The first rule of NCAA tournament seeding is that not all seeds are created equal. That will be the lament of Syracuse fans if the Orange is unable to make it through a gauntlet of a schedule and reach the Final Four as the top seed in the East region.
Let's back up a second and take a look at how this year's field rates, by seed, in terms of Ken Pomeroy's ratings:
The first five seeds are relatively robust, and more or less conform to our expectation of declining quality as we go down the seed lines. Starting with the sixth seed, things get interesting. On average, the six seeds--teams we would expect to win in the second round and have a decent chance of advancing to the Sweet 16--are little better than the average 14 seed. In between, the average ratings look more or less like a random walk. Led by Memphis, the eight seeds are particularly strong, while both the six and 11 seeds look especially weak, which may cancel itself out.
Typically, discrepancies between Pomeroy's statistical rankings and conventional wisdom mean that the brackets tend to even out in the middle seeds. However, this year's wild seeding seems to go beyond that. A number of impressive mid-majors, including St. Louis (a nine), Long Beach State (a 13) and Belmont (a 14) proved tricky for the committee. Beyond that, the job of bracketing was complicated by the need to accommodate BYU, which cannot play on Sunday. The full S-curve, revealed for the first time, had BYU and Iona on the 12 line. However, they were forced to a 14 seed, which in turn moved a soft Montana team up to a 13 seed.
Some of these issues are responsible for the large differences between the best and worst team by seed:
For eight seeds, it's much better to play Southern Mississippi (Pomeroy's No. 71 team) than St. Louis (No. 15). So even though they received the same seed, Kansas State should feel a lot more fortunate than Memphis. The pairing of the Billikens and the Tigers ensures one of Pomeroy's top 15 teams will be out in the second round no matter what. (On the upside, it should be an entertaining game.)
As for the regions, the Midwest has the highest average rating (.831), but that's really just an artifact of having the top 16 seed in Lamar. (In fact, both Lamar and Vermont, who will meet in one of the two play-in games for automatic qualifiers, rate ahead of all other 16 seeds.) As the previous graph shows, the discrepancies among 15 and 16 seeds are much larger than for other seeds, so they tend to drive the differences in simple averages. In practice, though, the strength of the 16 seed means little since none of them has much chance of pulling an unprecedented upset.
A better way to measure the strength of each region is to use the log-5 method popularized by Pomeroy to estimate the chance of a given team beating any other team in the region. I chose to use Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats themselves are credited a .5 (since they'd be a tossup against themselves) and everyone else descends from there. When you evaluate the regions this way, the West is the toughest region with a total score of 3.1, followed by the East at 3.0 and the South just ahead of the Midwest, both at 2.8.
The West's real strength is its depth. Seven of Pomeroy's top 20 teams were sent out West, including sleepers Memphis, St. Louis and No. 7 seed Florida. All are the top-rated teams on their respective seed lines. By contrast, the Midwest boasts just three of Pomeroy's top 20 teams because Michigan is rated as a particularly weak four seed. In fact, both Belmont and Purdue (a 10 seed) rank ahead of the Wolverines in the Midwest.
The deepest region may not necessarily be the most challenging one to navigate for a top seed. After all, the No. 1 seed can only face one team from the opposite half of the bracket, and no more than four teams total. For example, while Michigan State is assured a difficult third-round matchup against either Memphis or St. Louis, counting both teams doubles how problematic this really is because the Spartans can only face one of them.
To evaluate how friendly each region is to its top seed, then, I looked at the most likely path (taking Pomeroy's top-rated team) and used log-5 to estimate the chances of an average No. 1 seed reaching the Final Four. Here's how that looks:
North Carolina: 26.7%
Michigan State: 21.4%
It's only fair that the Wildcats have a relatively easy road to the Final Four, a right they earned as the No. 1 overall seed. However, Syracuse looks like it has a legitimate gripe. The Orange was slotted right behind Kentucky, yet appears to have a much more challenging set of opponents than either North Carolina or Michigan State. In Ohio State, Syracuse drew Pomeroy's top-ranked No. 2 team. In fact, the Buckeyes rate as favorites to come out of the region. The Orange also likely faces a strong No. 8 in Kansas State.
In the Sweet 16, Syracuse could match up against this year's most divisive team, Wisconsin. Pomeroy still has the Badgers as the country's sixth-best team (just in front of the Orange, in fact). The general consensus is that Wisconsin was appropriately seeded as a four. The Badgers rated well within conference play, but hardly elite. Still, Syracuse's tough schedule goes far beyond Wisconsin. If we replace the Badgers with the No. 5 seed in the East (Vanderbilt), the Orange's path still rates as the most difficult, with an average top seed still reaching the Final Four less than 20 percent of the time (19.1 percent, to be exact).
As a result, Syracuse may have been the biggest loser on Sunday. The Orange's schedule could prove the difference between a trip to New Orleans and watching the Final Four at home.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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