It's the word that comes up every time there's an upset in college basketball: parity. Any coach whose favored team has just been beaten by a plucky underdog will chalk up the defeat to that word. Hey, there's just so much parity in the college game today. Anyone can beat anyone. Look at Butler. Look at Virginia Commonwealth.
Is there more parity in college basketball than there's ever been?
That question has come up often in 2011. Judging by the seeds given out each year by the tournament selection committee, the Final Four that took place in Houston this past April did indeed feature the most surprising group of finalists since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams in 1985. The average seed of the four teams that made it to Reliant Stadium -- Kentucky, VCU, Butler, and eventual national champion Connecticut -- was 6.5, the highest such number in the "modern" (1985 to now) tournament era.
Most Surprising Final Fours, 1985 - 2011
Year Avg. Seed
When a team goes from being the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament to being the national champion in just a few short weeks, surely it's fair to ask whether we're seeing more parity than ever.
But there are other fair questions worth asking. For instance: does the average seed of the teams in each year's Final Four really speak to parity across all of college basketball? Or does that number simply measure how many upsets took place during the second weekend of that year's NCAA tournament? After all, if D-I teams were really becoming more and more alike in quality we'd expect to see not only a Final Four populated by record-breaking seeds, but also a Sweet 16 the same year that's likewise comprised of a bunch of underdogs. However a look at tournament history shows that surprising Final Fours haven't aligned perfectly or even particularly well with topsy-turvy Sweet 16s.
Most Surprising Sweet 16s
Year Avg. Seed
The 2011 tournament marked one of just three times in the modern era where the average seed of the field's Final Four teams was actually worse than the average seed found in that same year's Sweet 16. The other years were 2000 and 2006.
I want to briefly consider what the 2006 tournament might be able to tell us about parity, because I think it could be helpful. You'll notice that year is on the list of most surprising Final Fours but not on the list of most surprising Sweet 16s. Just to refresh your memory, 2006 was the tournament where Florida won the national championship as a relatively unheralded No. 3 seed, in a season that everyone just assumed would come down to a Duke vs. Connecticut title game. It was also the year that George Mason shocked overwhelming favorite UConn in overtime in what may have been the best regional final ever played that did not include Christian Laettner.
So what's so interesting about the 2006 tournament? There have been 27 NCAA tournaments played in the so-called modern era, and over the course of all those tournaments the average seed of the 432 teams that have made the Sweet 16 has been 4.4. Now, in the 2006 tournament the average seed of the teams that made the Sweet 16 was...4.4. In other words the 2006 tournament that featured George Mason stunning the world was the very essence of "normal" and "average" through the first weekend -- and then suddenly became incontrovertible proof of rampant parity once 12 more games had been played.
Can we really measure the presence or absence of parity based on the outcomes of just 12 games in late March? I doubt it. The NCAA tournament is thrilling and wild because in a single-elimination format surprises do indeed happen. But using the tournament as a measuring stick for parity is tricky. For one thing when we consider how well various seeds have done over the years we are unavoidably measuring, at least in part, how well the NCAA selection committee has seeded the field. Did No. 11 seed Washington trouncing No. 3 seed New Mexico in the 2010 round of 32 say something important about parity, or did it say something important about how to seed teams?
So I'm going to propose something radical. I'm going to suggest we look not only at the NCAA tournament but also at games played before mid-March. (Weird, I know. Stay with me.) First let's agree on a definition of parity. To my mind if parity were on the upswing we would expect to see mid-major teams doing better and being more competitive relative to major-conference teams. Is that what we've seen in recent years?
I looked at what I consider the be the top eight so-called mid-major conferences: the Atlantic 10, Colonial Athletic Association, Conference USA, Horizon League, Missouri Valley Conference, Mountain West Conference, West Coast Conference, and Western Athletic Conference. These eight conferences have consistently been the best mid-major conferences for a while now. In fact in each of the past three seasons, the top 14 leagues in the nation in terms of Pomeroy rating have been these eight plus the six "major" conferences.
If we were seeing a movement toward parity, we would expect these eight mid-major conferences to be gaining ground on the six major conferences as defined by each conference's average Pomeroy rating. In fact my colleague Ken Pomeroy's numbers from the past nine seasons suggest that the average team from this group of eight mid-major conferences will pretty reliably be between 70 and 74 percent as good as the average major-conference team in any given season. Granted, there are exceptions. The mid-majors were strangely feisty in 2004 (78 percent as good as the major conferences) and oddly weak in 2008 (67 percent as good). But in every other year the number has been between 70 and 74.
These are just averages, of course. An outstanding mid-major program like Xavier has consistently been much better than many major-conference teams. Still, I think a sweeping term like "parity" implies more than simply saying, "Xavier, Butler, and Gonzaga have been really good even though they're not in major conferences." We already know that. And what Ken's numbers suggest to me is that the underlying power structure between the major conferences and the best mid-major conferences doesn't really change much from year to year. But that doesn't mean we can't see incredible surprises in the NCAA tournament. We should call those surprises stunners, or upsets, or shocks, but for now we should probably think twice about calling them parity.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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