best resumes in the country and it's not really debatable. If they go undefeated they'll get a 1 seed and they'll deserve it.

Any top team would go undefeated against that crap schedule! I suppose they could, but they probably wouldn't. First of all, Wichita State played some quality teams. They beat St. Louis on the road, BYU on a neutral court and Tennessee at home. Also, one of the biggest misconceptions about statistics in sports is that a favorite should win all of the games that they're favored in. Not at all. Even if you're an overwhelming 90% favorite in every single game, the odds of you winning even seven consecutive games are under 50% (47.8% to be exact). So while any single loss would be a big shock, it would also be a surprise if somehow you went all seven games without an upset. So games like road contests at Indiana State and Missouri State add up after a while. If you took any team in the country and had them play Wichita State's schedule, the "expected" number of losses would be at minimum two.

Kansas/Florida/Duke/Syracuse/Arizona/etc would wipe the floor with Wichita State! Again... they could. But Wichita State could also wipe the floor with them. In any single 40 minute sample, weird things can happen. But what would we expect when Wichita State plays a top team? Even if you take the unfriendliest rating of Wichita State (that they're somewhere around the 20th best team in the country), they'd be at most a 6 or 7 point favorite on a neutral court against the best teams in the country. Put the game on Wichita State's home court and they'd be favored against all but the top five or six teams in the country. We should expect competitive games.

This argument, by the way, is one we hear in college football all the time. The idea that the SEC is so much greater than everybody else that the top teams in other leagues would get destroyed by Alabama/Auburn/Florida/LSU/whoever. This basically falls under the category of taunting. There's no way to come to that conclusion analytically.

Wichita State has it physically easy in their league and don't get worn down! Wichita State is too soft due to their league and will get crushed as soon as they see a real team in the NCAA Tourney! I grouped these two arguments together because we hear them all the time (again, these are common in college football), despite the fact that they're mutually contradictory arguments. And really, haven't we had enough NCAA Tournaments to know that this is all ridiculous? There is no evidence that on net mid-majors over-perform or under-perform their computer numbers by any significant amount. Teams do not see their performances helped or hindered by their league.

We got this one a lot when Gonzaga went down early in the NCAA Tournament last season. It was proof that they were a fraud 1 seed and mid-majors didn't deserve to be ranked so high! Of course, who did they lose to? Wichita State, who went to the Final Four with a team that I think everybody agrees wasn't as strong as this year's team is. So if you think this Wichita State team can't make a Final Four, how the hell did last year's team do it?

Why Your Pro-Wichita State Arguments Are Wrong:

Wichita State beat everybody on their schedule, while other teams didn't! All you can do is win your games! This is a popular argument in college football, where undefeated teams routinely get over-ranked. A glaring case this past football season was Northern Illinois getting up to around 12th in the country in the regular season (and some voters putting them as high as 4th), even though they'd been squeaking by against a terrible schedule all season and were ranked near 60th in the computers. Analysts treated them the same as the Boise State and TCU teams from a few years back, making the same arguments for them. Basically, they were saying "We know of no way to judge a mid-major team but whether they're undefeated or not". If you can't tell the difference between strength of schedule and margin of victory for mid-major teams, you're admitting that you're not qualified to analyze your sport. You're saying "I'm an analyst who can't analyze".

Wichita State is #1! They're the best team! Wichita State is not the best team. In fact, if you use the Top 25 poll as a measure of "the eye test" or "how good teams are right now", they're pretty heavily overrated. Remember, the Top 25 polls don't measure how good teams are - they are a NASCAR-style formula where teams drop if they lose, and if they win generally move up a few lines. Depending on which rating system you prefer, Wichita State is somewhere between the 10th and 20th best teams in the country. If they earn a 1 seed they'll be the weakest 1 seed in at least several years.

Remember what I said above about how no team in the country would be expected to go undefeated against Wichita State's schedule? Well neither would Wichita State. They've been very lucky to stay undefeated as long as they have. They were down by 18 points at halftime to Missouri State. Both the St. Louis and Alabama games were one possession games in the final 30 seconds. A little bit of bad luck and Wichita State would be 27-3 and we'd be debating them as a potential bubble team.

We know Wichita State is elite because they made the Final Four last season! This argument needs to stop. Let's not be college football, where a big chunk of each year's ranking is due to performance in previous seasons. Each team has to be judged on what teams do this season only. Besides, Wichita State lost three starters from last year's team anyway. And do we give Louisville a free pass this season also due to their performance last season? No, nothing that happened last year is relevant to judging this year's team.

Why The NCAA Tournament Won't Solve Anything

We all know what is going to happen, which is that the final judgment on Wichita State's regular season will come in the postseason. If Wichita State makes a Final Four then they were legit, and if they go down in the Round of 32 or 16, they were a fraud. But this is nonsense. Do not draw any narrative conclusions from the NCAA Tournament. Ever. It's a single elimination tournament in which absolutely anything can happen over a 40 minute sample size.

We love to draw vast narratives about the NCAA Tournament... when it's convenient. So last season, Gonzaga going down early was proof that they were a fraud, but a few years back when Kansas lost to Northern Iowa in the Round of 32, nobody felt that Kansas and the entire Big 12 were frauds. Similarly, Florida and Louisville were the two teams rated far higher in the advanced metrics than the human polls all season long last year. Florida not advancing to the Final Four was a "blow for the advanced metrics", but Louisville winning the title wasn't a victory for the advanced metrics. We come to the conclusions we want when we choose to.

I talked about this back in October with Steve Alford, who is known as a "regular season coach" who can't get it done in the Tournament. Has he underperformed his projected seed historically? Yes. But by about three games over more than a decade. An entire narrative based on the outcome of three close games over a decade? This is definitive? Come on.

An inferior Wichita State last season to this year's Wichita State team made the Final Four. So obviously this year's team can make a Final Four. But they could also lose to a dangerous 8/9 seed in the Round of 32, since a 1 seed loses to an 8/9 seed approximately once every other season. Anything can happen. To re-paint over the entire season due to the result of one game in the NCAA Tournament is necessarily going to be a false argument.

Everybody is giving their hard take on Wichita State, but the answer to all of it really is "I don't know". Is Wichita State a top ten team? Maybe. Do they have the best resume in the country? Maybe. Are they overrated? Eh, probably. But nothing that happens from here on out will give us definitive answers. Hot takes on Wichita State mainly exist as a way to drive tv viewers and web traffic, so....

Wait a minute. That's not what this article is about! Hang on a second!


Bart Torvik said...

All we know is that we know nothing.

Great thing about sports, though, is that there is no "last word." We can debate these things forever, and that's most of the fun.

I ran some numbers on Wichita's State's schedule here and looked at how a team like Wisconsin would have likely fared against it, as well as how Wichita St. might have fared against Wisconsin's schedule...

Jeff said...

Indeed. Good stuff.