November 29, 2021 | 4:16 am
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How often do the best football and basketball teams win the title?

We all generally like to think that, in life, people get what they deserve. For example, if someone gets a promotion at work over someone else, it’s because he or she did better work than the other person (and for no other reason). This way of thinking is comforting because it puts everyone in control of their own destiny and soothes the conscience whenever some kind of injustice might have occurred. That’s why talking heads extoll the virtues of a winning person/group, even if it’s very apparent that luck played a large part in the victory (see: stock market). Randomness doesn’t sit well with the human mind, so we fabricate patterns (e.g. skill and hard work always lead directly to success) to explain events and even see these random events as inevitable.

Sports (which are sometimes called the “ultimate meritocracy”), more than most other sectors of life, are thought of as being inherently fair, at least when it comes to play on the field, court, etc. That is, the better team will almost always be rewarded with victory.

How often is that really the case, though? We already know, for example, that winning percentage in football is not as good a predictor of future performance as point differential, which tells you something about how descriptive winning percentage really is of a team’s skill level. In this age of sabermetrics and advanced stats, we now have measures that go far beyond the box score and quantify sports performance more meticulously than wins and losses ever could: Wins Above Replacement, Player Efficiency Rating, QB Rating, etc.

A natural question to ask is: How often does the best team in a given season actually win the championship? I was curious about this question and decided to conduct a small investigation using team ratings from Jeff Sagarin (the ratings guru for USA Today). If a league crowned a champion and that team happened to be the same one that Sagarin rated most highly, the league “got it right.” If Sagarin rated another team most highly, the league “got it wrong.” I tallied how often the NFL, NBA, college football, and college basketball, got its champion right or wrong, and the results are below:

 

NCAA football:

Year Sagarin champ National champ Best team win?
1998-1999 Ohio State Tennessee FALSE
1999-2000 Florida State Florida State TRUE
2000-2001 Oklahoma Oklahoma TRUE
2001-2002 Miami (Florida) Miami (Florida) TRUE
2002-2003 Southern California Ohio State FALSE
2003-2004 Louisiana State Louisiana State TRUE
2004-2005 Southern California Southern California TRUE
2005-2006 Texas Texas TRUE
2006-2007 Florida Florida TRUE
2007-2008 Louisiana State Louisiana State TRUE
2008-2009 Florida Florida TRUE
2009-2010 Alabama Alabama TRUE
2010-2011 Auburn Auburn TRUE
2011-2012 Alabama Alabama TRUE
2012-2013 Alabama Alabama TRUE

 

NBA:

Year Sagarin champ Playoff champ Best team win?
1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers TRUE
2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers TRUE
2001-2002 Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers TRUE
2002-2003 San Antonio San Antonio TRUE
2003-2004 San Antonio Detroit FALSE
2004-2005 San Antonio San Antonio TRUE
2005-2006 Dallas Miami FALSE
2006-2007 San Antonio San Antonio TRUE
2007-2008 Boston Boston TRUE
2008-2009 Cleveland Los Angeles Lakers FALSE
2009-2010 Orlando Los Angeles Lakers FALSE
2010-2011 Dallas Dallas TRUE

 

NFL:

Year Sagarin champ Playoff champ Best team win?
1999-2000 St. Louis St. Louis TRUE
2000-2001 Tennesee Baltimore FALSE
2001-2002 St. Louis New England FALSE
2002-2003 Tampa Bay Tampa Bay TRUE
2003-2004 New England New England TRUE
2004-2005 New England New England TRUE
2005-2006 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh TRUE
2006-2007 Couldn’t find Sagarin data
2007-2008 Indianapolis New York Giants FALSE
2008-2009 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh TRUE
2009-2010 New Orleans New Orleans TRUE
2010-2011 Green Bay Green Bay TRUE
2011-2012 New England New York Giants FALSE
2012-2013 Seattle Baltimore FALSE

 

NCAA basketball:

Year Sagarin champ National champ Best team win?
2000-2001 Duke Duke TRUE
2001-2002 Duke Maryland FALSE
2002-2003 Kentucky Syracuse FALSE
2003-2004 Duke Connecticut FALSE
2004-2005 North Carolina North Carolina TRUE
2005-2006 Duke Florida FALSE
2006-2007 Florida Florida TRUE
2007-2008 Kansas Kansas TRUE
2008-2009 North Carolina North Carolina TRUE
2009-2010 Duke Duke TRUE
2010-2011 Ohio State Connecticut FALSE
2011-2012 Kentucky Kentucky TRUE

 

Caveats:

  1. Sagarin ratings are not the only holistic measure of sports skill. Other ratings could (and probably will) produce different results than shown here.
  2. Sagarin ratings were only available starting from the late 1990s.
  3. Teams that win in the postseason (remember, wins/losses aren’t necessarily the best way to determine skill) inherently get better opportunities to boost their ratings due to the fact that they play more games and, eventually, against better competition; teams that lose obviously don’t get this opportunity, even if they are actually the better team. The Sagarin ratings used here are based on performance throughout a whole season (including postseason), so winning teams get more chances to boost their ratings.
  4. Some people are still skeptical about how much statistics can really describe sports performance, so you have to decide whether that’s you or not.

 

Here is how often each league crowned the correct champion:

  1. NCAA football: 86.7%
  2. NBA: 66.7%
  3. NFL: 61.5%
  4. NCAA basketball: 58.3%

It makes sense that a 68-team one-and-done bracket (college hoops) performs relatively poorly in identifying the best team in the nation. What makes less sense is that the much-maligned BCS system is by far the most accurate league (at least, of the leagues examined here).

At least football and basketball get things right more often than not. I couldn’t find Sagarin ratings for baseball teams, but at least one reputable statistician (Bill James, if you’re curious) did a bunch of simulations and found that the best team in baseball wins the World Series less than 30% of the time. Such is life in a sport in which the timing of hits (read: luck) plays a large part in whether a team scores runs. That is, a team can outhit another team in every conceivable way, but still lose because the hits aren’t clustered together in an inning to produce runs. Note: You can talk about being clutch all you want, but it’s really not a thing.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why many leagues don’t anoint champions based on teams’ indices/stats/metrics throughout a season. Chief among these reasons is that playoffs are exciting to watch and generate lots of money. However, neither of those reasons hold water if the premise of the sport is to determine the best team. It’s important to remember that the point of a playoff is not necessarily to determine the best team, but to determine the champion. Whether the champion happens to be the best team is another story.

 


 

Dar-Wei still fumes about the 2006 Michigan vs. Ohio State game, in which a bad helmet-to-helmet call on Shawn Crable propelled the Buckeyes to the national title game over the Wolverines, and he doesn’t care that the BCS “got it right” that season according to Jeff Sagarin. Follow him on Twitter at @chendw.

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