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History Favors Villanova Basketball To Make A Final Four Run

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Despite what you hear about the success rate of defending Champions, Villanova projects to make a deep run based on previous performances.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Creighton vs Villanova Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Every day, like many of you, I’ll poke around the internet and see what new stories are out there about Villanova basketball (Side note, wouldn’t it be great if VUHoops pulled all of those together for us? Get on it Chris Lane.) This time of year, especially as the defending champions and the #1 overall seed on the eve of the tournament, it’s not hard to find lots of material. Most of it is entertaining, insightful, and sometimes enlightening. But sometimes, it’s a huge pile of misleading garbage.

For those of you who don’t want to waste your time, that’s a link to an ESPN clip laying out the 5 reasons Villanova won’t repeat:

  1. Villanova has 31 wins, the most ever by a reigning champion entering March Madness. None of the last 4 defending champs with 30 wins entering the tournament repeated.
  2. Since 1979 Only 16.7% of reigning champs made the Final Four.
  3. Only 28 of 78 reigning champs advanced past the Sweet 16.
  4. They’d have to go through a red-hot Duke

No, that’s not a typo, the video entitled “Five reasons why Villanova won’t repeat” only gives four reasons. That should be your first clue that this video may not be the best source for information. Second, Villanova is the #1 overall seed, conference and tournament champions, and won 7 of their last 8 games. Duke is 5-3 in their last 8, including 1-3 to end the regular season (that’s with Coack K back). Let’s also ignore that the video just shows clips of Nova losing and interjects with comments like “Not ideal if you’re Villanova” or “That’s not great” or “Sorry, Nova. Back to back just may not be in the cards.”

Yeah, there’s a lot to be upset with here if you’re a Villanova fan, but for me the most dumbfounding part of this is how misleading (and very wrong) those numbers in the first three points are. So I’m going to do us all a favor and break down their claims to see what the actual math should look like. Spoiler alert, it’s actually pro Nova :)

Defending Champs with 30+ Wins = No Repeat

Of the three claims ESPN is making, this first one is actually the most sound. Too often defending champions are lumped together in comparison when they may not have all that much in common. That’s especially true now in an era when a team like Duke in 2015 lost 7 of its 10 players (draft, transfers, graduation, etc.) before they even started to try defending their title.

This 30 win fact that is used in the video could be seen as a valid way of looking at teams that still had successful regular seasons after their championships heading into their tournament runs. Let’s take a look at the four teams they’re referencing:

Defending Champions With 30 Wins Entering The Tourney

Year Team Record NCAA Finish
Year Team Record NCAA Finish
2017 Villanova 31-3 ???
2011 Duke 30-4 Sweet 16
1997 Kentucky 30-4 National Runner Up
1991 UNLV 30-0 Final Four
1985 Georgetown 30-2 National Runner Up

Ok super sleuths, can you guess what this statistic conveniently glances over? Why it’s the last two repeat Champions of course! Neither 1992 Duke nor 2007 Florida had 30 wins heading into the tournament. I’m also guessing that none of you thought we’d have to go back over 30 years to satisfy the “Last four” portion of the claim. Turns out, it’s SUPER HARD to get 30 wins before the tournament. In the last 3 years, only 5 major conference teams have done it 7 times (Nova and Arizona each did it twice).

This is a perfect example of finding numbers to fit a narrative. It sounds good and it’s technically correct, but it’s very misleading. You’ll notice that while none of these schools repeated, three of those teams made the final four while two of them lost in the Championship game. I’d say that if a Champion wins 30+ games in the following season, that’s a pretty good sign you could make a deep run. That is, of course, unless you’re Duke.

Since 1979, Only 16.7% of Defending Champs Make The Final Four

Now I know I just ranted about selective stats in the last part, but I’ll give the creators of these stats a pass on this one. 1979 is actually a reasonable start date for this kind of information. It was the first year that the committee started using the same seeding system we use today. It was also the year the tournament expanded to 40 teams, which is more reflective of today’s larger field. Just for fun though, if we include the entire history of the tournament, defending champs have actually made the Final Four 26 of 77 times (33.7%).

Since 1979, Seven defending champions have made it back to the Final Four in 37 tournaments:

  • Georgetown in 1985
  • UNLV in 1991
  • Duke in 1992
  • Arkansas in 1995
  • Kentucky in 1997
  • Michigan State in 2001
  • Florida in 2007

As you can see that list is mainly concentrated in the 90’s, and no Champion has made it back to the Final Four this decade. However, there’s still something wrong with these numbers. 7 (number of defending champs who made the final four) divided by 37 (number of tournaments since 1979) doesn’t equal 16.7%, it’s 18.9%. Even if you include the 1979 tournament, you still get 18.4%. In fact, in order to get the 16.7% in the video, you’d have to divide 6 by 36, which means they probably skipped one of the years listed above.

Outside of the basic lessons of check your work, the problem I have here is again that not all defending Champions are created equal. Heck, just two years ago UConn missed the NCAA tournament as the reigning Champions, so of course they missed the Final Four. When trying to find an analytical way to compare these Wildcats to previous seasons, you need to pick metrics that compare apples to apples, not apples to terrible UConn teams.

Only 28 of 78 Reigning Champions Advanced Past The Sweet 16

This statement is so incredibly, horribly wrong that I barely know where to start. Ok, that’s not true, I know exactly where to start. HEY, DUMMIES, IF THERE HAVE BEEN 78 NCAA TOURNAMENTS, THERE CAN’T BE 78 REIGNING CHAMPIONS! THERE WAS NO DEFENDING CHAMPION IN THE FIRST ONE!!!

Whew, ok, thanks for bearing with me, I was holding that one in way too long.

Now that we know that 78 number is wrong, let’s start ripping into the 28. First of all, there hasn’t always been a Sweet 16. Heck, the first tournament only had 8 teams. So if we go by all 77 tournaments that there’s been a reigning champion, 31 teams have gotten to or started in/beyond the Sweet 16.

The tournament didn’t expand from 8 to 16 teams until 1951, so until then it wasn’t even possible not to advance past the Sweet 16 (Side note, saying “Advanced Past the Sweet 16” instead of “Made the Elite Eight” is a manipulative way to make the accomplishment seem somehow lessened. Tsk, tsk, tsk). If remove the tournaments before the expansion, that gives us 66 tournaments in which a reigning Champion could theoretically miss the Sweet 16. In that scenario, 27 defending champs advanced past the Sweet 16. I think that’s the closest we’re going to get to the number the video was trying to portray, but even then their math is off. With these parameters the defending champ gets to the Elite 8 or further over 40% of the time, which is actually pretty good.

Again, this isn’t comparing apples to apples, but this one is just so far off that the lesson here is simple: Finish 3rd Grade.

What Are The Historical Odds That Villanova Will Repeat?

Ok, we’ve debunked the truly terrible stats used to try to sway people away from believing in a Nova repeat. But if that was the wrong way, what’s the right way to look at this historical data?

First, let’s pick the right metric. There’s plenty that could go into making this as accurate as possible, but basically we want to see how teams that saw continued success throughout their season as the defending champion did in the tournament. To me, the best way to show that is to see how defending champions that were #1 seeds did in the tournament. As we said earlier, 1979 is a good starting point for relevant data as far as seeding goes, so here are the teams that fit the metric:

Defending Champion #1 Seeds Since 1979

Year Team NCAA Finish
Year Team NCAA Finish
2011 Duke Sweet 16
2007 Florida Champion
2002 Duke Sweet 16
2001 Michigan State Final Four
1998 Arizona Elite 8
1997 Kentucky Runner Up
1994 UNC 2nd Round
1992 Duke Champion
1991 UNLV Final Four
1985 Georgetown Runner Up

So for teams that are comparable to the 2017 Wildcats, only 20% of them went on to repeat. I believe that, it’s REALLY tough tournament to win. But when looking at what kind of success these teams have, it’s pretty encouraging. For #1 seeded defending Champions, 40% made the Championship game, while 60% made the Final Four.

Nothing is ever guaranteed. Just look at ‘94 UNC who lost in the 2nd round, or the two Duke teams that went down in the Sweet 16. But we’re looking at what’s “likely” for a team of this caliber. Based on what this team has achieved this season, I think many non-Villanova fans would think they need to make the Final Four to be considered successful. Based on this metric, that’s a reasonable way to evaluate this team. You may not agree, but at least the math is correct.