WE'RE DESPERATE: Are Bubble Teams More Difficult to Beat?

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Hat tip to Kirk Haaland, whose excellent blog enCYCLONEpedia inspired this study. If you're not reading it already, you should be. You'll learn something.

With the NCAA Tournament just around the corner, common sense and a majority of brackets have five Big XII locked into the tournament: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. The one Big XII team on the bubble is Texas, who Iowa State faces in the second round of the Big XII Tournament tonight at 8:30 PM CST. The one thing that would help the Longhorn's chances of being selected for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament? At least one win in the Big XII Tournament.

This is a little concerning for some Cyclone fans, because there's a theory that a team fighting for its tournament life is more difficult to beat than a team that's already in or out of the tournament. A desperate team like Texas is going to be playing for a spot in the field of 68, and won't be an easy win.

This is counter-intuitive, because teams on the bubble are generally pretty mediocre. That's how they got on the bubble in the first place. But people are still scared of this matchup, due to the perceived difficulty of playing a bubble team. So is this actually true? Are bubble teams more difficult to beat when they're playing for their tournament lives?

***Warning: Extremely unscientific results and liberal use of the word "bubble" after the jump***

To determine this, it's helpful to look at the first game of conference tournament play for a few reasons. First, conference tournament games are played on neutral courts, so it eliminates any home court advantage a team might have. Second, by this point teams have finished the regular season and generally know whether they are in or out of the NCAA tournament. Teams on the bubble know if they need to win more games to solidify their tournament resume. And finally, the first game of the conference tournament is exactly the same situation that Texas finds itself in today.

The five year span from 2007 to 2011 provides a decent time frame to work with, and looking at ESPN's list of bubble teams from the week before conference tournament play provides ten bubble teams per year. That's 50 total teams and 50 conference tournament games to look at.

Bubble teams that won their conference tournament game were assigned a numerical value of +1. Teams that lost their conference tournament game were assigned a numerical value of -1. The sum of these 50 games (wins/losses) is added together and then divided by 50 (total games) to determine the average of all wins/losses.

If there's a positive correlation between desperate teams and winning, the final average of this study should be closer to +1. If there's a negative correlation, the final average will be closer to -1 and if there's no correlation the final average will be closer to zero. Simply put, if every bubble team won their tournament game, the final average would equal +1; if every bubble team lost their tournament game, the final average would equal -1, and if exactly half the teams won and half the teams lost the final average would equal 0.

So after looking at the wins and losses of 50 bubble teams over the past five years, the data actually shows a positive correlation between desperate teams and winning. 32 bubble teams won their first conference tournament game and 18 bubble teams lost their first conference tournament game for a slightly positive correlation of +0.28.

Does this actually mean anything? Probably not. While it's surprising to see that teams playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament won more than they lost by a decent margin, the sample size is still too small to provide any kind of definitive answer. And the positive correlation of +0.28 just isn't strong enough to determine whether bubble teams play better when they need to. While a majority of bubble teams won their first conference tournament game to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, there are always other factors at work (opponent strength, injuries, tournament location, etc).

Still, it's interesting to look at the data from the past five years of teams on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. But stats don't tell the entire story. For example, Texas will be down to three healthy forwards after losing Alexis Wangmene in a loss to Kansas last Saturday. Additionally, the crowd at the Sprint Center will most likely be favoring the Cyclones due to the number of Iowa State fans in the building. So while the data from this study (and Vegas) predict a win for the Longhorns, the Cyclones should have the edge tonight.


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