The North Carolina Tar Heels will face Providence on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament, and they will do so on a losing streak. The Heels closed out the regular season with a loss at Duke and struggled to another loss against Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament. The losing streak of two games is UNC’s second losing streak of the season. The last string of losses came for UNC back in January at the start of the ACC season.
I wanted to find some historical context for how teams on losing streaks heading up to the Big Dance did in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2009, there have been 28 teams entering the NCAA Tournament that were either “faltering” or on a losing streak. I define faltering as having a bad stretch of games, for example, the 2013 Illinois Fighting Illini lost four of their last six games to lead up to the NCAA tournament. I am counting both the end of the regular season and the conference tournaments in my numbers for the struggling teams.
The sputtering teams’ tournament performance gave hope to a team like Carolina and other teams on losing streaks heading into the Big Dance. “Faltering” teams had four teams make it to the Sweet 16 or better and 10 that were unable to make it to the second weekend of the tournament. Overall, eight teams made it to the Sweet 16 or better that came into the NCAA tournament on a cold streak. That is only slightly worse than how the numbers break down for every tournament team.
Above are graphs of the performance of struggling teams and “normal” teams in the NCAA Tournament. You can click on the images to enlarge them. Let me be clear here: the graph of the left is of the performance of teams coming into the tournament faltering or on losing streaks. The graph on the right is the breakdown of losses for any old NCAA tournament bracket, where half the teams lose each round.
As you can see, the general shape of the graphs is similar, suggesting that despite losing streaks coming into the NCAA Tournament, teams still have similar shots at making the Final Four and Sweet 16 as they would normally. More teams do get bounced in the first round, but also more succeed in getting to the second weekend of the tournament. One explanation for this could be that the battle tested teams that came into the tournament do better because they have learned to play better against adversity. Yes, teams like Carolina are cold coming into the tournament, but this data shows that over the past five tournaments, teams on losing streaks haven’t been at major disadvantages to teams that are not on losing spells.
I also wanted to dig deeper in my exploration of the teams on losing streaks, looking this time at the performance in games of the losing streak teams. Since 2010, teams that were either faltering or on a losing streak coming into the NCAA Tournament have played 42 games, a small but meaningful sample size compared to the data from the last four tournaments. I broke up those 42 games into games that the team of a losing streak was either the favorite or the underdog using kenpom.com’s Win Percentage calculations. I wanted to see how our losing streak teams did when they were suppose to win as the favorite and how they did when they were suppose to lose as underdogs.
Our losing teams were the underdog* 22 times and the favorites** 20 times, and did pretty well when you examine the numbers closely. The underdogs of the teams on a losing streak had nine wins and 13 losses, 9-13, with most of the underdog wins coming from VCU in 2011 and La Salle in 2013. Favorites also did well, going 13-7 of the games that they were suppose to win according to kenpom.com’s projections.
UNC has a 61% chance of winning over Providence in the second round of the tournament, so I decided to narrow my data down further to get a clearer picture of the impact the losing streak might have on UNC. In all rounds of the tournament, teams with 50-70% odds of victory won eight games and lost six. Wisconsin in 2011 and Florida in 2012 are two examples of teams that won as favorites in the second round despite sloppy play leading up to the tournament.
Looking at just second round performance, teams on losing streaks heading into the tournament were 5-2 in the first round when they had a 50-70% chance of winning the game. A team in a similar situation to UNC would be Wisconsin in 2011, who came into the tournament on a two game losing streak. Faced with a 4-13 matchup and 66% Initial Win Probability, the Badgers righted the ship against Belmont and rode that momentum all the way to a Sweet 16 birth.
While the Heels are coming into the NCAA Tournament on a losing streak, the historical outlook for teams in a similar position coming into the tournament isn’t that bad. Teams like 2013 La Salle, 2011 VCU, 2011 Wisconsin and UConn in 2009 all were cold coming into the tournament and made good runs. Hopefully for the Tar Heels, they will still be able to put together a good tournament run despite their cold streak headed into the Big Dance.
* I define underdog as a team with less than a 50% initial win probability.
** I define favorite as a team with more than a 50% initial win probability.
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