The Pi-Rate Ratings

March 17, 2008

Bracketnomics 505–The Advanced Level Class In Bracket Filling

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Bracketnomics 505–The Advanced Level Class In Bracket Filling

This is a graduate level class that will earn you a Masters in Bracketnomics.  So you want a scientific method to guide you as you fill out your brackets?  You say you want a system that will take out most of the human-bias, and allow you to pick your teams in a mechanical fashion.  Well, I’ve got one for you that has been back-tested just like a stock-picking formula. 

What I’ve done is to discover the vital information that has worked in the past.  I’ve been using this formula since the Internet has made statistics-gathering easy, and it has been back-tested as far back as the days when the NCAA Tournament field consisted of 23, 24, or 25 teams.

 This method will not pick every game correctly and make you an instant millionaire.  It is geared toward finding the tendencies that historically have mattered most in picking the teams with the best chances of advancing.  Not all teams will be a perfect fit in this formula; what this formula does is pick the teams that have the best chance of advancing. 

 How has the formula performed in recent years?  Well, in 2006, it tabbed George Mason as a team to watch.  The Patriots fit the criteria.  While I picked GMU to make it to the Sweet 16, I’m not about to admit I selected them for the Final Four.  It did select Florida and UCLA for the Final Four the last two years.  There have been a couple of seasons where the criteria didn’t apply successfully, but over the course of 40 seasons, it has performed well about 34 times.  Without further adieu, here is the PiRate Bracket-Picking System.

1. Scoring Margin

Look for teams that outscored their opponents by an average of 8 or more points per game.  Make a separate list of teams that outscored their opponents by an average of 10 or more points per game and a third list of teams outscoring opponents by an average of 15 or more points per game.

 This is an obvious statistic here.  If team A outscores opponents by an average of 85-70 and their team B opponent outscores their opposition by an average of 75-70, team A figures to be better than team B before you look at any other statistics.  Going back 50 seasons, over 80% of the teams making the Final Four outscored their opponents by double digits, while the number outscoring opponents by eight points makes it a slam dunk.  In the days of the 64/65-team field, this statistic has become even more valuable.  It’s very difficult and close to impossible for a team accustomed to winning games by one to seven points to win four times in a row.  This average gives equal weighting to a team that outscores its opposition 100-90 as it does to a team that outscores its opposition 60-50.

2. Field Goal Percentage Differential

Take each teams’ field goal percentage minus their defensive field goal percentage.  Look for teams that have a +7.5% or better showing.  50% to 42% is no better or no worse than 45% to 37%.  A difference of 7.5% or better is all that matters.  Teams that have a large field goal percentage margin are consistently good teams.  Sure, a team can win a game with a negative field goal percentage, but in the Big Dance, they aren’t going to win four games much less two.  This statistic holds strong in back-tests of 50 years.  Even when teams won the tournament with less than 7.5% field goal percentage margins, for the most part, these teams just barely missed.  In the current field makeup, this stat has become a more accurate predictor.  Nowadays, the teams with field goal percentage margins in the double digits have dominated the field.

 3. Rebound Margin

This statistic holds up all the way back to the early days of basketball.  The teams that consistently control the boards are the ones that advance deep into the tournament.  What we’re looking for here are teams that outrebound their opposition by five or more per game.  In the opening two rounds, a difference of three or more can be used.

The reason this statistic becomes even more important in mid-March is that teams don’t always shoot as well in the NCAA Tournament for a variety of reasons (better defense, abnormal sight lines and unfamiliar gymnasiums, nerves, new rims and nets, etc.).  The teams that can consistently get offensive putbacks are the teams that fire out to the lead in these games.  The teams that prevent the opposition from getting offensive rebounds, holding them to one shot per possession, have a huge advantage.  Again, there will be some teams that advance that were outrebounded, but over the course of four rounds, it is rare for one of these teams to advance.  West Virginia in 2005 made it to the Elite Eight without being able to rebound, but not many other teams have been able to do so.  There have been years where all four Final Four participants were in the top 20 in rebounding margin.

4. Turnover Margin & Steals Per Game

Turnover margin can give a weak rebounding team a chance.  Any positive turnover margin is good here.  If a team cannot meet the rebounding margin listed above, they can get by if they have an excellent turnover margin.  Not all turnover margin is eqaul here.  A team that forces a high number of turnovers by way of steals is better than a team that forces the same amount of turnovers without steals.  A steal is better than a defensive rebound, because most of the time, a steal leads to a fast-break basket or foul.  When a team steals the ball, they are already facing their basket, and the defense must turn around and chase.  Many steals occur on the perimeter where the ball-hawking team has a numbers advantage.  So, I count a steal as being worth 1.33 rebounds. 

The criteria to look for here is a postive turnover margin if the team outrebounds its opposition by three or more; a turnover margin of three or better if the team outrebounds its opposition by less than three; and a turnover margin of five or more if the team does not outrebound its opponents.  Give more weight to teams that average 7.5 or more steals per game, and give much more weight to teams that average double figure steals per game.  A team that averages more than 10 steals per game will get a lot of fast-break baskets and foul shots.  In NCAA Tournament play, one quick spurt can be like a three-run homer in the World Series, and teams that either steal the ball or control the boards are the ones who will get that spurt.

Combining 3 & 4:  R+T margin is what I call this stat.  Consider this the basketball equivalent of baseball’s OPS (Onbase % + Slugging %).  Here is my R+T stat: R + (.2S * {1.2T}), where R is rebounding margin, S is average steals per game, and T is turnover margin.  When this stat is 5 or more, you have a team that can overcome a few other liabilities to win.  When the result is 10 or more, you have a team that has a great chance of getting enough additional scoring opportunities to make it to the later rounds.

5. Power Conference Plus Schedule Strength

I’m sure up to this point you have been thinking that it is much easier for Davidson and Gonzaga to exhibit these statistics than Pittsburgh or Kentucky.  Of course that’s correct.  We have to adjust this procedure so that the top conferences get extra weight, while the bottom conferences get penalized.  Here is how we do it.  Look at the Strength of schedule for every team in the Field.  You can find SOS on many websites, such as the RPI at cbs.sportsline.com.  Take the decimal difference for each team in the Field and multiply that by 100.  For example if Team A has a SOS of .6044 and Team B’s is .5777, the difference times 100 is 2.67.  So, Team A’s schedule was 2.67 points per game tougher than Team B.  Use this in head-to-head matchups for every game in  your bracket.

These are the five basic criteria I have used for the last dozen or so years.  You might be shocked to see that there are some key statistics that I don’t include.  Let’s look at some of these stats that I don’t rely upon.

Assists and Assists to Turnover Ratio

 While assists can reveal an excellent passing team, they also can hide a problem.  Let’s say a team gets 28 field goals and has 21 assists.  That may very well indicate this team can pass better than most others.  However, it can also mean two other things.  One, this team may not have players who can create their own offense and must get by on exceptional passing.  That may not work against the best defensive teams in the nation, or the type that get into the Dance.  Two, and even more importantly, it may indicate that this team cannot get offensive putbacks.  As I explained earlier, the offensive putback is about as important as any stat can be.  So, I only consider this stat if I have to decide on a toss-up after looking at the big five stats.

Free Throw Shooting 

Of course, free throw shooting in the clutch decides many ball games.  However, history shows a long line of teams making it deep into the tournament with poor free throw shooting percentages. 

Let’s say a team shoots a paltry 60% at the foul line while their opponent hits a great 75% of their foul shots.  Let’s say each team gets to the foul line 15 times in the game, with five of those chances being 1&1, three being one shot after made baskets, and seven being two shot fouls.  For the 60% shooting team, they can be expected to hit 3 of 5 on the front end of the 1&1 and then 1.8 of the 3 bonus shots; they can be expected to hit 1.8 of 3 on the one foul shot after made baskets; and they can be expected to hit 8.4 of 14 on the two shot fouls for a total of 15 out of 25.  The 75% shooting team can be expected to connect on 3.75 of 5 on the front end of the 1&1 and then 2.8 of 3.75 on the bonus shot; they can be expected to hit 2.3 of 3 on the one foul shot after made baskets; and they can be expected to connect on 10.5 of 14 on the two shot fouls for a total of 19.35 out of 25.75.  So, a team with one of the top FT% only scores nine more points at the foul line than a team with one of the worst.  That looks like a lot of points to make up, but consider that this is about the maximum possible difference.  Also consider that teams that shoot 60% of their foul shots and make the NCAA Tournament are almost always the teams that also have the top R+T ratings.  Teams that make the NCAA Tournament with gaudy free throw percentages frequently got their by winning close games at the line.  In the NCAA Tournament, fouls just don’t get called as frequently as in the regular season.  The referees let the teams play.  So, looking at superior free throw percentage can almost lead you down the wrong path.  Consider this:  The 1973 UCLA Bruins are considered to be the best college basketball team ever.  That team connected on just 63% of its free throws.  They had a rebounding margin of 15.2, and they forced many turnovers via steals thanks to their vaunted 2-2-1 zone press.  In the great UCLA dynasty from 1964 through 1973 when the Bruins won nine title in 10 years, they never once connected on 70% of their free throws and averaged 66% during that stretch.

3-point shooting

You have to look at this statistic two different ways and consider that it is already part of field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage.  Contrary to popular belief you do not count the difference in made three-pointers and multiply by three to see the difference.  If Team A hits eight treys, while their Team B opponents hit three, that is not a difference of 15 points; it’s a difference of five in my opinion.  I consider made three-pointers one extra point because they are already figured as made field goals.  A team with 26 made field goals and eight treys has only one more point than a team with 26 made field goals and seven treys.

The only time I give three-point shots any weight in my criteria is when I am looking at a toss-up game, and when I do look at this stat, I am looking for a team that does not rely on them to win, but instead uses a credible percentage that prevents defenses from sagging into the 10-12-foot area around the basket.  If a team cannot throw it in the ocean from behind the arc, defenses can sag inside and take away the inside game.  It doesn’t play much of a role in the NCAA Tournament.  A team that must hit 10 threes per game in order to win isn’t going to be around after the first weekend.

One Big Star or Two Really Good Players

Teams that got to the Dance by riding one big star or a majority of scoring from two players are not solid enough to advance very far.  Now, this does not apply to a team with one big star and four really good players.  I’m referring to a team with one big star and four lemons and two big scorers with three guys who are allergic to the ball.  Many times a team may have one big scorer or two guys who score 85% of the points, but the other three starters are capable of scoring 20 points if they are called on to do so.  If you have a team with five double figure scorers, that will be a harder one to defend and one that will be consistent.  It’s hard for all five players to slump at once.

I hope this primer will help you when you fill out your brackets this week.  I will be previewing the first round games and applying this formula throughout the tournament.  I will preview the Play-in game Tuesday morning, and the rest of the first round some time Wednesday (it may be in the evening before I can get it posted).  

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