To kill some time this morning, I decided to create a nine-team conference where the top four teams where exactly equal, roughly equivalent to New Mexico. They had a 50/50 chance of beating each other head-to-head. I made the other five teams somewhat worse, mimicking the bottom five teams of the Mountain West, and then simulated the conference schedule assuming a double round-robin. How often did the four evenly-matched teams finish atop the conference with the same record? In one million simulations this happened just 4,069 times, or 0.4 percent.
Which is to say that in almost all cases when there are multiple evenly-matched teams, the conference standings will not reflect such a reality. In fact, about 35% of the time, one of the four evenly-matched teams finished two games better in the standings than everybody else. In these cases, you are not going to get very far in the real world by having a rating system that might suggest those teams are fairly equal. But indeed it’s not all that far-fetched for this to be reality.
Now, I’m not saying New Mexico wasn’t better than the rest of its conference. It may have been, and it may not have been. It’s performance in the Mountain West tournament had me willing to be convinced, but obviously losing to an Ivy League school is a bit of conflicting evidence, too. New Mexico aside, the larger point is that a team that can win its conference while not being significantly (or any) better than the teams its beat.
In the close-game study, we saw that there isn’t much predictability in whether a team that has won a bunch of close games will win its next game. As a default, an outsider should be fairly unconcerned with any particular team’s close-game performance. But even knowing this, and with a bunch of data to back it up, it’s still tempting to say “Kenny Boynton” to prove that Florida will be an exception going forward. Although, in almost any run of bad close-game performance, there’s a Kenny Boynton to point to, yet it rarely seems to matter from a predictive standpoint.
In a similar vein, if there’s the suggestion that the conference standings don’t reflect the true strength of the conference’s teams, the assumption is there’s something wrong with the estimate of the teams’ strength. And of course that’s possible, but the conference standings are almost always not a true indication of its members’ strength, either.
And of course, losing to an Ivy League team in a one-game situation doesn’t disprove the folks who think the Lobos were obviously the best team in their league. However, I think it’s useful to know that if there’s a group of evenly-matched teams in a conference, the conference standings will almost never reflect that. (See also: Pac-12, MAAC, CAA.)