Skip to main content
ABC News
This Year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament Might Be The Most Top-Heavy In 15 Years

As my boss, Nate Silver, wrote in his introduction to FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions, 2014-15 was not a college basketball season defined by parity. For starters, Kentucky enters the bracket undefeated and — according to the Simple Rating System (SRS) — is the strongest pre-tournament team that the NCAA has seen in a while:

paine-datalab-NCAAtopheavy.0317-tables 1 But even beyond Kentucky, most of the other top teams this year are unusually strong, according to their SRS ranking. Wisconsin’s rating is about average for a second-ranked pre-tournament SRS team since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, but Arizona is the eighth-best No. 3 in that 31-tournament period. Duke is the seventh-best No. 4. Villanova is the fifth-best No. 5. Virginia is the fourth-best No. 6. And Gonzaga and North Carolina each rank fifth among teams ranked No. 7 and 8, respectively. And 2015’s field only gets more impressive the deeper you dig:

paine-datalab-NCAAtopheavy.0317-tables 2

That’s why, if you look at the average SRS rating of the top third of teams in the field, the 2015 tournament ranks as the most top-heavy in more than a decade. Starting in the early 2000s, college basketball seemed to be trending toward a more even distribution of talent across the tournament, with fewer truly dominant teams at the top. Between Kentucky and its other unusually dominant peers, this season bucks that trend in a big way.


Now, you might be tempted to think this is a case of the NCAA’s selection committee doing a better job of including the top teams according to statistical power ratings such as the SRS. And the sea of salmon-colored rows that make up Ken Pomeroy’s top 44 seems to lend credence to this theory. But in terms of average SRS, this year’s field features a pre-tournament rating of +11.7 — essentially no different from the +11.4 field average of a year ago.

This season’s crop of tournament teams simply appears to be jam-packed with talent at the top, which we can only hope leads to an exciting month of basketball.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.