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CBB: Duke 2010 — “Easy” Road?

Posted by Neil Paine on April 6, 2010

Note: This post was originally published at College Basketball Reference, S-R's brand-new College Hoops site, so when you're done reading, go over and check it out!

Prior to the 2010 tournament, many media pundits felt that Duke had the easiest bracket of any #1 seed, despite Kansas actually being the top overall seed in the field. If no upsets happened, Duke would have to go through AP #9 Villanova to reach the Final Four; by comparison, Kansas would have to go through #5 Ohio State, Syracuse would have to go through #7 K-State, and Kentucky would have to go through #6 West Virginia.

As the tournament progressed, the only upset that happened along Duke's path was #3 Baylor reaching the Regional Final instead of Villanova, who had been picked off by Saint Mary's (CA). This meant that instead of #9 'Nova, Duke actually only had to go through the 19th-ranked Bears to reach Indy. Once they reached the Final Four, they found #6 West Virginia waiting for them, and in the Championship Game the Blue Devils had to beat #11 Butler, whom they only topped by 2 when a pair of shots by Gordon Hayward each missed by mere inches. So you can see why some are reacting to Duke's crown today with criticism that they faced one of the easiest roads to a championship in NCAA history. But is this true? Was Duke's path to glory really devoid of potholes along the way? And if so, how does 2010 Duke compare to other past champions who had more grueling roads?

Well, let's answer the last question first: Duke 2010 was legitimately a great team, even if their coach didn't want to say it. Using SRS, look at how they stack up to past NCAA champs since 1980:

Year School Conf SRS
2010 DUKE ACC 26.099
2009 UNC ACC 25.478
2008 KAN BG12 26.891
2007 FLA SEC 23.743
2006 FLA SEC 20.209
2005 UNC ACC 28.425
2004 CONN BIGE 22.620
2003 SYRA BIGE 19.016
2002 MARY ACC 23.554
2001 DUKE ACC 32.273
2000 MICS BG10 25.036
1999 CONN BIGE 24.743
1998 KEN SEC 22.948
1997 ARIZ PC10 21.602
1996 KEN SEC 32.142
1995 UCLA PC10 23.742
1994 ARKA SEC 23.884
1993 UNC ACC 29.037
1992 DUKE ACC 24.798
1991 DUKE ACC 24.901
1990 UNLV BIGW 24.454
1989 MICH BG10 27.635
1988 KAN BIG8 15.711
1987 IND BG10 20.690
1986 LOU MECA 20.659
1985 VILL BIGE 12.029
1984 GTWN BIGE 18.752
1983 NCST ACC 15.217
1982 UNC ACC 20.171
1981 IND BG10 21.178
1980 LOU MECA 15.576

As you can see, 2010 Duke actually had one of the best ratings of any champion over the past 30 years -- even better than (gasp!) the vaunted 2009 North Carolina title team. (Don't worry Tar Heels, two UNC squads were better than the '10 Devils -- 1993 and 2005.) So you can dispel any notion that this year's Duke team was a mediocre group that got lucky when fellow top seeds Kansas, Syracuse, & Kentucky were upended, because Duke probably should have been favored over that trio even if they had held up their end of the bargain by advancing to Indianapolis:

Year School Conf SRS
2010 DUKE ACC 26.099
2010 KAN BG12 25.842
2010 SYRA BIGE 22.481
2010 KEN SEC 21.922
2010 KSU BG12 20.623
2010 OSU BG10 20.024
2010 WVIR BIGE 19.875
2010 BYU MOUW 19.455
2010 TEX BG12 19.448
2010 MARY ACC 18.850
2010 BAYL BG12 18.801
2010 WISC BG10 18.667
2010 MIZZ BG12 18.333
2010 CAL PC10 18.048
2010 PUR BG10 18.009
2010 GTWN BIGE 17.770
2010 VILL BIGE 17.412
2010 WASH PC10 17.004
2010 XAVR A10 16.933
2010 TENN SEC 16.874
2010 CLEM ACC 16.841
2010 MICS BG10 16.445
2010 MINN BG10 16.401
2010 TXAM BG12 16.399
2010 MARQ BIGE 16.116

But I still need to address the issue of how difficult Duke's road to a championship was. I can do this in two ways; first, by looking at the average SRS of the opponents they faced en route to the title:

Year School Conf Region Seed TournW TournL SRS AvgOpp
2007 FLA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 23.743 12.528
2006 FLA SEC Minneapolis 3 6 0 20.209 12.581
1995 UCLA PC10 West 1 6 0 23.742 12.724
1980 LOU MECA Midwest 2 5 0 15.576 12.790
1982 UNC ACC East 1 5 0 20.171 12.806
1981 IND BG10 Mideast 3 5 0 21.178 13.097
1994 ARKA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 23.884 13.168
2009 UNC ACC South 1 6 0 25.478 13.168
1987 IND BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 20.690 13.303
1986 LOU MECA West 2 6 0 20.659 13.365
1984 GTWN BIGE West 1 5 0 18.752 13.523
1990 UNLV BIGW West 1 6 0 24.454 13.660
2010 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 26.099 13.738
1998 KEN SEC South 2 6 0 22.948 13.745
2004 CONN BIGE Phoenix 2 6 0 22.620 13.770
1983 NCST ACC West 6 6 0 15.217 13.828
2008 KAN BG12 Midwest 1 6 0 26.891 14.128
1996 KEN SEC Midwest 1 6 0 32.142 14.251
1999 CONN BIGE West 1 6 0 24.743 14.283
2002 MARY ACC East 1 6 0 23.554 14.364
2000 MICS BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 25.036 14.370
2005 UNC ACC Syracuse 1 6 0 28.425 14.854
1992 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 24.798 15.254
2001 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 32.273 15.278
1993 UNC ACC East 1 6 0 29.037 15.359
1985 VILL BIGE Southeast 8 6 0 12.029 15.480
2003 SYRA BIGE East 3 6 0 19.016 15.970
1988 KAN BIG8 Midwest 6 6 0 15.711 16.155
1991 DUKE ACC Midwest 2 6 0 24.901 16.362
1997 ARIZ PC10 Southeast 4 6 0 21.602 17.115
1989 MICH BG10 Southeast 3 6 0 27.635 17.168

By this measure, Duke ranks in the middle of the pack, having faced essentially the same path difficulty as 1990 UNLV, 2004 UConn, or 1998 Kentucky. The easiest paths by this metric were the Florida teams in 2006-07, the first of which was fortunate to face George Mason in the National Semifinals, the second of which drew a significantly below-average Jacksonville St. team in the opening-round. Of course, Jacksonville St. was never going to beat UF anyway, and their horribly low SRS (-12.3) dragged down what would have been a difficult path for the Gators, exposing one of the biggest flaws of taking the average opponent SRS in the tourney. Another flaw is that it doesn't recognize the extra game that teams in the early 1980s didn't have to play, since they received a 1st-round bye until the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (well, '83 NC State didn't, but that's just because they were an epic Cinderella).

How do you get around these problems? Well, instead of simply averaging the SRS of a champ's opponents, why not find the likelihood of their accomplishment using the ratings and a win probability formula? Taking the formula I used in this post, I can find the likelihood of the actual winner winning each game of the tournament; multiply the single-game win probabilities together for every champion, and you have the likelihood of them winning the whole enchilada:

Year School Conf Region Seed TournW TournL SRS p(Win)
1996 KEN SEC Midwest 1 6 0 32.142 0.605
2001 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 32.273 0.464
2005 UNC ACC Syracuse 1 6 0 28.425 0.348
1993 UNC ACC East 1 6 0 29.037 0.342
2009 UNC ACC South 1 6 0 25.478 0.316
2010 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 26.099 0.293
2008 KAN BG12 Midwest 1 6 0 26.891 0.291
1990 UNLV BIGW West 1 6 0 24.454 0.264
1989 MICH BG10 Southeast 3 6 0 27.635 0.245
1981 IND BG10 Mideast 3 5 0 21.178 0.229
1982 UNC ACC East 1 5 0 20.171 0.227
2000 MICS BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 25.036 0.217
1995 UCLA PC10 West 1 6 0 23.742 0.189
2007 FLA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 23.743 0.184
1994 ARKA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 23.884 0.162
2006 FLA SEC Minneapolis 3 6 0 20.209 0.152
2002 MARY ACC East 1 6 0 23.554 0.142
1984 GTWN BIGE West 1 5 0 18.752 0.126
2004 CONN BIGE Phoenix 2 6 0 22.620 0.117
1987 IND BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 20.690 0.094
1992 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 24.798 0.090
1998 KEN SEC South 2 6 0 22.948 0.090
1991 DUKE ACC Midwest 2 6 0 24.901 0.083
1999 CONN BIGE West 1 6 0 24.743 0.074
1980 LOU MECA Midwest 2 5 0 15.576 0.070
1986 LOU MECA West 2 6 0 20.659 0.057
2003 SYRA BIGE East 3 6 0 19.016 0.031
1997 ARIZ PC10 Southeast 4 6 0 21.602 0.022
1983 NCST ACC West 6 6 0 15.217 0.012
1988 KAN BIG8 Midwest 6 6 0 15.711 0.004
1985 VILL BIGE Southeast 8 6 0 12.029 0.002

By this measure, Duke did have things pretty easy along the way to the title, though it's worth noting that last year's UNC team actually had it even easier. And 1996 Kentucky was ridiculously dominant, with no team they faced ever having more than a 15% chance of toppling them. However, this fact betrays a potential problem with this metric as well: namely, that it takes into account the dominance of the champion in addition to the relative ease of their path. When we say "Duke had an easy road to the 2010 championship," we don't mean "Duke was really good and they were favored in most of their games" as much as we mean "Duke's opponents were not very good and therefore any contending team would have been able to win with the same schedule." Putting aside the fact that some of these "contenders" from 2010 blew their chance to even test this theory by losing in a round where Duke was winning by 15 (I'm looking at you, Kansas), we can adjust the concept above to find the likelihood that a generic "contending team" (SRS = 23, or the average of all champs' SRS scores since 1980) wins it all with the path presented to a given school:

Year School Conf Region Seed TournW TournL p(W_generic)
1980 LOU MECA Midwest 2 5 0 0.372
1982 UNC ACC East 1 5 0 0.370
1981 IND BG10 Mideast 3 5 0 0.317
1984 GTWN BIGE West 1 5 0 0.306
2006 FLA SEC Minneapolis 3 6 0 0.276
1990 UNLV BIGW West 1 6 0 0.196
2009 UNC ACC South 1 6 0 0.194
1985 VILL BIGE Southeast 8 6 0 0.174
1987 IND BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 0.171
1983 NCST ACC West 6 6 0 0.161
1995 UCLA PC10 West 1 6 0 0.159
2007 FLA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 0.155
2010 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 0.150
1996 KEN SEC Midwest 1 6 0 0.144
2000 MICS BG10 Midwest 1 6 0 0.135
2008 KAN BG12 Midwest 1 6 0 0.132
1994 ARKA SEC Midwest 1 6 0 0.131
2004 CONN BIGE Phoenix 2 6 0 0.129
2002 MARY ACC East 1 6 0 0.123
2003 SYRA BIGE East 3 6 0 0.115
1986 LOU MECA West 2 6 0 0.112
2005 UNC ACC Syracuse 1 6 0 0.111
1998 KEN SEC South 2 6 0 0.091
1993 UNC ACC East 1 6 0 0.091
1989 MICH BG10 Southeast 3 6 0 0.077
2001 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 0.075
1988 KAN BIG8 Midwest 6 6 0 0.068
1992 DUKE ACC East 1 6 0 0.052
1991 DUKE ACC Midwest 2 6 0 0.047
1999 CONN BIGE West 1 6 0 0.046
1997 ARIZ PC10 Southeast 4 6 0 0.036

Now, we can see the effect of having to play 1 fewer game coming to the fore, as the 4 easiest runs of the past 30 years were the only 4 champs who had a 1st-round bye. In the 64-team era, Florida '06 comes out with the easiest schedule, because George Mason (a great story, but one of the worst Final Four teams ever with an SRS of 12.1) was their obstacle in the National Semi. As for 2010 Duke, once more they rank near the middle of the pack, neither with a particularly tough path nor a cakewalk. UNC fans will loathe this article (and believe me, I have no rooting interest for Duke -- as a Georgia Tech grad I hate both teams), but their 2009 National Championship team had an easier road to the title than this year's Duke squad.

So while it's easy to hate Duke (just about everyone I talked to yesterday had a similar thought for the game last night: "Dear God, please let Duke lose, preferably in a blowout"), you should probably stick to mocking their graduates' well-publicized failures at the NBA level, because complaining that "Duke only won this year because they lucked into an easy path" doesn't really hold up if you look at the numbers.

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2 Responses to “CBB: Duke 2010 — “Easy” Road?”

  1. mrparker Says:

    Nice. I'm not convinced that SRS is the best way to measure the champions but the work was consistent and look for the best answer with the least bias.

  2. Evb1223 Says:

    Well publicized failures at the NBA level eh??? I'd like to see a statistical analysis of that claim honestly. Duke grads have made more money in the NBA in the last 10 years and I bet they have the best cumulative stats as well.