Preseason polls are worthless. It’s a refrain you hear quite often.
But with the Nevada basketball team, which opens the season Tuesday against BYU, being ranked in the top 10 of both major preseason polls, I wanted to take a deeper look. How worthless are those polls?
I went back and looked at the last 10 AP preseason polls – from the 2008-09 season to the 2017-18 season – and then jumped ahead to the end of each of those seasons to see how those teams fared in the NCAA Tournament. This isn’t a super scientific study, but it does shed some light on how good of a job those preseason polls do at predicting how well a team will fare five months later in March Madness.
For Nevada, which was ranked No. 7 in this year’s preseason poll, the results are encouraging.
For starters, only six of the 100 teams in the preseason top 10 over the last 10 seasons failed to make the NCAA Tournament. If you’re in the preseason Top 25, you have a 94 percent chance of dancing.
Here are the six teams that went from preseason top 10 to watching the NCAA Tournament on TV:
* 2009 Notre Dame (preseason ninth)
* 2010 North Carolina (preseason sixth)
* 2012 Pittsburgh (preseason 10th)
* 2013 Kentucky (preseason third)
* 2015 Florida (preseason seventh)
* 2018 USC (preseason 10th)
Those are the only total flops. That’s not bad considering how much can go wrong during the season. In fact, there’s a higher likelihood a preseason top-10 team wins the national title than not make the tournament. Seven times in the last 10 seasons, a preseason top-10 team did win the title. Only three times since 2008-09 has a national champion not been ranked in the preseason top 10. They are:
* 2011 UConn (not ranked in preseason poll)
* 2014 UConn (ranked 18th in preseason poll)
* 2016 Villanova (ranked 11th in preseason poll)
Every other champ has been a top-10 team. But let’s dig deeper. How far do preseason top-10 teams go in the NCAA Tournament? I coded that as well. Of the 100 teams in the last 10 preseason top 10s, here’s how far each went in the tournament.
* Won the tournament: Seven teams
* Finished runner-up: Five teams
* Lost in the Final Four: 11 teams
* Lost in the Elite Eight: 24 teams
* Lost in the Sweet 16: 16 teams
* Lost in the Round of 32: 20 teams
* Lost in the Round of 64: 11 teams
* Did not make the NCAA Tournament: Six teams
Again, this is pretty good news for the Wolf Pack (and any other team starting in the preseason top 10).
* 23 percent of preseason top 10 teams made it to the Final Four (or better)
* 47 percent made it to the Elite Eight (or better)
* 63 percent made it to the Sweet 16 (or better)
* And 83 percent won at least one NCAA Tournament game
Basically, if history holds, Nevada has nearly a 50 percent chance of reaching the Elite 8, a round no Wolf Pack team (or Mountain West team for that matter) has previously reached.
But what about the No. 7 preseason team specifically since that is where Nevada will start the season? I would not put as much stock into this one since we’re talking about a 10-team sample size, but here were the results. Of the 10 previous No. 7 preseason teams in the nation, four lost in the Sweet 16, three lost in the Elite Eight, one lost in the Round of 32, one lost in the Round of 64 and one didn’t make the NCAA Tournament (2015 Florida). That's 70 percent of No. 7 seeds at least getting to the Sweet 16.
Again, this isn’t super scientific research, but on the surface, it bodes well for Nevada. It’s extremely rare for a preseason top 10 team to not make the NCAA Tournament (just 6 percent) and pretty likely it will at least make the Sweet 16 (63 percent) with a coin flip of getting to the Elite Eight (47 percent). Maybe the preseason poll isn’t worthless after all.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.