Don’t fear the layoff


This week when I attended Big Ten media day in New York City (pictured!), there were several questions raised about the league playing its conference tournament in Madison Square Garden.

The move to the Garden will require the Big Ten to play its tournament a week earlier than what the league’s accustomed to doing, because, as always, the Big East has the World’s Greatest Arena booked for the following weekend leading into Selection Sunday. Consequently, the league’s coaches were asked repeatedly at media day whether this layoff will hurt the performance of their teams in the NCAA tournament.

Whether they were being sincere or not, the coaches said the right things. They said they were excited about playing the Big Ten tournament in the Garden, and that they’re not really worried about a layoff or about moving the whole conference schedule up a week.

What the coaches said, however, is at odds with a piece of hoops folk wisdom that holds that long layoffs before the tournament are to be feared. (To be sure, the other extreme is said to be bad too. No one wants to finish their conference tournament on Sunday afternoon and then open the round of 68 a few time zones away on Thursday at noon Eastern.) The folk wisdom has always interested me on a couple levels.

First, this particular hoops wives’ tale betrays a lack of interest in what mid-major tournament timing might show us, doesn’t it? Put simply, not all mid-major conferences play their tournaments early. Actually, leagues as varied as the America East, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt, WAC, and, of late, the Ivy, have all gone or are all going the short-layoff route. To my knowledge no one’s singled those leagues out for achieving aberrant success through a minimum of pre-tournament down time.

Second, this fear of the Big Ten affirmatively assuring long layoffs feels familiar. One of the more curious aspects of our primal response to change in college basketball is how good we are (and by “we” I mean I do it too, all the time) at immediately referencing negative precedents but not positive ones. If a team is given a long layoff before the NCAA tournament, for example, it must mean that the team in question is doomed to repeat the disaster inflicted upon long-layoff Gonzaga in 2013. The top-seeded Bulldogs were bounced out of the round of 32 that year.

Then again the Zags were defeated by (what do you know?) another team that was coming off a long layoff, namely, Wichita State. Instead of Gonzaga in 2013, why don’t we think of the long-layoff likes of the Shockers that year, Gonzaga in 2017, Butler in 2010 or 2011, VCU in 2011, or, heck, Davidson in 2008?

So I decided to look at this question of layoffs and tournament performance. My first challenge was defining a “long” layoff. After much discussion with my laptop, I set the boundary line for a long pre-tournament layoff at nine days.

This definition screens out most but not all early losers in major-conference tournaments (Syracuse made the 2016 Final Four after a nine-day layoff), and, anyway, the longest layoff I could find for any NCAA tournament participant seeded at No. 15 or better in the last decade was 13 days. (Hello, Jacksonville State in 2017, among others.)

Speaking of No. 15 or better: I didn’t bother parsing out No. 16 seeds who entered the bracket coming off a long layoff. After 33 tournaments and counting, the “expected” win figure for that population of teams is still, alas, 0.00. Nor did I give credit for wins in the First Four (sorry, VCU 2011), even though one could hypothesize that there, if anywhere, is where the benefit of a little extra rest could show up against a more time-stressed opponent.

Very well, then. How do teams fare in the tournament coming off a long layoff? The short answer is: “Very well.”

Tournament teams with layoffs of nine days or longer
NCAA tournament 2008-17, Nos. 1-15 seeds 
First Four results not included

                              Expected wins    Actual
116 long-layoff teams              60            81

That’s two extra wins per tournament above what we’d expect (based purely on seed) to see recorded collectively by each year’s crop of 12 or so long-layoff teams.

Sure, the per-team effect is negligible. A coach telling his team, “Men, we just gained an extra 0.18 wins in our tournament run because we’ve been on a long layoff!” isn’t exactly up there with “Win one for the Gipper.”

I also wonder whether there might not be a better way to isolate any alleged impact of the layoff itself, perhaps through expected winning percentage in the round of 68 alone. Once Brad Stevens got his Butler teams past the first (and definitely the second) game in 2010 and 2011, for example, any benefits of a layoff had likely worn off and wins recorded after that are merely points piled up in analytic garbage time for the long-layoff team.

Indeed, if there’s one possible cause for hesitation for the Big Ten on this matter, I guess it’s the question of whether there could be a bell curve at work. Who knows, maybe long layoffs are great but really long layoffs screw you up. It’s conceivable, for example, that come March a Big Ten team that suffers an early exit in the conference tournament could be looking at a layoff of 14 or even (doubtful, but possible) 15 days.

Still, getting back to that coach, he’ll at least be on solid ground telling his Big Ten team in March of 2018 that they have nothing to fear from a garden-variety long layoff in terms of the expected length of their tournament run. After all, “negligible” here is in happy accord with “measurable,” and, more specifically, with “measurable in a positive direction.”

Maybe Mark Turgeon is on to something. When asked about the layoff at media day, he said: “I’ve experienced it [as head coach] at Wichita State. It actually helped us. Going into the [NCAA] tournament, we were able to get fresh, put in a lot of new plays.”

If it were to turn out that a longer layoff really does correlate with a small but measurable benefit, that wouldn’t seem to be so very incongruent with recent research on the benefits of more sleep and more rest generally. And think of the marketing benefits if you’re a member of the power six. If you move your conference tournament one week earlier, you have the major-conference media spotlight all to yourself all weekend long.

Right now the Big East thinks it has the ideal weekend at the Garden. But, going forward, the league might want to explore locking in the previous weekend before the ACC takes it.