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Winthrop: This Year's George Washington?

3/06/2007
An interesting case study for the brackets this year will be Winthrop. Where in the heck does the Selection Committee the Big South champs? The Eagles are 26-4 but have played in an extremely weak conference. Here's the Colton Index rankings for the other Big South teams:

The Big South Ranked by Colton Index
Winthrop (24-4) 8
High Point (18-10) 217
Coastal Carolina (11-15) 284
UNC Asheville (8-19) 293
Liberty (11-17) 295
VMI (10-19) 308
Radford (6-22) 323
Charleston Southern (4-22) 333

Not exactly the Big Ten, is it? Only Jackson State in the the SWAC can claim an easier conference schedule in the country. The typical 45th-ranked team would be expected to win 98.33% of Winthrop's conference games, meaning they might be expected to lose one conference game about once every three or four years.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Winthrop has played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. I have their NC SOS as 3rd overall. Check out their four - and only four losses:

Winthrop's Losses
@ 3 Wisconsin
@ 9 Texas A&M
@ 12 Maryland
vs 4 North Carolina

It's hard to knock them for any of those losses. The 17th ranked team would be expecte to win only one of the games in total.

The gut reaction is that they didn't bear anyone. Well, that's not entirely true. Even if you dismiss their entire conference schedule and their four easiest non-conference games, you're left with the following games, all wins:

Winthrop's Key Wins
@ 42 Missouri St
@ 61 Old Dominion
@ 64 Mississippi St

Not absolute back breakers, but definitely not a walk in the park either, especially on the road. We can estimate that the typical 6th ranked team would be expected to lose one of these games on the road in total.

One game worse than the typical 17th ranked team in its 4 losses. One game better than the 6th ranked team in its 3 key victories. And 21 other cupcake wins. Where do you seed them?

Well, the Colton Index tries to find the best rating that explains their 24-4 record. And that best estimate is consistent with the 8th best rating overall. But given Winthrop's relatively easy schedule, one might think that a whole host of teams could easily go 24-4 given Winthrop's schedule. Check out the following table:

Winthrop's Schedule Exp Wins Exp Loss
Typical 1 Seed 24.65 3.35
Typical 2 Seed 24.00 4.00
Typical 3 Seed 23.82 4.18
Typical 4 Seed 23.52 4.48
Typical 5 Seed 23.24 4.76
Typical 6 Seed 22.86 5.14
Typical 7 Seed 22.68 5.32
Typical 8 Seed 22.65 5.35
Typical 9 Seed 22.43 5.57
Typical 10 Seed 22.41 5.59
Typical 11 Seed 22.22 5.78
Typical 12 Seed 22.07 5.93
Typical 13 Seed 21.94 6.06

The table shows the expected number of wins for a typical X seed (actually it's the lowest team of the seed, so Typical 3 Seed = 12th best team overall) given Winthrop's schedule. The 8th rank is appropriate for the model because it equates the expected number of wins with Winthrop's number of wins. But it could be the case that Winthrop isn't truely that good. However, I would caution against dropping them below a 5 seed...that would be essentially the same as taking one of their wins and calling a loss.

Do I think Winthrop will get a 5 seed or higher? Probably not. And the reason for this is simple:

Winthrop's RPI Numbers
RPI: 69
SOS: 266
NC SOS: 43

Their numbers are deflated across the board due to the botom feeder effect from theiir conference schedule. For example, a 69th ranked team (their RPI) would be expected to win 21.45 games given Winthrop's schedule. It probably tells you something when their actual performance is 2 1/2 games better. Check out the comparable numbers from the Colton Index:

Winthrop's Colton Index Numbers
Colton Index: 8
SOS: 151
NC SOS: 3

It paints a much rosier picture for Winthrop, doesn't it? Now, you might not agree that they should be 8th, but you can't say that their body-of-work should be closer to 69th than it is to 8th.

The key thing to note is, the conference doesn't know this. They think 69th is more or less where it should be and 266th is a reasonable estimate of their schedule. They have no other reason to believe otherwise (unless the viewed my presentation). Plus, Winthrop is one team that the Committee will have a hard time putting through its normal 'compare wins and losses' method, so they will definitely be looking to the numbers as a stake in the ground.

We saw this last year with George Washington, which went 26-2 under relatively easy schedule. Some of their numbers are similar to Winthrop's

George Washington's 2005-06 Numbers
RPI: 37 (Colton 9)
SOS: 207 (Colton 158)
NC SOS: 323 (Colton 291)

For going 26-2 under that schedule, I had them as worst as a 4 seed and the Committee ended up giving them an 8 seed. Of course, there was an injury issue involved with GW that may have brought them down a seed line or two, but the expected number of wins for a typical 8 seed given GW's schedule was around 23, which means the Committee essentially just took three of their wins and counted them as losses.

So, where will Winthrop end up this year? We will soon find out. I have them as a 5 seed but I'm almost certain that I'm wrong. I'm guess they'll be in the 8-11 range, mostly due to the RPI numbers. Remember, the RPI difference between 8th and 69th isn't a difference in opinion -- it's just error caused by the nuances of the RPI formula. So Winthrop will likely get seeded 4 or more slots lower than they should just because the numbers are wrong.

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