Maddening Seeds of Doubt

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an NCAA college basketball season unlike any other. Many teams were forced to cancel multiple games throughout the season. This can sow doubt in the seeding of the teams. Mis-seeded teams can give bracket-making methods an edge. However, the very reason for the mis-seeding makes analysis of the season unlike other years. Even so, a lot of games were played. How much could even one game make in the ratings? Ranking methods can help give insight.

One of the most important games to be cancelled during the season was Gonzaga against Baylor on December 5th, 2020. The two schools are the top two overall seeds in this year’s March Madness tournament, and a regular season matchup would have not only provided insight on a true favorite in the tournament, but also could have altered the seedings. 

To examine the potential effects of this cancelled game, we analyzed various possible outcomes and the resulting changes in Colley and Massey rankings. Entering March Madness, Gonzaga is ranked 1st in both the Colley and Massey rankings, while Baylor is ranked 2nd in Colley and 4th in Massey. Using the Colley rankings, a Baylor win in the cancelled game would have not changed the rankings but would have cut the difference in Colley rating between the two teams in half. A Gonzaga win, however, would have kept them atop the rankings while dropping Baylor to 3rd. Since Massey rankings depend on point differential, we analyzed close games and blowouts. Here are the results:

OutcomeNew Gonzaga RankGonzaga Rank ChangeNew Baylor RankBaylor Rank Change
Gonzaga close win1031
Gonzaga blowout win105-1
Baylor close win1031
Baylor blowout win1031

Had this game been played, Gonzaga’s seeding as the top seed would have likely not changed regardless of the outcome. Baylor, however, could have potentially moved up a spot, but a bad loss would have dropped them out of the top four in the rankings.

In addition to cancelled games, some conferences elected for their teams to only play conference games. Patriot League teams only played within the conference, and conference champion Colgate had a very strong season, going 11-1 in the regular season and winning all three games in the tournament to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Colgate’s nearly perfect record places them 14th in the Colley rankings and 9th in the Massey rankings. The Raiders, however, are a #14 seed in March Madness, likely as a result of their lack of non-conference games. How different could their rankings and seeding look if they played a non-conference schedule? We analyzed possible non-conference games for Colgate to try and answer this question.

One usual non-conference opponent for Colgate is fellow tournament team Syracuse. The two New York schools had played every season since 2005 until this year. Syracuse sits 45th in the Colley rankings and 40th in the Massey rankings. If the two teams had played this season, a Colgate win would have moved them up to 10th in the Colley rankings while a Syracuse win would have dropped them to 28th. For the Massey effects, we analyzed the same scenarios as before:

OutcomeNew Colgate RankColgate Rank Change
Colgate close win90
Colgate blowout win72
Syracuse close win90
Syracuse blowout win20-11

Playing Syracuse would not have been significantly beneficial for Colgate, as even a blowout win would have only moved them up two spots, but a large loss could have sent them much farther down the order in both ranking systems.

Another potential non-conference matchup for Colgate this season would have been Clemson, another tournament team. The two teams faced off last season during non-conference play. The Tigers rank 22nd in the Colley rankings and 43rd in the Massey rankings. Using the same process as before with Syracuse, a Colgate win would have bumped them up to 9th in the Colley rankings, and a loss to Clemson would have moved them down to 26th. The Massey changes are as follows:

OutcomeNew Colgate RankColgate Rank Change
Colgate close win90
Colgate blowout win72
Clemson close win90
Clemson blowout win22-13

Once again, Colgate did not stand to gain too many places by beating Clemson, but a bad loss would have damaged both of their rankings. The small possible gains and large possible drops in the rankings suggest that Colgate may have been better off not having non-conference games, but the Tournament Selection Committee does not purely use Colley and Massey rankings. 

So, it’s time for March Madness but like much in our pandemic world, the tournament is likely to be a wild ride.  Enjoy the beauty of your bracket before the tournament starts as bracket busting is likely to come quick this year.  

This article was developed by Noah Baker and Hope Anderson.

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