The NCAA Tournament and Experience: Is Older Better?

Eileen Blass-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the NCAA Tournament and looking specific teams to win to fit my agenda got me to thinking about experience and the NCAA Tournament. As most of you know I've been pretty adamant that Indiana's youth this year was a big portion of their struggles all season long. We all know that wasn't the only problem and it might not even have been the biggest problem, but it was directly or indirectly a part of the problem. I think we can all agree on that.

Well instead of making gross assumptions and using age as a complete excuse to write off Indiana's last season, I went in and took a look at the average experience of each team in the tournament, compared it to the average age of the league as a whole and then looked how that age adjusted from round to round. Check here for Pomeroy's definition of experience, as it was his metric that I used. Briefly, experience is weighted by who gets what playing time. So a freshman with 30 minutes per game skews a team's average experience younger than a senior who play 10 minutes. The link will describe it in more detail.

What I found in this data dive is a lot of contradicting numbers. First of all, let's take a look at just the average experience of all 342-351 teams (depending on the year) in the entirety of the year. In 2014, college basketball was the "oldest" it has been since Pomeroy started tracking the stat in 2007. At an average of 1.73 years of experience, only 2011 was in the same wheelhouse. For all the freshmen fervor to start the year, juniors and seniors reigned supreme. The oldest team in the league this year was Texas Southern. The SWAC champions and 16 seeded Tigers played two juniors and everyone else was seniors. The absolute highest a team can get in years of experience is 3.0. So a 2.7 is sky high.

In the other two year's I ran the numbers on the highest rate of experience was 2.73 by Valparaiso last year and 2.63 by Lamar in 2012. In total, the two previous years had D-I average experiences of 1.7 years and 1.66. So that's the baseline we're looking at. Teams with a lot of experience tend to be more mid-majors and the youngest teams tend to be your high major squads hitting reset buttons. Kentucky obviously being the best example of that.

So what's the average experience of teams that get into the tournament? Through the last three years of data, the league average for experience was 1.70 years. The average experience of a team that go into the tournament, was 1.80 years. So from first glance it appears that just being older and more experienced is at least useful in getting you into the tournament. This season is the low point in differential. The average tournament team is only .03 years more experienced than the average D-I squad. However, in 2013 the average tourney team was .15 years more experience and 2012 was .11 years. The three year average is .10 older. If you're looking for a tournament bid to start the season, older is definitely better.

But a lot of those really old teams are mid-majors. They're going to inflate the average age by getting auto-bids but then they're going to flame out in the first round as they face more talented opponents. Typically that statement is correct. The experience of tournament teams compared to round of 32 teams is typically higher. On average a tournament team has 1.80 years of experience. A round of 32 team has 1.77. The Mercers (2.57), Stanfords (2.36), and North Dakota States (2.32) of the world tend to always throw a wrench in talent trumps experience. In fact, this season alone 17 of the 32 teams had higher than average ages. It is Kansas' .72 and Kentucky's .32 that really drags the whole field down. If not for them, this year's average of Rd of 32 competitors jumps dramatically. Which is a trend you'll see and I'll reference a lot. Kentucky especially really screws around with these numbers as their crazy wild outlier gains more influence.

Moving on to the Sweet Sixteen is where you start to see the younger more talented squads start to separate themselves from the pack. Being an older team tends to help you survive the first round but by the second round no one is surprised by your and the talent of the opponent usually grows. Sweet Sixteen teams are .09 years younger than the Round of 32 ones and .12 years younger than the average tournament team as a whole. This trend of teams getting younger continues into the Elite Eight. The average age drops yet again. And again into the Final Four.

You may be thinking, "Yep, there it is. Experience and tournament success do not matter. It's talent that counts." By looking at these numbers you would think, definitely talent matters more over experience. However, you've forgotten about Kentucky and their "non-traditional program." The Wildcats and Michigan have thrown a real wrench in these numbers over the past three seasons. They've not only been the youngest teams in the tournament the last three respective years, but they've also clawed their ways into Final Fours while being such.

This season, Kentucky is the youngest team to make the tournament in the last 7 years and they're 60% younger than the next closest team in any of those 7 seasons(this year's Kansas). With only three guys that aren't freshmen playing, this year's squad is a huge outlier that scrambles a lot of the numbers. They pulled the same shenanigans in 2012 during their championship run and Michigan did the same thing last year. Strangely the youngest teams in the tournament over the last three years have made at least a Final Four. Going back 5 years, 4 of 5 have made the Elite Eight (Kentucky again). Pretty much everyone else not named Kentucky or 2013 Michigan that is under 1.3 years or so in experience bows out in the first two rounds. This year again, being different from the trend, with Arizona, Michigan and Kentucky making deep runs.

But seriously, Kentucky screws things up. Take away the teams that made the Final Four that are dramatically younger than everyone else and averages sky rocket. This year's Final Four without Kentucky averages nearly .2 years more in experience than the rest of the field at 1.93. Last year's without Michigan jumps .25 years to 1.79 and 2012 leaps to the tournament average. Similar trends occur in the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight as well. Extremely young and extremely hot teams mess with the numbers.

But what ultimately should we take away from this? You can't very well say that talent trumps experience or vice versa. The numbers are too muddled to be confident in either statement. What we can take away from this though, is that experience is definitely a good thing in the tournament. Lots of young and talented teams fall victim to early round upsets with regularity. In fact, it should almost be expected. However, if a young squad can get through the bright lights of the first weekend the sky is truly the limit for them. Are your chances higher if you have more seasoned veterans? Florida, UConn and Wisconsin will tell you "hell yeah." But then you'll have Kentucky or Michigan sitting in a corner snickering at the rest of the world. Age and experience is not a limiting factor in the NCAA tournament or general seasonal success, but it certainly helps. Older teams tend to survive the grind and get into the tournament at a higher rate than young teams, but once you're in, it is anyone's game.

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