Three conference tournaments tip off tonight, beginning the elimination portion of college basketball season. As I've done in previous seasons, I'll break down conference tourneys using the log5 method to assess each team's chance of winning. For those new to the program, the log5 method was developed by Bill James more than 25 years ago. It's based on sound theory and provides a way to derive a team's chance of winning a particular game using each team's winning percentage. In the case of college hoops, we're forced to use a schedule-adjusted version of winning percentage, one I derive from the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies I compute.
When applied to tournament play, we can get a good estimate of each team's chances to snag its conference's automatic bid. It is only an estimate, though, subject to the assumptions that my model of adjusted winning percentages is reasonable and that a team's personnel has not drastically changed late in the season. With all that said, the numbers produced are reasonable and give us an idea of how likely a team's path to the promised land may be.
Let's get it started with the Horizon League. All figures listed are the chances of a team getting to a particular round, with the rightmost column indicating its chances of winning the tournament. I factor in home-court advantage where appropriate.
Qtrs Semis Final Champ
1 Butler 100 100 92.4 82.8
2 Cleveland St. 100 100 61.7 9.9
3 Wright St. 82.2 51.4 22.5 3.1
4 Illinois Chicago 79.8 60.0 5.7 2.1
6 Valparaiso 57.3 24.4 10.5 1.2
7 UW Green Bay 42.7 20.6 4.8 0.4
5 UW Milwaukee 66.6 22.9 1.4 0.4
8 Loyola Chicago 33.4 10.2 0.3 0.04
9 Youngstown St. 20.2 6.8 0.2 0.02
10 Detroit 17.8 3.6 0.5 0.02
Format: Top two seeds get a bye to the semifinals. First round at higher seeds on March 4. Quarters and semis at Butler on March 7 and 8. Championship game at higher seed on March 11.
Most likely championship matchup: Cleveland State at Butler (57%)
Butler is easily the class of the league, and because of that they have lots of fans outside the Horizon this week. Folks who support Maryland, UMass, UNLV and Arizona State, among others would prefer that Butler gets its bid the automatic way rather than using one of the 34 at-larges which would be theirs in the case of a loss in the Horizon tournament. Fortunately, the Horizon League structures its postseason in such a way to make it easy for Butler to nab the crown. The Bulldogs and second-seeded Cleveland State get a bye to the semis, while the other eight play two games to figure out who joins the top two in the Horizon Final Four. In addition, both of Butler's games would be at home. Still, madness in March is not unheard of, and there's nearly a one in five chance that the Horizon uses up two bids. If you consider that everybody else in the league needs the auto bid much more than the Bulldogs do, maybe the chances are a little higher.
Semis Final Champ
2 Winthrop 96.2 75.1 51.2
1 UNC Asheville 91.8 70.2 34.0
3 High Point 86.3 22.6 10.0
4 Liberty 76.0 22.8 3.8
5 VMI 24.0 5.1 0.6
6 Coastal Carolina 13.7 1.5 0.2
7 Radford 3.8 0.8 0.1
8 Charleston Southern 8.2 1.9 0.1
Format: First round at higher seed on March 4. Semifinals at UNC Asheville on March 6. Championship at higher seed on March 8.
Most likely championship matchup: Winthrop at UNC Asheville (53%)
Things are twisted at the top of the Big South, where UNC Asheville and Winthrop shared the regular season title, but UNCA took the top seed based on a season sweep of Winthrop. Interestingly, both wins were by double figures. In all other games, Winthrop was clearly the better team, and thus is still rated as the favorite despite having to go play at UNCA should that be the championship game. Here's how the stats look for in-conference game, along with the rank among the Big South's eight teams.
PPP PPP EM
Winthrop 1.02 (5) 0.88 (1) +0.14 (1)
UNC-A 1.08 (1) 1.05 (4) +0.03 (4)
Winthrop is the most defense-dependent team in the land, ranking 38th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but just 238th in offense. An interesting subplot here surrounds how UNCA will deploy 7'7" center Kenny George. George's minutes have been limited by his chronic knee problems, and he's missed five games scattered through the season basically to prevent him from wearing down. The Big South tournament is three rounds spread over five days. George managed to log 60 minutes during a similar stretch to start the season. Because he has more of an impact on the defensive end, and because Winthrop's offense is not very strong, he may be more valuable in early-round matchups. One of the games George missed was the first UNCA/Winthrop game, in which the Bulldogs won by 15, so he need not be present to win.
Semis Final Champ
1 Austin Peay 84.9 62.6 37.5
2 Murray St. 81.6 56.8 32.1
4 UT Martin 80.4 26.3 11.2
6 Tennessee St. 55.2 23.0 9.6
7 Tenn. Tech 18.4 9.3 3.4
3 Morehead St. 44.8 10.8 2.9
8 Eastern Kentucky 15.1 7.5 2.4
5 Samford 19.6 3.6 0.9
Format: First round tonight at higher seeds on March 4. Semifinals and championship at Nashville Municipal Auditorium, March 6 and 7.
Most likely championship matchup: Austin Peay vs. Murray State (36%)
The OVC is the only exclusionary tournament of the opening trio, having said so long to Southeast Missouri State, Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State. EIU and Jacksonville State will be among the very few teams to end their season with wins. SEMO on the other hand, started OVC play 6-0 and finished 7-13, with their only win during that stretch coming in triple overtime. The result of taking the top eight of 11 conference members is a more wide-open tournament, and even though the men of Peay have the best chance of winning, you'd be better off taking the field over any particular team.
Seeds five through eight all had 10-10 conference records and the resulting tiebreakers put arguably the worst team of the bunch--Samford--into the five-seed. The semis and finals are played in Nashville, but not at Tennessee State's home floor, so I haven't factored in a home-court advantage for them. Their true chances of winning it all may be slightly higher than listed.
You know it's a great country when you can plop down $20 to witness pixilated OVC tournament action live in your office. I'm not sure it's worth it, but Lester Hudson might argue. Tennessee Martin's shooting guard parlayed 35 points against Memphis on opening night into a season of misery for whoever tried to guard him.
Tomorrow: Atlantic Sun, Sun Belt and Patriot League.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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