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2014 College Lacrosse Preview: How Strong is the Preseason Media Poll at Predicting the NCAA Tournament?

The media is prone to tell you which teams will be good. Just how strong of a predictor of success is the Inside Lacrosse media poll?

Winslow Townson

With Inside Lacrosse set to release its preseason media poll soon, I started thinking about the predictive power of the preseason media poll relative to the NCAA Tournament. The preseason media poll is the only time -- the coaches poll aside -- that a large number of people come together and rank teams based on how good those people think those teams are. Every other media poll during the season adopts some kind of merit-based system that rewards teams for wins and losses (in general). Basically, this is the only point in the season where folks ask, "If Team A and Team B played 1,000 times, Team A would win more often than not because of Point X, Y, and Z." We're living in an exciting time, you guys.

So, if the preseason media poll is the lone run that has a predictive nature to it, how accurate has the tally been over the last four years? Pretty good, as it turns out: The preseason media poll has ranked -- on average -- 12 of the 16 teams to make the NCAA Tournament that season. (2013: 12 of 16 teams (missed on Bryant, Albany, Towson, and Detroit); 2012: 13 of 16 teams (missed on Canisius, Lehigh, and Stony Brook); 2011: 11 of 16 teams (missed on Siena, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Bucknell, and Hartford); and 2010: 12 of 16 teams (missed on Stony Brook, Mount St. Mary's, Army, and Delaware).) Given that many of the misses were attributable to programs that didn't merit preseason praise -- their presence in the NCAA Tournament was specifically due to their league's automatic invitation to The Big Barbecue -- that's a pretty good percentage that the preseason media poll is running with. Identifying 75 percent of the NCAA Tournament field in the preseason is a solid effort.

When you start getting into the nitty-gritty, though, cracks start to appear. The following image plots the preseason media poll rankings of teams against their eventual NCAA Tournament fate:

Click to image to enlarge.

Some brief notes on this:

  • Those that reside in the preseason media poll top 10 are almost assured of NCAA Tournament participation. The average miss rate for teams in the top 10 is just 15 percent. The only season among the last four that didn't feature two total misses was in 2010, a year in which every preseason top 10 team played in May.
  • This is where things start to get shaggy: It's not a guarantee that a team ranked in the preseason top 10 is going to have a seeded existence in the NCAA Tournament (partly due to the fact that only eight teams are seeded). The average rate of a preseason top 10 team to find a seeded position in The Big Barbecue is just 57.50 percent. In other words, for the 85 percent of the preseason top 10 teams that will make the NCAA Tournament, almost 40 percent of those teams will do so as an unseeded team. The hit rate isn't terrible, but it also isn't glowing.
  • More shagginess: When you start drilling into preseason top 10 teams and their eventual seeds (if they are seeded), the rates start to drop precipitously. Given a margin of error of three positions, only -- on average -- 37.50 percent of teams in the preseason top 10 end up with a seeded NCAA Tournament position within three slots of their preseason ranking. If you want hyper-accuracy in that department, the preseason media poll isn't your answer (and, to be honest, there probably isn't a place to look that could give you that answer unless that place is a mystical oracle (and in that instance you should probably run because you're now in the plot of a terrible teenage novel)).
  • The preseason number one in the media poll has been the NCAA Tournament top seed just once since 2010: In 2011, when Syracuse started the year as the preseason favorite and entered The Big Barbecue as the first seed.

On the whole, however, the preseason media poll does a hell of a job. The miss rate -- in totem -- is small, and the number of top 10 teams that eventually earn seeded positions is fairly strong. The voters in the poll do a very nice job of identifying the programs that are likely to excel, and that kind of value isn't fungible. As Division I lacrosse continues to grow and leveraged competitiveness develops further, it'll be interesting to see how accurate this poll's predictions evolve over time. Until then, though, the preseason media poll is serving its purpose.