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I've been quite skeptical of the claim that coaches can be skilled at "peaking," meaning that some coaches are able to get comparatively more out of their team at the NCAA tournament than the peers, but a fresh deep dive into the numbers has got me rethinking my view on the subject. I now believe that there is evidence that Cael Sanderson is better at "peaking" than other coaches in the NCAA.
Many of you are now saying to yourself, "No duh," and perhaps, "Why am I reading an article to tell me something that is blatantly obvious?"
And I would reply to that, "Wait! Before you close that browser, hear me out!"
First, let's be clear that we're NOT talking about the concept of altering your training cycle to "peak" for a particular competition. Periodization training is, of course, very real and utilized by pretty much every wrestler. We're not talking about that. We're essentially asking if certain coaches are better at utilizing periodization than others. And if so, then we should be able to find evidence of that in the results of completed NCAA Championship tournaments.
I've analyzed the topic before, looking for such evidence, and come up empty-handed.
Back in 2016, before I was even gainfully employed at Flo, I tried to find evidence of a peaking skill in NCAA coaches. No dice. I tried again, changing the parameters of my analysis slightly. Still nothing.
I went back to the well once again just recently, focusing again on seeds vs placement. That analysis showed that Penn State performing relatively better than any other college when it came to beating expectations at NCAAs. However, I found that analysis lacking in hard evidence. It would require some tightening up before I could feel comfortable making any conclusions.
It is after the most recent round of tightening up that led me to change my opinion as to whether any evidence exists that Cael Sanderson is better at peaking his team than other coaches.
So what changed?
I was dissatisfied with comparing actual placement with implied placement based on seeds. The better the seed, the less likely you'd be to exceed your implied placement. And it is impossible for number one seeds to improve upon their implied placement.
To remedy this, I calculated the expected value of each seed by averaging the actual placement and advancement points earned by each seed from the last 21 years of NCAA tournament results. To keep things consistent, all seeds 13 and above were lumped together with "unseeded" from years past.
That exercise produced the table you see below.
This helped solve the problem of teams that produced a preponderance of high seeds being punished in the old analysis by having nowhere to go but down. Now if you were a one seed and finished as an NCAA champion, you got credit for exceeding expectations, which is technically true, since not all number one seeds win NCAA titles.
As an example, here is what Ohio State did in 2018 and 2019 using our new methodology. The Buckeyes were the only team to qualify 10 wrestlers at those NCAAs, making them ideal test subjects.
|Year||WT||Name||Seed||Place||Expect Pts||NCAA Pts||Delta|
Before, when we used the implied points based on seed, rather than the expected points based on historical averages, the Buckeyes showed a net score of negative 1.5 for 2019 and negative 14.5 for 2018. All of which shows why it is important to make these adjustments. While Buckeye competitors and fans alike might be disappointed by a wrestler finishing below his seed, a two seed finishing third or a three seed finishing fourth really is still finishing as expected.
Now for the big table, where we've repeated the same exercise we just did with Ohio State but with every team that qualified at least 105 wrestlers (half the maximum) from 1999 to 2019.
Apologies if it is difficult to read. The results are also color-coded, the darker the green the better a team did relative to expectations, the darker the red the worse a team did.
As they did in last week's analysis, Penn State has the highest cumulative score. When using the adjusted expected scores, the Nittany Lions end up with almost double the next high cumulative score of Ohio State.
Here's a rundown of schools by total points from 1999-2019.
To get a better idea of how Penn State performed with regards to their peers I made this graph that shows the point fluctuations from year to year, alongside Oklahoma State and Iowa, two of the most storied programs in NCAA history
It is at this point that I noticed that the Nittany Lions are in the positive in everyone one of the years while Cael Sanderson was head coach.
So let's look at a table with 12 schools that qualified the most wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament, but just from 2011 to 2019, the Cael Era.
Here, Penn State more than doubles the cumulative score of Minnesota, who has the second-highest total.
Penn State is a clear outlier, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something, so I decided to just look at wrestlers seeded one through twelve, as there was a lot of room for the unseeded wrestlers to score far more than what was expected and that could possibly skew the results. That chart is below.
That move only enhanced Penn State's performance compared to their rivals. One last thing I wanted to double-check was what would happen if I removed the number one ranked guys. When you're as dominant as 2019 Bo Nickal or 2017 Zain Retherford were all season long, it's hard to say either peaked at NCAAs. So I ran the numbers of guys seed two through twelve.
The gap narrows, but Penn State remains on outlier when it comes to the NCAAs. Which is why I have rethought my stance on if peaking as a coaching skill exists. I think we're looking at it!
Now, caveats remain. This does not "prove" that Coach Sanderson is better than his peers at preparing his team for March. Absent a machine that allows us to observe infinite alternate realities, I don't think we're ever going to get absolute proof.
And these results could also be attributed mostly to chance. I'm not saying they are, but it's possible! As long as there are upsets, some teams are going to out-perform and some teams are going to under-perform. There's no away around that. And then one team will do the best over 10 years and one team will do the worst. It doesn't necessarily mean that coaches are doing something right or wrong, sometimes that's just how things go! Chaos theory and all that.
But I think this is pretty strong evidence that Cael has figured out how to get more out of his wrestlers than other coaches would if they had the same team.
However, if you are aware of something we are overlooking or have an idea of what should be analyzed next, please drop me a line on twitter @SpeyWrestle. There is always more analysis to be done!