The strange case of the disappearing No. 1 seeds

This is the coach of a top-seeded team cutting down the nets after a regional final.  A rare sight indeed.

The coach of a No. 1 seed cuts down the nets after a regional final. A rare sight indeed.

Florida is a heavy favorite to win the national championship, and if the Gators pull it off they’ll be the third consecutive No. 1 overall seed to do so, following in the footsteps of Anthony Davis-era Kentucky in 2012 and Siva-Dieng-Russdiculous-era Louisville in 2013.

Then again even if UF is bounced out of the bracket by Connecticut, Wisconsin, or Kentucky, you’re still looking at a pretty good run for No. 1 seeds over the last decade or so. Teams seeded on the top line have already won seven of the last nine tournaments. (Florida in 2006 and UConn in 2011, take a bow.) Life is good at the very, very top of the college hoops pyramid.

Which begs the question: If No. 1 seeds are so big and scary and dominant, how come taken as a group top seeds keep losing before they get to the Final Four? 

Call this the paradox of the best teams. Top seeds are indeed hogging the trophy and all the ball caps every April, but, en masse, they’ve never been less successful at, you know, winning NCAA tournament games.

Average number of games won by top seeds over four-tournament spans

           Average # 
           NCAAT wins
2007-2010     4.0
1991-1994     3.6
1999-2002     3.5
1987-1990     3.3
1995-1998     3.2
2003-2006     3.0
2011-2014     2.8

Worst…top seeds…ever!

I’m even putting my finger on the scales here and crediting 2014 Florida with a yet-to-materialize six wins. Conversely if the Huskies knock off the Gators that “2.8” up there will drop down to a measly 2.7. Put another way, between 2007 and 2010 Joe Average Top Seed made it to the Final Four. Now in our day and age, what with our self-scouring plows and Otis elevator safety brakes, that same top seed is huffing and puffing just to get into the Elite Eight.

Is the committee just inept when it comes to seeding the field, or is this still more evidence of the parity that’s always assumed to be increasing? I think neither.

Whatever you may think of the committee’s handiwork this season, no one inside or outside the committee room on Selection Sunday was talking up Connecticut or Kentucky for No. 1 seeds. To the extent that there was a debate along these lines, it centered on whether or not Michigan might get a top seed instead of Virginia. Also there’s the fact that the men’s basketball committee has been seeding the field in essentially the same manner for several years now, but No. 1 seeds didn’t start to go missing until quite recently.

As for parity, obviously no one’s pointing at the likes of UConn or John Calipari as evidence of a new more level playing field for the college hoops little guy. And I’m not sure anyone should be pointing at Dayton or Mercer either.

To update and refresh a definition I first scribbled out a couple years ago, if we were seeing an increase in this thing called parity I would expect to find that the best mid-major conferences were closing the gap on the major conferences. Yet that’s not what we’re seeing in terms of the seeds that are handed out for the NCAA tournament. Nor is it what we’re seeing as far as KenPom ratings. Every year, the best six mid-major conferences collectively post a Pomeroy rating that’s somewhere between 74 and 82 percent as good as what the major conferences record. In fact, that’s becoming my working definition of what a “high” mid-major conference is, one that’s somewhere between 74 and 82 percent as impressive to laptops as a major conference.

If No. 1 seeds aren’t disappearing because of bad seeding or parity, I suppose the most reasonable explanation here is bad luck. Wichita State, the Cavaliers, and Arizona lost their three games by a combined total of five points, and indeed Sean Miller’s team came within a single shot of making the Final Four and at a stroke raising No. 1 seed attendance at said event by 100 percent.

Starting in 1985 and running through the 2010 tournament, the average margin of defeat in games lost by No. 1 seeds was 7.6 points. Over the past four tournaments, however, that margin for top seeds in losing causes has shrunk to 6.4 points. In other words, top seeds are averaging fewer wins per tournament than ever before, but the losses have been closer than ever.

That’s just bad luck. If top seeds can suddenly go missing due to nothing more than a fleeting “LOL No. 1 seeds” meme being shared, “liked” and RT’d by the hoops gods, it may highlight the drawbacks of using the Final Four’s membership as a blunt instrument to hack away at evergreen topics as messy as parity or the committee’s skill and dexterity.

Postscript: When top seeds flame out. I think Wichita State, Virginia and Arizona all conducted themselves quite well in the tournament, but there have been instances in the past where the losses suffered by top seeds were emphatic, stunning and spectacular. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen one of those — as seen above, these losses have tended to be close of late — but here’s one from the archives just to remind the youngsters of what used to be possible in this area.

March 21, 1998: (3) Utah 76, (1) Arizona 51. A 30-4 Wildcat team that was defending its national championship and still had Michael Dickerson, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, and (sorry to bring this up, colleague) Miles Simon was blown off the floor in the Elite Eight by Michael Doleac, Andre Miller, and Hanno Mottola.  Score one for the AP poll: Utah entered the tournament ranked No. 5 in the nation, yet was given a spot on the 3-line by the committee. Terry came off the bench and made 4-of-9 threes for Arizona, but his teammates posted an 0-for-13 from beyond the arc. At the time and in the years since, the great defense played by Rick Majerus’ teams was sometimes assumed to involve a slow pace. In fact the Utes held Lute Olson’s team to 51 points in a 74-possession game.