Is momentum a thing going into the NCAA Tournament?

There is no denying that Marquette isn’t playing its best basketball of the season going into the NCAA Tournament. With losses to Butler, DePaul and Creighton (x2), the surging momentum built in January seems a memory from a different season.

If you want to quantify the play, Bart Torvik currently has Marquette ranked as the 76th best team since Feb. 1, the 3rd worst of all NCAA teams that didn’t win an autobid (and 49th out of all 68 teams). This tweet also puts it in perspective.

But momentum is a thing that seems obvious only in hindsight. UCLA was 4-6 in their final 10 games going into an NCAA Play-In game that required overtime to keep their season alive. And they nearly won the whole damn thing, reaching the Final 4.

So in order to move from a world of feelings and beliefs to one of numbers and data, I combed through TRank’s archive for all NCAA non-auto bid teams that finished the season with a Barthag (like Pythag) under .800 since 2017. Turns out there’s quite a robust sample.

In that timespan, there have been 18 teams to earn a ticket while playing sub .800 Barthag ball in February and March. Of those 18, 13 ended up winning at least 1 game, and easily exceeded the expected number of wins based on seed alone.

Expected Wins: 4
Actual Wins: 20

I like to compare against seed because it’s not like these teams were earning favorable matchups. Only 4 teams earned an 8 seed or better: two 8s and two 7s. So once more, these are teams that played poorly down the stretch, earned lower seeds and unfavorable draws and still wildly exceeded expectations.

Take Xavier in 2017 as an example. The Musketeers hit a rough patch at the start of February, dropping 6 of their last 10 Big East regular season tilts and falling from a high of 18 in TRank to 39th after the Big East Tournament. That skid put them in the unenviable position of being an 11 seed, playing as the 76th best team in the country based on efficiency metrics. All they did is run through Maryland, Florida State and Arizona en route to an Elite 8 appearance.

MU hit a skid in February. Finished 4-6. Dropped 24 spots in TRank. Ranked as the 76th best team in efficiency metrics en route to a 9 seed. Things that make you go hmmm…

Of course one run by one team isn’t enough to say that Marquette is in a “good” spot. You would still much rather play well late and get a better seed with a more favorable matchup. But this is why I wanted to grab all the teams from the last 4 tournaments rather than cherry picking just 1 favorable case study.

Once more, these teams have won 16 more games than their seed line would indicate. If you’d like to see the kind of company Marquette is keeping, the full list is below.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, momentum may not be all it’s cracked out to be.

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Categories: Analysis


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