Thursday, March 4, 2010

2010 Men's College Basketball Conference Tournament Probabilities: West Coast Conference

Part 12 of a 30 part series. Using Sagarin's Predictor ratings in a prediction formula, I'll weigh the probability of each conference team in each possible tournament matchup and through a Markov chain determine their chances of winning the tournament.

As you see above, the West Coast Conference tournament has a weird and wonky four round, 8-team tourney format that actually seems a lot more fair than the conventional single-elimination formats when you think about it.

It's formatted like a stepladder: The 5-8 seeds have to win four games to win the tournament, whereas the 3-4 seeds only have to win three and the top two seeds only have to win two. In round one, 5 plays 8 and 6 plays 7. The 5-8 winner get #4 and the 6-7 winner gets #3 in the next round. The winner of #4's game gets #1 in the Semis while the winner of #3's game gets #2, and then the tourney proceeds as usual from there. You can look at the format here.

This format rewards teams that earned the best records in the conference while forcing lesser teams to do more to win, instead of giving everyone a level playing field and giving the worst team in the conference a chance to win their way in with roughly as many games as the #1 team. The WCC format places a premium on regular season in-conference performance, something many feel has an increasingly diminishing significance in the tournament era.

This format also allows a conference to stretch an 8 team tournament out over four days, with three consecutive days of doubleheaders before a title game, compared to cramming in four quarterfinal games in the first day, or staggering the quarterfinal games over two days and then giving someone an extra day of rest that could prove an advantage in the semis or finals.

I actually think more conferences should utilize the WCC's sort of format. It was clearly designed in part to give their best team (Gonzaga) an easy road to the NCAA's and bolster the Zags' potential NCAA Tourney seeding by minimizing the chances of an upset to a weaker WCC team. But it may be a worthwhile format for smaller conferences looking to send their best teams to the NCAA's and/or better reward those with the best conference records, while allowing the conference to run a full four day slate of games that can sell additional tickets and net additional media coverage.

Now, I can see why some major and mid-major conferences would not want to give their top seeds this advantage or their lower seeds this disadvantage. In the case of every major conference and some mid-majors, it's to their advantage for a lesser team to pull an upset and win the conference tournament, as it typically gives the conference an extra NCAA Tournament bid.

See, several teams in these conferences are rated highly enough to get in at-large, and don't need to win the tournament. But these conferences also have several teams out of contention that certainly won't get in at-large, and to get any of those teams in through winning the conference tournament is a bonus to the conference, leading to extra exposure and undoubtedly extra money for the conference and schools.

I won't go as far as to say that conferences will have their leading teams take a dive or have officials dive qualified teams with biased officiating to Grand-Chawhee an extra team in. But I attest that it's to their long-term advantage to get as many of their teams into the NCAAs as possible, and thus it's to their advantage to give the lesser teams the best chance possible to win out and earn the automatic bid. So while the WCC format is better for rewarding top conference teams and maiximizing their NCAA Tourney hopes, it's unlikely we'll see major and mid-major conferences adopt it for the reasons stated. The predominant format's straight-forwardness best allows for upsets.

Now... the 2010 tournament. For the second straight year, the modest Orleans Arena in Las Vegas hosts the tourney, making the court totally neutral. You would think Gonzaga is the favorite as the #1 seed has a bye into the Semis, but the combo of possible matchups actually suits #2 St Mary's-CA better (49.6%). Despite the loss of 2009 star Paddy Mills, #2 seed St Mary's-CA not only hasn't missed a beat but may have gotten better. However, it's probably best to say they need to win the whole thing if they want into the NCAAs: They can't lose in a likely final to Gonzaga without taking a ratings hit that likely leaves them on the wrong end of the bubble.

Beyond that, everyone else is as expected a longshot. The closest shot is #4 Portland at 9 to 1. Also, Gonzaga can retain their at-large chances with a finals loss to St Mary's, but don't believe the Bracketology hype about them netting a 4 or 5 seed. Their ratings currently project them in the 8-ish seed range.

1. Gonzaga: 8 to 5 (37.8%)
2. St Mary's-CA: Even (49.6%)
3. San Francisco: 131.4 to 1
4. Portland: 9.1 to 1
5. Loyola Marymount: 159.4 to 1
6. San Diego: 208.6 to 1
7. Santa Clara: 2135.1 to 1
8. Pepperdine: 21581.8 to 1

Just for fun, I ran the odds in a hypothetical scenario where the WCC plays a conventional 8 team bracket (1 vs 8, 4 vs 5, 3 vs 6, 2 vs 7), with four quarterfinal games, the winners meeting in the Semis and then a Final. Here's how the odds would have changed:

1. Gonzaga: 8 to 5 (38.8%)
2. St Mary's-CA: 6 to 5 (46.8%)
3. San Francisco: 104.2 to 1
4. Portland: 7.9 to 1
5. Loyola Marymount: 110.5 to 1
6. San Diego: 94.6 to 1
7. Santa Clara: 415.7 to 1
8. Pepperdine: 2118.8 to 1

Notice St Mary's odds go down and Gonzaga's stays flat while everyone else's goes up. Instead of the top two needing two wins to take the title and the bottom four needing four wins, everyone simply needs to win three, which changes the scope completely. That's an illustration of the advantage the byes of the current format give the #1 and #2 seeds.

Next: The Big Sky

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