Do Play-in Game Winners Have an Edge in the NCAA Tournament?

Oh sweet Mary Louise, it is the week of Selection Sunday!  I’m so excited I could cry.  Yesterday I was sitting here in my wife’s basement reading every team’s sports board; side note, I don’t have a life but those guys are wacko.  And why am I doing this? Because it’s March and I friggin’ love March Madness.  I can’t remember who, but one forum poster made an assertion that piqued my imagination.

It went something like this.  “I hope that we get an 11 seed play-in game.  We will play a team about as good as us and when we win, it will give us an advantage in the first round.”

What an interesting thesis.  We’ve spent a couple of days digging through the data to give you a real answer to the question:  when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket, should you give a little extra attention to the winners of the First Four play-in games?

First, before you jump to bottom and read the last page of the book; I ask you, what do you think the answer is and why?  Go ahead think it through, I’ll wait.

The Hypothesis

Personally, when I did this thought experiment I found the proponent’s logic to be fairly sound.  For instance, if you win, you have momentum and excitement.  But not the ‘crappy beginning of almost every Super Bowl’ excitement.  You’ve calmed down and the team knows it can win in the Big Dance. That’s an advantage.

They could possibly be sleeping in the same hotel for more than a road trip night.  You can build a routine, eat foods you like, be well rested and adapted.  Same practice facilities and team meeting rooms in the hotel.  

You may see a similar ref from game to game which gives your team a feel for how the game will be called.  Take, for instance, BIG12 refs. They’re like my Ukrainian sister-in-law, the kids are not in a tussle until there’s blood.  Whereas the PAC12 reffing crews tend to view a sorority pillow fight as reason to eject the entire stadium.  I kid PAC fans, you’re an easy target because you won’t exist next year.

Really, with these mental perks I kind of believe that there is an inherent advantage to the Play-In Round winners.

The Ground Rules

Generally the First Four games include 2 games with 16-seeds and 2 games with 11, 12 or 13 seeds (though the committee appears to be now settled on making these simply an 11-seed).  For the sake of simplicity and since all 16-seeds ever have an expectation of winning 0.02 games in the whole tournament, we are only in reality considering the 11/12/13-seeds.  Also, while it would be nice for the committee to schedule these teams in the same city as they will play their first round, should they advance, that can’t always happen.  And like all Central Planning Committee’s, they don’t care about the proletariat.

We only have data from 2011 through 2023, because that is how long the First Four round has been a thing .

The gold standard in picking a more perfect bracket is to find an advantage where a team statistically wins more games than the norm for that seed.  So if an 11-seed historically wins 1.0 games but we find that FF winners walk away with 1.5 average wins then that is exciting.  But equally exciting is if the data disproves this theory by showing they win at a similar rate or less.  Because then we have actionable intelligence and not emotional hunches. OK, let’s do this.

The Last Page of the Book

There have been 24 play-in winners and they average 0.83 total wins.  So let’s compare that to the expected number of wins for the similarly-seeded non-play-in teams 2011-2023.  

Their expected average is 0.85, definitely not significantly higher like the theory postulates.

Whoomp whoop.

You:  “OK OK OK, how about this then: do they at least have a higher ‘upset rate’ in the First Round?”  

Me: “The normal upset rate is 48%.  So far, only 11 of the 24 winners have accomplished that putting them at 46%.  Just about the same as non-play-in winners. Sorry, no dice.”

You: “Let’s talk outliers and exceptions. 2011 VCU and 2021 UCLA were both 11-seed play-in winners who Cinderella’d their way past all the ugly step sisters into the Final Four.  Explain that with your data!”

Me: “I can’t.  Unfortunately there just isn’t enough data to form a reasonable explanation for this.  We’ve had 2 out of 24 play-in winners advance to the Final Four and 1 of 30 non play-in winners get there in the same timeframe (2018 Loyola-Chicago — bless Sister Jean’s heart).  I can’t conclude anything mathematically.”

You: “We’ll call it a tie.”

Epilogue Page

11 and 12 seeds win more games than we expect them to.  They are your prime candidates for picking a few fun upsets.  (Go read the Bracket Tips 101 cheat sheet here for more on that). But use your logical brain and don’t get carried away thinking that the play-in winner is more likely to get you a win or two rather than the other 11-seeds.  

Like I said, sometimes disproving a theory is just as exciting as proving one and this one is disproved.  We are now this much closer to picking the perfect bracket and we are going to get there.

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