Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fun With My Ivy Games Database (Back to 1980)

Having recently completed my update to the Ivy Games Database, dating back to the 1979-1980 season (the start of College Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System "SRS"), I have decided to share some of the more interesting nuggets here.

From looking at the data, it is undeniable that the Ivy League is at its strongest point since the 1970s - and by a considerable margin, I might add.

Speaking of the 1970s, the Massey Ratings for college basketball extend all the way back to 1950, so my next project will be to add those 30 seasons to the database to provide for the first true comparison of league strength from the glory years to today. Even those incredible years where Penn finished in the top five of the ratings, the league as a whole still had no luck cracking the stranglehold of the top conferences that still dominate the top of the ladder today.

But back to the data we have going back to 1980. How has the league trended over that timeframe?

Let's start by looking at all non-conference games as a whole.

While the simplest way to measure the performance of the league each season might be to look at the non-conference record, that fails to adjust for three important indicators of quality: 1) who you played, 2) where you played them and 3) by how much you won or lost.

There is a relative simple set of formulas to adjust for opponent quality, venue and margin of victory that can allow us to score each game on a scale of 0 to 100. (50 would indicate that the average Ivy team would be even odds against an average Division I team on a neutral floor).

Here are the Top 10 best years the league has had since 1980:

1) 2013-14 - 49
2) 2011-12 - 45
3) 2010-11 - 44
4) 2014-15 (thus far) - 42
5) 2012-13 - 41
6) 2001-02 - 41
7) 1996-97 - 40
8) 2002-03 - 40
9) 2004-05 - 39
10) 1986-87 - 38

Here are the worst 10 seasons the league has had since 1980:

1) 1988-89 - 26
2) 1984-85 - 29
3) 1985-86 - 30
4) 1994-95 - 30
5) 1983-84 - 30
6) 1979-80 - 31
7) 2008-09 - 31
8) 1980-81 - 31
9) 1987-88 - 32
10) 1999-00 - 32

The first thing that pops out is how unprecedented what happened last year was. The 2013-14 season is roughly as far clear of the best year prior to this current run (8.6 points over 2001-02) as that 2001-02 campaign was over the 1999-00 edition of the Ivy that cracked the Bottom 10 list.

That four-year span from 2001-02 to 2004-05 previously had set the high-water mark for the Ivies in the Academic Index era with an average Game Score of 39. Compare that to the past five years which are hovering near 45 on average.

What's also clear is how far we've come since the 1980s. The average game score for that lost decade was 31 with seven seasons cracking the Bottom 10 list.

The 1990s showed marked improvement with the average game score rising to 35 with just one Bottom 10 season and one Top 10 campaign with two more (1992-93, 12th; 1998-99, 13th) that would have been up until this recent run bumped those seasons from the list. The 2000s continued on that progression with that aforementioned strong burst from 2001-02 to 2004-05, but the end of the decade was hampered by a shift from the traditional two-team power structure to a more equitable rising tide being pushed by policy changes in financial aid and concerted effort to improve from traditionally dormant programs.

What the common college basketball fan cares more about, though, is how a team or a league plays in the biggest moments. It's nice to take care of your sub-200 opposition in dominating fashion, but those performances don't generate tons of media coverage.

So, let's segment the opposition into tiers. The three tiers we'll choose are teams with SRS ratings above 4 (roughly Top 100), 10 (roughly Top 50) and 15 (roughly Top 25). Since we've mostly controlled for quality with the tiering and rarely does an Ivy host such a high-caliber opponent, winning percentage alone can be more instructive than it is for the overall sample, so I'll provide that here along with Game Scores. Let's take a look by decade:

Games Vs. SRS 4+ Rated Opponents (Top 100)

1980-89: 7% Win Pct; 38 Game Score
1990-99: 15% Win Pct; 47 Game Score
2000-09: 12% Win Pct; 48 Game Score
2010-present: 20% Win Pct; 55 Game Score

Games Vs. SRS 10+ Rated Opponents (Top 50)

1980-89: 3% Win Pct; 39 Game Score
1990-99: 7% Win Pct; 47 Game Score
2000-09: 3% Win Pct; 52 Game Score
2010-present: 14% Win Pct; 59 Game Score

Games Vs. SRS 15+ Rated Opponents (Top 25)

1980-89: 0% Win Pct; 36 Game Score
1990-99: 2% Win Pct; 47 Game Score
2000-09: 0% Win Pct; 56 Game Score
2010-present: 8% Win Pct; 50 Game Score

For many, though, the true quality of a league is less in having a couple standard bearers that can put up a fight while the majority of teams remain cupcakes and more in having a conference with tough outs top-to-bottom.

In the 1980s, Ivies combined to defeat 15 opponents with SRS Ratings of 4 or higher. Of those victories, 14 came from Penn and Princeton with Dartmouth registering the lone other one. In the 1990s, the number of wins rose dramatically (35), but the distribution remained roughly the same - Penn and Princeton combined for 33 of those with Brown and Cornell each taking one.

By the 2000s, though, things had begun to change. The number of such victories plateaued (32), but Penn and Princeton combined for just 22, while Yale picked up 5, Brown and Cornell added 2 and Harvard picked up one.

That leads us to where we are today. Just five and a half seasons into this decade, the Ivy League has already recorded 33 wins over SRS 4+ opponents. Harvard leads the way with 13, but four more Ivies have at least two (Princeton - 7; Cornell - 6; Brown - 2; Columbia - 2; Yale - 2) and only Dartmouth has yet to nab one.

There are a variety of other ways to look at the 36 Ivy seasons in the database, but all will pretty much come to the same conclusion. What we've seen over the past five or six seasons has been nothing short of remarkable, both in the heights that have been achieved and the manner in which such performance has been consistently sustained.

For the parochial fan, more interested in his or her team's performance in the dis-aggregated game-by-game view, I'll have the "bests" and "worsts" from individual games over the past 36 seasons in a follow-up post.

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