March Madness 2020: Last 10 games of season carry no significant weight in tournament selection

We are coming to the end of the college basketball season, and the weekend that will end these four months of delight will be even more magnificent than usual.

The Pac-12 championship is up for grabs, with UCLA (12-5) and Oregon (11-5) both owning the opportunity to win or share the title. The ACC championship is a three-way extravaganza involving Florida State and Louisville (15-4) ahead of Duke and Louisville (14-5), but all seeking at least a share. The Big Ten could end in a four-way tie, with Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois all owning six league defeats.

What a wonderful weekend it will be. Even though it will be decisive, it will not be any more important than any of the 17 that preceded it. All college basketball games count the same relative to selection for the NCAA Tournament, and that is as it should be.

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And yet many in the public still are convinced that the final 10 games of the season are weighted more heavily by the committee. Many who are aware that this practice has been abolished still believe the regular season’s final games should be considered more important than, say, November results. It’s like believing you have to wait a half-hour after a meal to go swimming, or that RBIs are the surest measure of a baseball player’s value at the plate.

We are past this, people.

What once was known as the “last 10 games” factor and eventually was reconfigured to the “last 12 games” has been eradicated from this Earth like Milli Vanilli records. Because it was just as phony. When the late Mike Slive served in 2008-09 as chair of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, which selects and seeds the field for the NCAA Tournament, he directed the movement to remove those numbers from teams’ official resumes, known as “team sheets.”

Although this has been gone from the process for more than a decade, it’s common to hear fans discuss the value of a particular team in these terms, either over-weighting a team’s late-season performance or endeavoring to dismiss the results of early season non-league games.

The selection committee, though, long has made it clear that it weights pre-conference results as strongly as those that occur later in the year.

The reason for this is simple: Finishing well has no statistical significance. Sure, one could look at last year’s Final Four and see they played .900 ball in their stretch-run games, but Virginia, Texas Tech, Auburn and Michigan State won 82.6 percent of their games overall. They were good all season; only Auburn’s closing run was an improvement over their prior play.

Of the teams that reached last year’s Sweet 16, three (Tennessee, Michigan and Virginia Tech) were only 6-4 in their final 10 games. Kentucky, Duke and Purdue all got to the Elite Eight despite compiling only 7-3 records down the stretch, all well below their full-year performance.

And these numbers hold true if you go back into the tournament’s history, as well.

Look back 10 years to 2009, the last year this factor was in use. Three of the four Final Four teams were 9-3 and eventual champion North Carolina was 10-2 in the final stretch. Sweet 16 teams Arizona and Xavier were just 7-5.

Two decades ago, when this factor firmly was part of tournament doctrine, three teams advanced to the Sweet 16 after finishing 5-5 (Missouri State, Iowa and Florida) and Purdue made it after closing 4-6.

The committee declared when it was eliminating the “last 10” factor that there were multiple reasons for the move:

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One team’s last 10 games could be enormously difficult, whereas another could be a relative breeze. Schedules are imbalanced now. Especially at the high-major level, few conferences play double-round-robin schedules, and even those mostly do not play definitive first halves and second halves. This can have the effect of exacerbating the imbalance in late-season schedules. Logic.

It stands to reason that, as in all sports, games that occur within the boundary of a particular season should count equally. An NFL team doesn’t get any special privileges because it went 4-0 in December. Why should it?

After observing results for years and compiling the data to demonstrate how the stretch run had no correlation to tournament success, I began writing for Sporting News in the mid-2000s that the committee needed to remove the “last 10 games” as a factor.

I’m not saying I got it done, just that I’m delighted it happened.

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