Kentucky’s not that good

About five years ago, Brian Burke – of Advanced NFL Stats – wrote a post in this forum on modeling win probability in college basketball, demonstrating that Brian Burke can do more than just talk football and stats!  Before the tournament last year, Dave Collins – host of the Advanced NFL Stats podcast (where he interviews football writers, analysts, and researchers) – contacted me about more college basketball related research from the Advanced NFL Stats people.  The specific research in 2014 came from Brad Null at Bracketvoodoo.com . What follows is more from Brad, this time on the 2015 tournament.

Let’s get this out of the way before too much hate mail streams in. Kentucky is the best team in the country. I’m not disagreeing with you there.  But how good are they? Are they historically good? Are they the best team ever? Do they deserve to be even money to win the National Championship?I say no.

The main reason being that we don’t really know how good Kentucky is.Yes they are undefeated and have been dominant at times, but they’ve only played one ranked team since January 1st. They’ve got some impressive out of conference results. They beat Kansas by 32, but that was in November. A lot can happen in four months. Maybe Kentucky hasn’t gotten worse, but other teams have gotten better.

What I really should have said is that “Kentucky is probably the best team in the country.” It is so hard to compare across conferences at this time of year, that we can’t even be sure of that. Part of the allure of March Madness, like bowl season, is that it pits teams from different conferences against each other for the first time in months. We get a little data on which conferences are better than others in November and December and then almost nothing until the tourney starts. So even if we thought the SEC was a strong conference, we would still be basing that on three-month-old data. These days, three months is over half of the entire collegiate career for many key players on the top teams.

The above notwithstanding, I still give the nod to Kentucky as the #1 team in the country and the clear favorite of winning the tournament. But how much better are their chances thanthose of Wisconsin, Arizona, or Virginia?

We analyzed Jerry Palm’s most recent projected bracket, using the bracketvoodoo.com prediction engine, which simulates the entire tournament millions of times. According to our numbers, Kentucky has a 29% chance of winning the championship, which is more than twice that of every other team (as well as more than twice that of every team in the field last year!) This is also significantly greater than the 24% chance we gave the 2012 version of the Wildcats. That 2012 team was a 1-point loss at Indiana away from being in the same boat as this team (31-0 going into the conference tournament), and although it was also a clear favorite to win the championship, it didn’t have nearly the hype this team has.

And because of this hype, Vegas will only give you even money if you bet on Kentucky against the field. How good would Kentucky have to be to make that a smart money bet? Here’s one way to look at it. In simulating every possible game in the tournament, we found that Kentucky would be at least a three point favorite against every other team (and a thirty point favorite against Texas Southern!) In order for Kentucky to end up with a 50+% chance of winning the tournament, we would have to push all of these lines by another 4 points, so that Kentucky would be more than a seven point favorite against every other team! This isn’t unprecedented. There have been favorites this big, but they have a bumpy track record. Anyone remember Duke in 1999, or UNLV in 1991?

Besides that, there are just too many good teams this year. According to our analysis, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Virginia are all better than every team in last year’s tournament.

I don’t know about you, but with my money, I’d take the field.

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Brad Null (@bradnull) is the founder of bracketvoodoo.com, the world’s most advanced NCAA Tournament bracket analysis and optimization engine. Try it out on Selection Sunday at bracketvoodoo.com