“Easy Roads” to the NCAA Championship? Check the Maps

When They Want Our Opinion, They’ll Give it to Us

Confirmation bias: a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.  As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs, particularly with respect to the unfairness of the system currently utilized by the NCAA to determine the brackets for its women’s volleyball tournament.

Three things are predictable in life: death, taxes, and the widespread belief that the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament brackets are grossly unfair.  The 2010 Tournament was no exception, with many pundits and fans criticizing Penn State’s bracket as giving the Nittany Lions an “easy” path to the NCAA Title.

We’re Penn State fans, but we agree that Penn State’s bracket was the easiest in the 2010 Tournament (although you might get a dissenting opinion from the teams that had to play Penn State).

We don’t, however, agree with critics who claimed that the “easy” bracket somehow tainted Penn State’s 2010 championship — that Penn State’s bracket made the Nittany Lions victory almost inevitable.

We’ll talk more about that below, but the short version is that winning the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament is never easy.  Every NCAA Women’s Volleyball championship team has earned its title.  That was just as true in 2010 as in previous Tournaments.  They’re all champions.

Not that our opinion will sway very many (or any) people who think otherwise.  We believe in confirmation bias.  When they want our opinion, they’ll give it to us.

Winning the NCAA Tournament is Never “Easy”

We decided to look at the tournament paths of four teams in four recent tournaments, all of whom went on to win the NCAA Championship.  This isn’t a statistically rigorous study — that would be the one with Pablo references, and RPI debunked, and conference power matrices.  Which we don’t have.

Ours is the one with the subjective, non-statistically valid, snapshot view of the tournament paths of these four teams, to give us a subjective, confirmationally biased answer as to whether they had an “easier” path to the title than some other teams.

To keep the hounds at bay, we need to point out that we believe the 2010 Penn State had the easiest route.  The other three teams are listed in chronological order.

But easy bracket or tough bracket, it’s never easy to win the NCAA Tournament.  All of these teams earned their titles.  They all are champions.

Good Teams Almost Always Win the Early Rounds

Before we get to the teams and their tournament schedules, we wanted to take a quick look at the NCAA tournament performance of six elite programs — Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford, Texas, USC and Washington — from 1998 to 2010.

As the chart below indicates, the first two rounds were close to a statistical sure thing for these teams during that period:  They went 74-0 in NCAA first round matches, 62-12 in NCAA second round matches, and 46-16 in Sweet Sixteen matches.

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2010 (All Matches)

TeamFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalFinalTotal
Penn State13-011-29-26-36-05-150-8
Florida13-012-16-63-31-20-1 35-13

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that good teams win those early-round matches most of the time.

There are, of course, notable exceptions.  Like 2010, when #1 seeded Florida was swept by #16 seed Purdue (4th in the Big Ten) in the Austin Regional Semi-finals, and #2 seeded Nebraska lost to unseeded (but #6 ranked) Washington, 3-1 in the Seattle Regional Semi-finals.  (Also see our earlier post Home Sweet Home?)

Still, upsets aside, to a significant degree, an “easy” bracket in the first two or three rounds isn’t really that significant.  The good teams are going to win those matches most of the time.

It’s when you get to the Regional Final and the Final Four that mismatches have a greater effect.  But, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, even if a team has an arguably “easy” opponent in the Regional Final (think Penn State vs. Duke in 2010), that team still must win that Regional Final match (our six team cohort was 31-15 in Regional Finals from 1998 to 2010), plus two more matches, which theoretically should be tough ones, to win the Championship.

Obviously, an “easy” bracket team like the 2010 Penn State team has an easier time getting to the Final Four than, say, the 2010 USC team, which had to defeat #3 seeded Stanford to get to the Final Four.

But once a team reaches the Final Four, all those previous matches are moot.  Every team has to produce against top level competition.  Some teams do, and some teams don’t.

In 2010, to continue with our example, Penn State did, sweeping a very good Texas team and following up with a sweep of Pac 10 Champion Cal in the finals.  USC didn’t, getting swept by Cal in its Semi-final match.

There’s Something About Coaches

Which leads us to our final point.  In the 30 years the NCAA has been holding its Women’s Volleyball Championship Tournament, only ten coaches, and only ten schools, have won even a single NCAA Division 1 Title.

Easy brackets may have increased the opportunities for some of these coaches in a few instances, but there must have been easy brackets for other schools and other coaches who weren’t able to capitalize and win the title.  There undoubtedly were lots of reasons for this.  But for us, it makes no sense to disregard the potential impact of coaching.

NCAA Women's Volleyball Champions - 1981 to 2010

School# of ChampionshipsCoaches
Stanford6Don Shaw - 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997; John Dunning - 2001, 2004
Penn State5Russ Rose - 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
Hawai'i3Dave Shoji - 1982, 1983, 1987
Long Beach State3Brian Gimmillaro - 1989, 1993, 1998
Nebraska3Terry Pettit - 1995; John Cook - 2000, 2006
UCLA3Andy Banachowski - 1984, 1990, 1991
USC3Chuck Erbe - 1981; Mick Haley - 2002, 2003
Pacific2John Dunning - 1985, 1986
Texas1Mick Haley - 1988
Washington1Jim McLaughlin - 2005
10 schools30 years10 different coaches (2 coaches at 2 schools)

Checking the Map for Four Teams

We’ve chosen to examine the NCAA Tournament matches of four teams, shown in the chart below.  Our choices are, of course, subjective and, we acknowledge, highly susceptible to confirmation bias.  To voice your own opinion, you can vote in the poll below.

Easy Roads to the NCAA Championship? Check the Maps

YearTeam (Final Record)Tournament SeedFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalFinal
2010Penn State (32-5 #4Niagara (25-9) 3-0 (Home)Virginia Tech (20-12) 3-0 (Home)unseeded Oklahoma (23-11) 3-0 (Home)#12 seed Duke (27-7) 3-1 (Home)#9 seed Texas (27-6) 3-0 (Kansas City, MO)#7 seed/ Pac10 Champion Cal (30-4) 3-0 (Kansas City, MO)
(Cal had defeated #6 seed USC, which had defeated #3 seed Stanford)
2005Washington (32-1)#3Siena (20-12) 3-0 (Fort Collins, CO)Colorado State (21-9) 3-0 (Fort Collins, CO)#14 seed Purdue (24-9) 3-0 (College Station, TX)#11 seed Wisconsin (26-7) 3-0 (College Station, TX)#15 seed Tennessee (25-9) 3-0 (San Antonio, TX)
(Tennessee had defeated #2 seed Penn State)
#1 seed Nebraska (33-2) 3-0 (San Antonio, TX)
2006Nebraska (33-1) #1American (26-6) 3-1 (Home) Northern Iowa (28-8) 3-0 (Home)#16 seed San Diego (26-6) 3-0 (Gainesville, FL)#8 seed Minnesota (26-8) 3-2 (Gainesville, FL)#4 seed UCLA (33-4) 3-1 (Omaha, NE)#2 seed Stanford (30-4) 3-1 (Omaha, NE)
2007Penn State (34-2) #3Siena (24-8) 3-0 (Home)Albany 3-0 (24-10) (Home)unseeded Michigan (24-11) 3-0 (Home)unseeded BYU (24-8) 3-0 (Home) (BYU had defeated #6 seed Washington) #10 seed/ #6 ranked Cal (26-8) 3-0 (Away - Sacramento, CA) #1 seed Stanford (32-3) 3-2 (Away - Sacramento, CA)
  • 2010 -Penn State

Did Penn State receive a very favorable draw in the 2010 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament?  Absolutely.  Even putting aside Niagara (which we think was a typical 1st-round mismatch) and Virginia Tech (which wasn’t really an outlier for the 2nd round), Oklahoma and Duke didn’t rank as the toughest opponents Penn State has faced in those rounds in previous years.  And Penn State benefited from four home matches.

Still, Penn State’s next two opponents — Texas and California, were both very tough teams.

After the Texas match, Russ Rose singled out Rachel Adams and Juliann Faucette as great players who presented Penn State with big challenges:

She  [Adams] was a factor on the ball, she bounced one in front of Blair [Brown] that hit her in the head. We thought that she’s a fabulous athlete. I recruited her so I followed her for quite a number of years. You don’t have a game plan to stop her, you have a game plan to serve her tough when she’s in the front row and try and limit the opportunities that she has.  Both her and Juliann [Faucette] are great offensive players and when they take some swings, there’s really nothing that you can do about it.

Cal may have been the #7 seed, but they were the Pac 10 Champion.  After the Cal match, Coach Rose had this to say:

I’d first like to congratulate Cal on such a terrific season, a great team. It’s been an honor for us to have played them the last few years, and certainly from our team’s standpoint, it was a great match tonight with a terrific crowd and the host people did a great job with everything that fell into place.  Cal is not going to quit. They wouldn’t get to the position they were in. They wouldn’t have won the Pac-10 if they had any quit in them. . . . Cal is a great team. Rich [Feller] is a great friend and a terrific coach. And Carli was the national player of the year. I feel for him. I’ve been in that other locker room three or four times losing in the finals for national championships, so I know how he feels. Cal’s obviously doing a great job . . . .

So yes, Penn State had a very favorable bracket.  But no, this National Title wasn’t easy.  To win it, Penn State had to win two Final Four matches against outstanding opponents.  It did.  In convincing fashion.

  • 2005 – Washington

We’ll start by repeating our mantra one more time:  we aren’t saying it was easy for Washington to win the 2005 NCAA Championship. It wasn’t easy.  And we aren’t saying the Huskies didn’t deserve the title.  They did.  All we are saying is that in some respects, Washington got some breaks on their way to winning the 2005 title.

But let’s start with their accomplishments.  In 2005, Washington played all six of its matches on the road and won them all.  That’s very impressive, as this chart demonstrates:

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2010 (Away Matches)

TeamFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet SixteenRegional FinalSemi-FinalFinalTotal
Penn State0-00-04-11-36-05-116-5

They defeated Colorado State in the second round in Fort Collins, which isn’t easy (as the Huskies learned in 2009).  And they defeated #1 seeded Nebraska.  Also very impressive.

But even though 14th-seeded/ 21st ranked Purdue (5th in the Big Ten), and 11 seeded/ 10th ranked Wisconsin (2nd in the Big Ten) were both fine teams, Purdue was far from peak strength, having lost three players to ACL injuries and having one,  Kelli Miller, who could barely jump because of tendonitis.  Still, injuries happen, and after the match, Purdue’s Head Coach Dave Shondell said  “Washington has no weaknesses I can speak of.”

The one match-up that really sticks out in the Huskies 2005 NCAA tournament run is its Semi-final match against #15 seed Tennessee, the lowest overall seed to ever make the Final Four. (This is a technicality.  Santa Clara, which also made the 2005 Final Four, was unseeded.)  By historical standards, then, Washington’s Semi-final match was “easy.”  But #2 overall seed Penn State had lost to those very same Volunteers (albeit without starting MH Christa Harmotta, who was injured) in the Regional Semi-finals.

The bottom line is that in 2005, Washington won every match in the NCAA Tournament.  No other 2005 team can make that claim.

  • 2006 – Nebraska

We have a rule, which we recognize won’t be universally (or perhaps even widely) accepted.  But here it is: When you play an NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament Final on your home court (or what is, for all practical purposes, your home court) you’ve had an easier road to the NCAA Title than a team that didn’t benefit from that “home court” advantage.  Nebraska’s Final Four matches were in Omaha, Nebraska.  That’s why we’ve included the 2006 Huskers in our group of four teams.

The table below shows the home court performances of our six-team cohort.  Compare these results with their performance in away matches (in the chart in the section captioned “Good Teams Almost Always Win the Early Rounds”).  It’s nice to play at home.

NCAA Tournament Records - 1998-2010 (Home Matches)

TeamFirst Round Second RoundSweet 16Regional FinalSemi-FinalFinalTotal
Penn State13-011-25-15-00-00-034-3

We can’t say how much the home court advantage helped Nebraska, if in fact it had any effect at all.  We can say how big the crowds were, and they were very big indeed.  The Semi-final match against #4 seed UCLA match was played in front of  an NCAA match-record crowd of 17,013 fans.  We’re betting most of them were wearing red.  The Final match against #2 seed Stanford was played in front of a record 17,209 fans.

There’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s great for the sport.  But we think its easier to win a match when 17,000+ fans are cheering for you than when 17,000+ fans are cheering against you.

To repeat our mantra, we aren’t saying it was easy for Nebraska to win the 2006 NCAA Championship.  It wasn’t.  Nebraska was demonstrably the best team in 2006.

  • 2007 – Penn State

We debated whether to include the 2007 Penn State team in our list.  On the one hand, they faced unseeded teams in the Sweet Sixteen and Regional Semi-finals — #19 ranked Michigan and #17 ranked BYU, respectively.  But Michigan had defeated #14 seeded (#21 ranked) Colorado State, and BYU had knocked off #6 seeded Washington, both in the 2nd round.

So in a sense, it wasn’t that Penn State’s bracket was easy, but rather that there were some upsets.  And both of Penn State’s Final Four victories were against California teams, in Sacramento California.  Not really home matches for either Cal or Stanford, but certainly more geographically friendly to those teams than to the Nittany Lions.  Finally, Penn State defeated the #1 overall seed, Stanford, in the Final match.  You can’t do more than that.

Still, when all is said and done, we can see the argument that Penn State had some breaks on its way to the 2007 title.  So we included them in the list.

But our mantra still holds: we aren’t saying it was easy for Penn State to win the 2007 NCAA Championship.  It wasn’t.  Penn State won all its NCAA Tournament matches.  It deserved the 2007 Title.

Vote Here (But It Won’t Change Any Minds Either)

Whether we’ve moved any of you to our view that all the roads are tough, you can vote in our poll below and let your opinion be known.  That won’t change anyone’s mind either, but its therapeutic value should not be underestimated.