NCAA Men’s Basketball: The Annual MMAL and Cinderella Point Analysis

I’m an avid college basketball follower, and believe strongly that the more Mid-Major At Large (MMAL) teams there are in the annual NCAA Men’s Division I Tournament, the better the Tournament always is. An MMAL is a team from a Conference outside of the Big Six Conferences (which reap undue public relations and monetary advantage from their vile, unfair, and competition-killing BCS Football program) that did not receive an automatic bid to March Madness by virtue of winning its own conference tournament.

These at-large slots can be filled by MMALs, or by teams from the BCS-affiliated conferences. Typically, those Big Six Conferences will consistently land anywhere between four and eight teams in each year’s tournament, while the 28 Mid-Major Conferences are considered fortunate when they land two teams in a given year. On Selection Sunday, therefore, I am always much happier to hear a second or third team from a Mid-Major Conference being named, instead of an eighth or ninth or tenth team being named from one of the bloated BCS Conferences, who make arguments that the level of competition they experience is so fierce that somehow their 17-14 teams that win a first round game in their conference tournaments are more deserving of post-season honors than the 26-5 teams from Mid-Majors that tripped in their conference championship games.

I think that’s a rubbish, nonsensical position based solely on the Big Six Conferences’ ability to deploy massive, BCS-funded public relations campaigns to increase the name recognition of their teams, whether or not they are deserving in any given year on the basketball court itself. And, as it often the case with me, I have numbers and graphs to back up my position. Since 1998, I have tracked two sets of numbers: how many MMALs are selected for the Tournament, and the “Cinderella Points” of each round of the tournament, which are simply the sum of the seeds of the remaining team. So, in 2008, when the Final Four was composed of all Number One seeds, that round was rated with 4 Cinderella Points (1 +1 +1 +1), while last year, when 11th seeded Virginia Commonwealth (an MMAL) joined 8th seeded Butler (a Mid-Major Tournament winner) and Big Six teams Connecticut (a three seed) and Kentucky (a four seed), that round was rated with 26 Cinderella Points (11 + 8 + 3 +4).

So what happens if you plot Cinderella Points against the number of MMALs over time? You get this graph:

Number of MMALs on the X-Axis, Cinderella Points for Rounds of 32, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four on Y-Axis, from top to bottom, with trendlines (1998-2011 data).

What does this graph tell us? That when you have more MMALs, Cinderella Points tend to decrease for the Round of 32 (the top trend line), then dramatically increase for the Sweet Sixteen, with demonstrable, though smaller, increases in the Elite Eight and Final Four as well. Put in layman’s terms, the more MMALs you have, the more lower seeds (Cinderellas) advance to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. And I don’t know any serious hoops lover that wouldn’t prefer seeing Mid-Majors like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Gonzaga, Richmond, UNLY or others deep in the tournament instead of the seventh-place finisher in the Big East, whoever that might be in a given year.

Last year, the Men’s field expanded from 65 to 68 teams, which (in theory) opened up some extra wiggle room to allow MMALs into the field, though (in practice) it just allowed the Big East to put an absurd 11 teams into the field, while only seven MMALs were selected. While Big East member (and corrupt/cheating program, but that’s another article) Connecticut eventually won the tournament, nine of their conference fellows didn’t even make it past the second round, which was laughable, though predictable. Of the seven MMALs selected last year, two made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and one made it to the Final Four. I’m good with that.

I am predicting a better year for the MMALs this year on Selection Sunday, and believe ten MMALs should be selected, which should bump the Cinderella Points (and resultant interest in the tournament) up a bit as well. (Most pundits are predicting eight or nine MMALs, but I just can’t bring myself to pick laggard defending champion Connecticut for the tournament with their way sub-.500 conference record and a likely flameout early in the Big East Tournament, so I am replacing them with an MMAL). As a believer in doing things the hard way, here are my picks for the 68 teams, by Conference, that will make the NCAA Tournament this year, before any of them get into the conference tournaments. I will provide occassional updates on this through the tournament, and see at the end how the MMAL-Cinderella model plays out.

  • America East (1): Stony Brook, Vermont.
  • Atlantic Coast (5): Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina State.
  • Atlantic Sun (1): Belmont.
  • Atlantic 10 (3): Temple, Saint Louis, Xavier, St. Bonaventure.
  • Big East (9): Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, South Florida, Connecticut.
  • Big Sky (1): Weber State, Montana.
  • Big South (1): North Carolina-Asheville.
  • Big Ten (6): Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue.
  • Big 12 (5): Missouri, Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas.
  • Big West (1): Long Beach State.
  • Colonial Athletic (3): Drexel, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason.
  • Conference USA (2): Southern Mississippi, Memphis.
  • Horizon (1): Butler, Detroit.
  • Ivy (1): Harvard.
  • Metro Atlantic (1): Iona, Loyola-Maryland.
  • Mid-American (1): Akron, Ohio.
  • Mid-Eastern (1): Norfolk State.
  • Missouri Valley (2): Wichita State, Creighton.
  • Mountain West (3): Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State.
  • Northeast (1): Wagner, Long Island.
  • Ohio Valley (1): Murray State.
  • Pac-12 (3): California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado.
  • Patriot (1): Bucknell, Lehigh.
  • Southeastern (5): Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Mississippi State.
  • Southern (1): Davidson.
  • Southland (1): Texas-Arlington, Lamar.
  • Soutwestern Athletic (1): Mississippi Valley State.
  • Summit (1): Oral Roberts, South Dakota State.
  • Sun Belt (1): Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky.
  • West Coast (3): Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Brigham Young.
  • Western Athletic (1): Nevada, New Mexico State.

4 thoughts on “NCAA Men’s Basketball: The Annual MMAL and Cinderella Point Analysis

  1. Most of the articles in the Washington Post have said that the CAA will only be a one bid league and that Mason has to win the tournament.

    • Yeah, I know I am WAY out on a limb picking three CAA teams . . . it was Mason that I added when I decided that I could not bring myself to pick UConn for the tournament. But, on the flipside, they got three teams in last year, and one them made it to the final four, so the selection committee might be favorably disposed toward them . . . I am hoping for a scenario where Drexel wins the regular season and makes it to the CAA Final Four, from where Mason and VCU move on to the CAA Title Game. Fingers crossed, the combination of great records and great history on the CAA’s behalf will convince the selection committee to pick them over some some 17-14 Big Ten or Big East team, ugh . . .

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