Last week the NCAA was good enough to host me and about 20 other members of the media at their annual mock selection exercise for the Division I men's tournament. Going through the mock selection gave me a greater appreciation for how the real selection committee goes about their work. It turns out when you're comparing dozens of teams to each other and you have a limited amount of time to do so, something as simple as "good wins" really does matter. And "bad losses" sure don't help.
But are there teams that are better than they appear under the trusty old good-win/bad-loss test? Absolutely. I've picked five.
The ground rules here are simple. These are teams that combine two characteristics: 1) they are not currently ranked in the top 25 in either major poll; and 2) they are really good at basketball.
It's easy to see why the Billikens are off-the-radar to pollsters, fans -- really, everyone. It's not simply that Rick Majerus' team hasn't beaten "anyone," as the saying goes. SLU's PR issues go deeper than that: they haven't played anyone, period. Aside from a game in December against SWAC member Alabama State (current RPI No. 308), their entire schedule from November to the present day has been a remarkably thorough and intensive investigation of Division I's mid-section. Their "best" win would probably be their 77-64 victory at home over Washington before Thanksgiving, and that, to say the least, will not exactly wow the committee. But here's the thing: Saint Louis can only play the opponents put in front of them, and they've done so very, very well. This is easily the best defense in the A-10, one that takes care of its defensive glass but also forces opponents to cough up the ball. (Somewhat unusual combination, that.) Joe Lunardi's latest projection pegs SLU as a No. 8 seed. If you're John Calipari or Jim Boeheim right now, you have to be thinking the last thing you need in the round of 32 is to run across a renowned defensive thinker like Majerus.
Remember Gonzaga? They've had a bit of success over the years. The Bulldogs just dropped a really close game on the road at San Francisco which, if memory serves correct, they are contractually obligated to do every year. The loss knocked Mark Few's team out of the polls, making them fair game for my list here. With a rotation that features 7-0 Robert Sacre, 6-7 Elias Harris, and 6-9 sixth man Sam Dower, the Zags will be one of the longer teams in whatever bracket they're given by the committee. And they play like it: Few has the best D in the West Coast Conference, and these guys absolutely dominate the defensive glass. At the same time they're not exactly helpless on offense either, as evidenced by their 55 percent shooting inside the arc in WCC play. Give a lot of the credit there not only to the big guys but also to Kevin Pangos, who is surely having the most overlooked yet sensational year of any sensational freshman point guard in recent memory. Right now I'm seeing Gonzaga penciled in for a No. 7 seed in the mock brackets, and Few's team could definitely make an opponent like, say, Duke or Ohio State sweat in the round of 32.
I know what you're thinking. Cal? They're in the Pac-12! Why even bother talking about this team, right? I realize this year's Pac-12 isn't exactly murderers' row, but we have, after all, seen good teams come out of mediocre conferences before. And I'm here to tell you that the Golden Bears are a good team. If you've seen Mike Montgomery's team in recent years you're probably assuming that this is yet another high-scoring outfit with issues on defense. That assumption would be mistaken. Cal this year is well balanced on both sides of the ball. During their current five-game winning streak they've been blowing opponents away, outscoring them by 0.22 points per trip. On paper 6-9 freshman David Kravish looks like a minor contributor, but since cracking the starting lineup he's been coming along steadily. Now he's to the point where over his last two games he's scored 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting. Perimeter shooting is not this team's long suit, but otherwise the Bears are solid across the board. If this exact Cal team were surrounded by a better league, they'd have the quality wins that people like to see.
The Dragons suffer from category trouble. To the extent that people are willing to make room for a team from the CAA in their March consciousness, their go-to choices for attention will of course be George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth. The Patriots and the Rams have earned the right to that first look, to be sure, but if you've been following along you know that Drexel's been right there with GMU and VCU atop the Colonial standings all season long. In fact now Bruiser Flint's team has first place all to themselves at 15-2, and they're also tops in the league in per-possession terms. You can look a long, long time before you'll see a unit that's made as big a year-to-year improvement as the what the Drexel offense has recorded this season. It certainly hasn't hurt matters on that side of the ball that Frantz Massenat has made 46 percent of his threes. Only thing: unlike the other four teams listed here, the Dragons will almost certainly have to win their conference tournament to get a bid. (Losing on a neutral floor to Norfolk State in November was a bad idea.) They'll have to earn the right to prove how dangerous they can be.
The Tigers didn't exactly look like Sweet 16 material last week when they lost at home 60-58 to a very mediocre UTEP team. But keep this in mind over the next couple weeks when thinking about Memphis: Josh Pastner's men played a very competitive game against Arizona in the round of 64 last year, and that Wildcat team went all the way to the Elite Eight. Why bring that up here? Because the Tigers this season are day-and-night better than what they were last year. Granted, I was skeptical of this team's top-10 ranking in the preseason, and rightly so. But give Memphis credit: they've improved as the year has progressed, even if no one's been paying much attention. Pastner's team is far and away the class of Conference USA on both sides of the ball, and until and unless the Tigers run across the likes of Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, or one or two other such stars, there's a very high probability that Will Barton will be the best player on the floor in every game he plays.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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