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March 19, 2010
Early Scares
What Do They Tell Us?

by Kevin Pelton


Thanks to Scottie Reynolds' ability to get to the free throw line (no comment on the officiating) and a missed Robert Morris three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime, Villanova avoided joining Big East rival Georgetown as the victim of a major upset on the first day of the NCAA Tournament. Still, the Wildcats' 73-70 overtime win was a disappointing start to their bid to reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season.

There are two schools of thought on being tested by a lesser opponent early in the tourney. The optimistic view is that a close game like that serves as a useful wake-up call, and that most teams play such a close game somewhere along their NCAA Tournament path. The pessimistic perspective is that struggling in the early rounds reveals weaknesses that better teams can take full advantage of in later rounds.

Can we learn anything about these situations from the numbers? Using the incredible new treasure trove of NCAA history offered by sports-reference.com, I went through the last 10 NCAA Tournaments to find examples of top-three seeds playing games decided by five points or fewer in the first round. In that span, no No. 1 seed has gotten such a serious scare from a 16, but five No. 2 seeds have eked out victories and nine No. 3 seeds have won by five points or fewer.

Let's look first at how those teams performed two days later in their second-round matchups.

           Close    Other
2 seeds    .400     .588
3 seeds    .778     .600

The second seeds who were tested in the first round indeed struggled the next time out, going just 2-3. By comparison, No. 2 seeds who were more dominant in their opening-round wins won 58.8 percent of the time. (One oddity from these numbers: Third seeds were more successful in the second round overall than second seeds over the past decade. In 2000, three of the four No. 2 seeds failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen.)

At the same time, third seeds saw little to no carry-over. They went 7-2 in second-round games, which is better than their peers who got off to a better start.

For a longer-range view of the impact of a close first-round game, I looked at the number of games each team won. Here are the averages by seed.

2 seeds     2.0
3 seeds     2.7

This time, the comparison is more intuitive. The average second seed is expected to win three games before facing a higher-seeded team, while No. 3 seeds would be expected to win two games. Among this group, the results are flip-flopped. On average, the second seeds fell a game short of their expected performance, while No. 3 seeds that struggled to win their first-round matchup again outperformed their peers.

What are we to make of the distinction between seeds? A reasonable argument can be made that No. 2 seeds have to have a letdown to play close with No. 15 seeds, while the talent gap closes enough in the 3-14 matchups that narrow outcomes say more about the lower-seeded team than the higher-seeded one. Still, the more plausible explanation is that it's simply noise since we're talking about so few data points. Because close first-round games are fairly rare for top seeds, it's hard to use the recent past to draw any robust conclusions.

As for the anecdotal evidence, there's enough of that for both sides, especially if we're looking at things from Villanova's perspective by focusing on second seeds. Again, three of the five teams fell victim to second-round upsets (Wake Forest in 2003, Tennessee in 2006 and Duke in 2008). However, one of the other two teams shook off the early scare. After holding off Utah State 64-61 in the opening round, Kansas went to the Final Four and eventually to the championship game before falling to Syracuse in Roy Williams' last game as coach of the Jayhawks.

"It was just a weird ending,'' Williams said after the game. "At the same time, I've seen a lot of teams, including Kansas last year, go pretty far when they struggled to win the first game.''

Villanova hopes to add another team to that list this year.

Join Kevin and the rest of the Basketball Prospectus team to discuss Friday's NCAA Tournament games on the site live.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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