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Stat Corner Powered By WrestleStat: Do Freshmen Under Perform at the NCAA Tournament?

Stat Corner

There are two competing theories when it comes to freshmen in college sports.  The first is that you cannot truly trust freshmen who have never been through the postseason.  Sure, some do well, but many fans believe that the first time under the brightest lights can have a greater effect on those experiencing them for the first time. Another group believes the opposite to be true.  It has been said that by the time someone has gone through the regular season, they are no longer freshmen.  These people will tell you that freshmen grow more than any other athletes throughout the year so that, by the time the most important competitions of the season roll around, they are often unrecognizable in comparison to who they were at the beginning of the campaign.  Who is right when it comes to NCAA wrestling?  In this week’s Stat Corner powered by WrestleStat, we investigate how freshmen have performed at the last five NCAA Division I tournaments in comparison to the field overall.

As we have done in the past, we’re going deeper than simply comparing their seeds and their finishes.  We looked at the performance of every seed since the weights changed to their current iteration to determine how likely each seed was to finish on the podium and what their average finish is when they do so.  That gives us an expected value for each seed that we can compare to the performance of any group of wrestlers to determine if they are doing better or worse than average.  The following table looks at every freshman who earned a seed (the NCAA switched from 12 to 16 seeds between the 2013 and 2014 tournaments) over the past five years. We then compute the average number of All-American finishes that wrestlers with the equivalent seeds would have earned, compare that to the actual number of podium finishes they earned, and calculate how far ahead or behind of the average placement they finished when they did reach the top eight.  The overall score is equivalent to the number of All-Americans above or below average. It factors in both the number of All-Americans earned and the placement differential.  Positive is good, negative is bad.

Information was gathered from several sources including the Mat Talk Almanac.

Performance of Freshmen Seeds at NCAA Championships
Year # Seeded Expected AAs Actual AAs Placement +/- Overall
2017 24 12.880 14 6.500 1.932
2016 21 8.892 9 2.502 0.421
2015 17 8.062 11 4.126 3.454
2014 28 10.371 9 1.937 -1.129
2013 13 5.558 5 1.687 -0.347

Overall, the last five years of data suggests that seeded freshmen perform better than their peers at the NCAA tournament.  While three years resulted in positive outcomes while two ended in negative numbers, the positive performances, especially from 2015 and 2017 were significant.  That pushed the last five freshman classes to an over-performance equivalent to 4.33 additional All-Americans compared with what the average wrestler seeded where they were would have yielded.  This makes a lot of sense when you think through seeding and how the season progresses.  The NCAA wrestling seeding committee looks at all official matches wrestled by an athlete in a given season when they build the brackets.  Those who grow the most from the start of the season to the end are likely to be the most under-seeded as losses earlier in their progression will make their resumes look worse than their current abilities.  These numbers reflect that as the average placement for freshman All-Americans exceeded the overall average for their seeds every year.  Of course, there are examples of those who underperformed as well, but with a sample size of 103 wrestlers, this strongly suggests that seeded freshmen are more likely to perform well than to come up short.

However, maybe we’re looking at this wrong.  The examples many fans tend to point to of freshmen suffering their first time on the big stage are highly seeded athletes.  Less attention is paid to lower seeds so maybe breaking the data down into groups of seeds makes more sense.  Here are those results.

Performance of Freshmen Seeds at NCAA Championships
Range # Seeded Expected AAs Actual AAs Placement +/- Overall
1-4 20 17.226 18 6.923 1.639
5-8 28 16.337 19 0.191 2.687
9-12 23 6.900 5 2.960 -1.530
13-16 32 5.300 6 6.679 1.535

The sample sizes here are a bit smaller but with 48 freshmen seeded in the top eight outperforming the average by the equivalent of more than four All-American awards and 18 of the 20 seeded in the top four finishing on the podium, in addition to those in the top four out-placing the average by a significant margin, highly seeded freshmen are performing exceedingly well.  It is interesting that those seeded ninth through 12th are underperforming while the newly added 13-16 seeds, which were not available in 2013, are doing well again. The lower seeds, because they place with such a lower frequency, are subject to a greater variance which may be a factor here.  Even nine seeds place less than 40% of the time and once you get down to 12th, the rate of podium finishes drops to less than one in four.  With the strong overall performance of freshmen, it will be interesting to see if the nine through 12 struggles continue in the coming years or if this five-year sample proves to be an aberration.  Regardless of what happens there, it seems the theory that freshmen cannot be trusted, whether highly seeded or not, has proven inaccurate over the last five years.  That should make fans of Iowa, Utah Valley, Northwestern, Wyoming, Cornell, Penn State, NC State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, all of whom have at least one freshman currently ranked in the top eight nationally, breathe a little easier.

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