But A Number: Does Having An Experienced Team Translate To Success in College Basketball?

Data Deep Dive Series: Is Age Really But a Number?

We hear a lot of old adages in the world of sport. One of these recurring themes is that assumption that teams with age and experience are often viewed in a favorable light while more youthful teams tend to struggle a bit.

Sure, at the professional ranks this assumption may be true but how does this hold up when analyzing a larger sample size such as college basketball?

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive and look at what translates among older teams and how often do they find–or avoid–sustainable success over the years.

For the sake of transparency, I have used KenPom’s 10 most experienced teams per year as my main source for data that’ll be presented going forward. The numbers cover a decade’s worth of numbers ranging from 200-2019.

In-Season Performance

At first blush, the numbers are pretty solid and favorable for the teams. Over the years, 71 of the 100 teams finished with a record over .500. To be exact, the records for these 100 teams we tracked came out to 1,834-1,349, which equals out to teams in question holding a .576 winning percentage.

Despite the numbers favoring the experienced teams, there are years that helped cushion the records while others added a bit more a reality check for the, presumably, Senior heavy teams.

The year most kind to the experienced teams came in 2012-13, which saw nine of the ten teams finish with a winning record with all of those teams making it to the Post-Season, seven of whom earned NCAA tournament bids.

Of the teams surveyed, the most experienced team was the 2016-17 North Carolina Central Eagles. The Eagles averaged 2.91 years of college basketball experience, and finished with a 25-9 record and were one of 15 teams in the research to have won 25+ games in a season.

Under a microscope, however, the 25 loses some luster as three of their wins that season came against Non-Division 1 opposition. Their highest ranked win according to KenPom that year came on November 28th when they beat the 156th ranked Missouri Tigers, who would go on to be 8-24 that season.

Speaking of Missouri, the 2011-12 Tigers were one of two teams to notch 30 wins with the other team being the 2010-11 Utah State Aggies.

The experienced Tigers squad would go on to win the Big 12 tournament that year with 11 of their 30 wins coming against KenPom Top-50 teams. The legacy left behind, however, will be that of their NCAA tournament appearance when as a 2-seed, they would fall in the opening round to the 15th seeded Norfolk State Spartans.

Similar to the ’11-12 Tigers, the aforementioned Utah State Aggies also fell in the opening round of the tournament as a 12-seed, to the 5th seeded Kansas State Wildcats. In comparison, four of the Aggies wins that year came against KenPom Top-100 teams, only one of whom were ranked in the Top-50 (43rd ranked Saint Mary’s.)

Even with success, things weren’t always good or even alright for the teams with guys who have been around the block. Take for instance the following:

  • 2016-17: James Madison, 10-23
  • 2014-15: Idaho State, 7-23
  • 2012-13: UT-San Antonio, 10-22
  • 2010-11: Chicago State, 6-26
  • 2010-11: The Citadel, 10-22
  • 2009-10: Idaho State, 7-22
  • 2009-19: Hawaii, 10-20

Seven teams, listed above, finished with 10 or less wins during the given time frame, and 18 other teams finished with 15 wins or less.

15 teams won 25+, 15 won 15 or less. Feast or famine.

All in all, it’s rather mixed bag when analyzing wins.

Stacking The Deck: Factors That Prevent Success

It doesn’t take a wealth of knowledge to understand why experienced teams aren’t always the one atop the mountain. In fact, the way recruitment and player development has evolved, it’s damn near impossible for these teams to maintain some sort of roster stability in terms of quality.

Of the 100 teams highlighted in the research, only 11 teams were in conferences that would be deemed Major or High Major conferences.

It’s no secret that the landscape on the recruiting circuit often favors teams of higher repute. Various factors such as location, prominence, facilities, or the exposure they receive, the theoretically better players tend to land higher up the food chain.

With one year aside (2015-16 which provided insufficient data), the average yearly recruiting class according to 247Sports has the given teams ranked 162nd.

With the One and Done rules and certain programs such as Kentucky and Duke providing the proper feeder system the NBA thrives for, it’s easy to see why programs such as UT-Martin, North Texas, and even Iowa State end up where they are.

Even when certain programs crack the Top-100 for their given class, that’s no guarantee it equals out to success. Be it players not qualifying, falling to injury, or the most recent trend of transferring, it’s supremely challenging for programs to sustain success outside of a small scope of schools.

So what’s the verdict? Does experience provide a useful advantage to teams in the NCAA? Well, in any given year, yes it does. Does it usually help form an elite program who will cut down nets?

Not really.

But, much like a nice glass of wine, this theory could only get better with time.