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March 16, 2008
From 341 to 65
Through March 16, 5:45 p.m. ET

by Joe Sheehan

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My picks and seeds. A cursory attempt was made to balance brackets and avoid rematches and conference conflicts, but I concede the ground on this stuff to Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm.

Back later with comments. If I miss two, I'll be thrilled.

1     North Carolina     UCLA            Memphis          Kansas
2     Wisconsin          Duke            Texas            Tennessee
3     Georgetown         Xavier          Stanford         Clemson
4     Vanderbilt         Drake           Pittsburgh       Butler
5     Indiana            Louisville      Purdue           Marquette
6     Connecticut        Michigan State  UNLV             Arkansas
7     Washington State   Gonzaga         Notre Dame       Mississippi State
8     Southern Calif.    Miami (Fla.)    Kansas State     BYU
9     West Virginia      St. Mary's      Kentucky         Texas A&M
10    South Alabama      Arizona         Oklahoma         Kent State
11    Baylor             Davidson        St. Joseph's     Villanova
12    Temple             George Mason    Oregon           Western Kentucky
13    Oral Roberts       Georgia         Boise State      Cornell
14    CSU-Fullerton      Winthrop        San Diego        Siena
15    Belmont            UMBC            Portland State   American
16    Mt. St. Mary's     Miss. Val. St.  Texas-Arlington  Austin Peay
18    Coppin State

Last four in: Villanova, Oregon, Arizona, St. Joseph's
Last four out: Illinois State, VCU, Mississippi, Massachsetts
Next four out: Arizona State, New Mexico, Virginia Tech, Dayton

--

I’m getting a fair amount of e-mails that look like this:

Joe, you said: “Ohio State is removed. In this crowd, a 2-10 mark against the RPI Top 50 and 5-10 away from Columbus are too much to overcome.”

Interesting. Let's look at your lock, Kentucky. Record against the RPI Top 100: 5-10 (Ohio State, 7-11). Worse RPI than Ohio State. Kentucky's record away from Lexington: 4-8. Kentucky's best neutral or road win: @ #108 RPI Georgia. Kentucky's best out of conference win: Home vs. #256 Liberty.

The entire UK case is based on injuries, home wins versus Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and a good record against a very soft SEC schedule (since the SEC West has more of the strength this year).

--J.T.

That’s pretty much all true. Now read this one:

I'm sure this is just what you wanted, another Arizona e-mail, but I wanted to write because I think you are misinterpreting what the pro-Zona camp is saying. I don't think anyone is asking to just brush away 1/3 of the season schedule.

Here is the basic argument. Arizona, when it's whole, is 16-6. Looking at that profile of games, the Cats would likely fall in as a six or seven seed on the S-curve. But, there has to be a price to pay for their struggles without key players, and that penalty is a 3-4 line seed drop, which I think is more than fair. Essentially, the argument is that you have to adjust the starting barometer and then penalize accordingly. I don't think anyone is asking for a free pass.

--M.O.

Two different teams, with two wildly disparate resumes, but in one case, the issue of an injury (to Patrick Patterson) is being waved away, while in the other, it’s a core part of the pro-team argument. Neither of these e-mails is…low-quality. They’re well-thought-out and even-keeled, the kind of feedback that makes you smarter.

That’s why this process is so difficult. There is no one criterion that puts a team over the top when you’re on the bubble. Every team in this discussion has significant flaws; if they didn’t, they’d be on the board already and not sweating out the last few hours. Reasonable reading of the available information—up to an including observational evidence—can produce a variety of results. We have so many criteria for selecting at-large teams, however, that many of the cases are presented in a one-sided manner. Arizona has five top-50 wins and was very good when at full health! VCU won a competitive league by multiple games and won nine of its last 12 games! St. Joseph’s has 13 road or neutral-court wins!

Evaluating these teams isn’t about a single data point, however. It’s about all of them. Arizona closed 4-8, two of those wins over Oregon State, and lost its last two real games despite having Nic Wise and Jerryd Bayless. VCU was 0-2 against the RPI Top 50 and took a bad loss in its conference semifinals. St. Joseph’s lost to bubble teams Dayton and Syracuse, and took four losses to teams outside the top 100, three of those at home (Holy Cross?!?). Everything counts, and we’re all trying to guess what’s going to matter most to the committee this year. Conference standing? Top 50 wins? Road performance? Late-season work? It is a guessing game to some extent.

Think about the Arizona/Arizona State quandary. Arizona State’s case is basically the quality wins at home, and the one at McKale over the Wildcats. That win is the difference between the two teams; were ASU 8-10 and in seventh in the Pac-10, with an even worse RPI, we wouldn’t be considering them at all. So that win is critical to their case. UA’s backers want to say, “We didn’t have Nic Wise for that game, so you should give us a break for that.”

I’m not sure which of these points is correct, but I do know that they can’t both be in play. You can’t give ASU credit for the road win and also give credit to UA for not having Wise in that game. In a system already violently tilted towards the BCS schools, where they can play two challenging games in nonconference, 80% of their games at home and go .500 in conference and be at-large candidates, you can’t also start double-counting factors for BCS schools in the selection process.

As mentioned, I’m much further out of sync with the veteran bracketologists than I can remember being. I could see, at the end of the day, anyone missing four at-large teams, which is a number that never happens. Remember, we’re not guessing at 65 teams, or even 34. We’re trying to suss out the last spots, the final four teams in. If you miss one, that’s OK; if you miss three, you might as well have spent six weeks on Sudoku.

As part an exercise in establishing a bona fides, part teaching point for myself, I went and pulled out the past years’ spreadsheets to see where I’d been wrong in the past. Here’s my record as far back as I can find:

2007: Missed three teams, largely in sync with others’ misses (I had Florida State, Syracuse and Drexel in; Old Dominion, Illinois and Arkansas out).

2006: Missed two teams, and I’ll go to my grave defending my picks over theirs (I had Missouri State and Cincinnati in; Air Force and Utah State out).

2005: Missed two teams, including a strange call by the committee on two Valley teams (I had Wichita State and Buffalo in; Northern Iowa and North Carolina State out).

2004: Missed one team (I had Utah State in; Richmond out). No argument here; I didn’t give the committee enough credit.

2003: Missed one team (I had Boston College in; Auburn out).

2002: Got ‘em all. Yay, Joe.

That’s as far back as I can find. The trend is pretty unpleasant, as you can see. I think there are a whole lot of reasons for this, but they come down to college basketball is becoming more complicated, and the committee has a harder job. One very simple move—getting BCS schools to play road games at conferences in the top 15 or so—would help a lot. South Alabama, VCU, the Valley schools should be able to both get good games and be able to play games at home. Right now, they have to choose between those things, and it makes this process a nightmare. The top non-major teams, such as Illinois State and VCU, lack wins over tournament or even bubble teams that show they can play at that level. This is why South Alabama’s win over Mississippi State means so much; it’s evidence that they can.

So let’s take one last run through this process and see what we have. I’ll throw in a couple of the more interesting teams already on my board as well, to make sure I’ve covered everyone.

On the Board (26): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Marquette, West Virginia, Purdue, Indiana, Washington State, Southern California, Duke, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Kentucky, Miami (Fla.), South Alabama, Stanford, Tennessee, Brigham Young, Mississippi State, Georgetown, Clemson.

Kentucky has popped up a couple of times in e-mails, as the one above, and the loss to Georgia yesterday would seem to hurt their case. Two points carry the day: one, they went 12-4 in conference, and there’s simply no precedent for leaving out a 12-4 BCS team, no matter how lousy their nonconference performance. You can’t not take Kentucky and then take Vanderbilt (10-6, lost in quarters) or Arkansas (9-7).

The other reason is this: the committee wants no part of the perception that yesterday’s loss, when Kentucky’s traveling horde was shut out of the relocated and rescheduled game, impacted the Wildcats’ status. It was a unique situation, and one in which a loss has to be somewhat excused. Kentucky will be in.

In (4): Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas.

Those four teams represent three conferences. Because two of these teams must take auto bids in the Big 12 and ACC, there are between one and three at-large bids here.

Automatic Bids (28): Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Cornell (Ivy League), Drake (Missouri Valley), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Siena (MAAC), George Mason (Colonial), Davidson (Southern), San Diego (WCC), Oral Roberts (Summit), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Butler (Horizon), Mount St. Mary’s (Northeast), Portland State (Big Sky), American (Patriot), Memphis (Conference USA), Maryland-Baltimore County (America East), UCLA (Pac-10), Temple (Atlantic 10), Mississippi Valley State (SWAC), Coppin State (MEAC), Nevada-Las Vegas (Mountain West), Kent State (MAC), Pittsburgh (Big East), Boise State (WAC), Cal State-Fullerton (Big West), North Carolina (ACC), Texas-Arlington (Southland).

Bubble (17): In RPI order: Dayton, Illinois State, Arizona, Baylor, Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s, Mississippi, Ohio State, Kansas State, Villanova, Virginia Tech, VCU, Syracuse, UAB, Oregon, New Mexico State, Arizona State.

There are between five and seven at-large bids in play for these teams. We’ll kick some out, put some in and leave others for an even closer look.

Dayton: In their favor are wins over Pittsburgh and Louisville in preconference play that are part of four top-50 wins and a 32 RPI, the lowest of the bubble teams. Against them is just about everything else, including an 8-9 record without Chris Wright, a dearth of good wins without him and a seventh-place finish in the #7 conference. The current team just isn’t good enough. OUT.

Illiinois State. A good RPI and a second-place finish in the #8 conference are their markers, and they have, in past, meant something to the committee. There’s nothing in the nonconference, though—wins over Wright State and Cincinnati are their best ones. They could have used a better BracketBuster game. The 0-5 mark against the RPI top 50—three losses to Drake, plus Kent State and Indiana—really sticks out. They’re on the line, one way or another. HOLD.

Arizona: Five top-50 wins and a 16-6 record at full strength, as we’ve heard ad nauseum. A 4-8 mark in their last 12, just one credible win since January, 8-10 and seventh place in conference, as we’ve also heard ad nauseum. They don’t make my field because to me, it’s too much to give away a third of the schedule, and because they lost the last two games at full health against real teams. Winning either would have made a case that they’re a tournament team. With that said, it’s a weak bubble, they have some nonconference pop and will get a subjective bounce. IN.

Baylor: A respectable RPI and a top-four finish in a BCS league are good markers. Then again, Baylor went 3-8 against the RPI top 50, and their second-best NC win is either Brown or Winthrop. The loss to Colorado was bad, but is just one of two (at Oklahoma State) that were outside the top 50. HOLD, but they look good right now.

Massachusetts: I use a system of red and blue to denote the top and bottom of various categories. Dayton’s NC RPI of 4, and Arizona’s 5-8 against the RPI Top 50, are noted in blue. Stuff like Ohio State’s 2-10 against the RPI Top 50 or Arizona State’s RPI of 83 are in red. The Minutemen have no blue nor red on their line. The six-game winning streak to end the year would have been more helpful if they hadn’t flamed out in the A14 quarterfinals. They tried to schedule well, but their good wins (Syracuse, Houston, Boston College) aren’t impressive. HOLD.

St. Joseph’s: The second win over Xavier, this one on a neutral court, should be enough. They also have a win over Villanova and a sweep of Massachuetts. That’s five RPI top-50 wins, 5-6 against that group, a 13-7 road mark and a trip to the conference final in a good A14. Given how poorly the teams in this group played in the last week, I have a hard time keeping them out. IN.

Mississippi: I thought the loss to Georgia ended them, but that doesn’t look as bad now. Beyond that, Mississippi has five top-50 wins, and a 5-3 record against that group, and a NC RPI of 9. They beat bubblers South Alabama and New Mexico. Six sub-100 losses, all in the weak SEC, are crippling, and it’s very hard to see the committee sending a 7-9 team that flamed out in the conference quarters. HOLD.

Ohio State: J.T., I acknowledge your objection, but Ohio State isn’t good enough. The 5-10 road/neutral mark and 2-10 record against the RPI top 50 are bad, and there’s not anything else here to overcome it. The bottom of the Big 11 didn’t provide enough competition this year to make 10-8 meaningful. OUT.

Kansas State: They’re a better team than a profile. Kansas State finished third with a soft schedule in the Big 12, and while they played a strong nonconference schedule, they didn’t win against it—best NC win is a home game over Cal, and after that you’re down to Rider. That’s pretty bad. A 3-6 mark against the RPI top 50 isn’t special. They’re in this discussion because they beat Kansas, and they’re not the only team hanging their hat on one win. IN, because of the subjective bump.

Villanova: ‘Nova got enough scalps at home to make the tournament, with four top-50 wins and a 4-7 record, plus wins over tournament teams Temple and George Mason and taking two of three from Syracuse. They’re probably in, but we’ll hold off for now. HOLD.

Virginia Tech: First of all, Seth Greenberg is wrong. If the argument is that playing a virtual road game against North Carolina and losing late qualifies you for the tournament, then let’s get Maryland in, because they actually beat the Tar Heels at Chapel Hill. Tech is 1-7 against the RPI top 50 and their best nonconference win is over UNC Greensboro. They lost to Penn State, Richmond and Old Dominion. You really can go 9-7 (10-8) in the ACC now and not be worthy. OUT.

VCU: Their entire case comes down to how much value the committee places on a clear regular-season title in a good league. Like Massachusetts, their good wins don’t look very good any more. The 0-2 against the RPI top 50 sticks out like a sore thumb, and the 12-6 road/neutral mark is probably not enough. I can’t help but think that if the committee is being consistent, they have to take all of VCU, South Alabama and Illinois State, or none of them. HOLD.

Syracuse: Like a number of the BCS schools on this list, Syracuse’s good wins came at home, with a road win at a comparable midlevel team. This is the crux of the argument for giving non-BCS schools a break at this time of year, because the home/road imbalance in college basketball skews our evaluation of these teams. BCS schools get lots of home chances against top teams; everyone else gets a precious few. ‘Cuse went 5-8 away from the Carrier Dome and 3-8 against the top 50, has 13 losses and a 55 RPI. OUT.

UAB: UAB has the worst charateristics of Illinois State’s profile and VCU’s. They can’t make the tournament with that. OUT.

Oregon: Just 5-10 on the road…but two of the wins were at Arizona and Kansas State, although the Arizona game was one Bayless missed. A 4-9 mark against the RPI top 50 could be seen as good (four wins, a monster total) or bad (nine losses). They finished ahead of Arizona and swept them, exactly the same thing Arizona State did. I’m not sure how you can take Arizona and leave both of these teams out, and if you’re choosing, Oregon is ahead of Arizona State. HOLD.

New Mexico: The committee has shown all kinds of love to unworthy Mountain West teams in the past. New Mexico, in fact, owns the record for lowest RPI to make the tournament. Losing both a home shot against BYU and their quarterfinal game to Utah, though, is hard to ignore. Their best nonconference win is over San Diego, and they have more sub-200 wins among bubble teams than anyone but VCU. OUT.

Arizona State: It’s not just that they have a low RPI. It’s that they have the lowest RPI of any team I can remember being discussed for a spot. They have 10 sub-200 wins, right there with New Mexico and VCU, and four more than any BCS school on the bubble. They went 5-10 over the last half of their season, and they don’t have Arizona’s excuses for that.

If you buy the argument that Arizona should get a pass for missing Bayless or Wise, then you have to acknowledge that both of ASU’s wins over Arizona are lacking. Like I said, you can make a case for Arizona or for ASU, but you can’t make one for both. I might argue that they have two wins over tournament teams (calling UA without one of those guys not a tournament team) in 2008. They don’t belong, and if the committee puts them in, it’s a Air Force/Utah State level mistake. OUT.

Where does that leave us?

Dayton, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, UAB, New Mexico and Arizona State are out. Arizona, St. Joseph’s and Kansas State are in. There are two, three or four spots left pending the results in Indianapolis and Atlanta.

Bubble: Illinois State, Baylor, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Villanova, VCU, Oregon.

UMass’s lack of good wins, third-place finish and early tournament exit combine to doom it in this group. Out.

Mississippi went 2-7 in true road games and 7-10 in the weak side of a weak conference. Those kill them. Out.

I just don’t think I can put Arizona in and leave Oregon out. I recognize that the reasons—a sweep and finishing ahead of them in conference are the same ones that argue for Arizona State, but the numeric difference between the Ducks and Sun Devils is large. In.

VCU has zero top-50 wins and zero wins over teams in the field. Out.

Baylor’s conference performance in the hard half of the Big 12, and the win over Notre Dame, get them in. That’s 32.

Villanova gets in ahead of Illiniois State based on top-50 wins. Illinois State gets the last spot, which as I write this, is ten points down at the half to Georgia. Illinois, however, is trailing Wisconsin by 12.

My field is set.

  • Last four in: Illinois State*, Villanova*, Oregon, Arizona.
  • Last four out: VCU, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Arizona State
I’ll take a run at seeds and post them here by 6 ET.

--

You come to love college basketball because of days like yesterday, when Clemson comes up big at the free-throw line to stun Duke, and a small Maryland school shoots the lights out to make its first NCAA tournament, and two SEC teams playing a day late in an ACC gym put on a show for the ages, or two WAC teams needing to win to make the tournament go 55 minutes to determine a winner.

Or when one team wins twice in a day to keep its season alive.

The Georgia Bulldogs may not beat Arkansas today, but it doesn’t matter. Their feat, essentially without precedent, is the signature moment of this season. Not only did they win two games in one day, but they did so by going overtime in the first one, by beating two of the top four teams in their league, and in each game did it despite fouling out its best player in the first game and three of its best players in foul trouble throughout the second. It was a fantastic day, creating a fantastic story, and the players involved, no matter their record or eventual end to their season, will be part of a legend for years to come.

Of course, there are a handful of people who, while no doubt appreciating the feat, could have lived without the outcome. By reaching the SEC championship game—a contest delayed as a result of the schedule changes necessitated by Friday night’s tornado—the Bulldogs create a headache for the selection committee. It’s not just the Bulldogs; the Fighting Illini of Illinois are in the same position, also playing a game starting at 3:30 p.m. ET, a mere 2 ½ hours before the brackets are announced. Well, it’s CBS…make it three hours.

Nevertheless, this makes for a complicated situation. By my calculations, neither the Big 10 or SEC has a team on the margin that can be slotted in and then taken out should Illinois or Georgia win. Ohio State isn’t good enough for that spot, and Kentucky should be above it. So two teams from other conferences are going to have to be tentatively slotted, and at that, the question becomes will there be zero, one or two spots available. I’m not in the room, but I have to figure that this is probably the most challenging situation that group of people has been faced with in some time. What if there’s an overtime? What if the game deteriorated into a foulfest late, with the outcome in doubt and the clock ticking towards 6 p.m.

Remember, too, that Illinois and Georgia are sub-.500 teams with RPIs between 100 and 110, well below the standards of the bottom of the at-large pool. Even Arizona State. Even with a win today, they would rightly be seeded at 14 or 15, while the last at-larges come in at 12 or 13. Would you overseed Illinois or Georgia if they were to win today? That’s the practical solution, but inconsistent with everything we know about the committee’s attempts to balance brackets and get seeding correct.

The most likely scenario is that Wisconsin and Arkansas make this easy by winning. Then again, the most likely scenarios on Thursday did not involve Illinois or Georgia at all. Illinois was one of the unluckiest teams in the country this season, and is capable of staying with Wisconsin, especially given the Big 11’s prediliction for close games. Arkansas is a good team, but it’s not Tennessee, and Georgia beat two comparable teams yesterday.

Here’s the field as of 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, with pretty much a complete data set. I’ll post again in a couple of hours with my final picks, and some discussion of the teams closest to the line.

On the Board (25): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Marquette, West Virginia, Purdue, Indiana, Washington State, Southern California, Duke, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Kentucky, Miami (Fla.), South Alabama, Stanford, Tennessee, Brigham Young, Mississippi State, Georgetown.

In (6): North Carolina, Clemson, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas.

Those six teams represent four conferences. Because two of these teams must take auto bids in the Big 12 and ACC, there are between two and four at-large bids here.

Automatic Bids (26): Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Cornell (Ivy League), Drake (Missouri Valley), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Siena (MAAC), George Mason (Colonial), Davidson (Southern), San Diego (WCC), Oral Roberts (Summit), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Butler (Horizon), Mount St. Mary’s (Northeast), Portland State (Big Sky), American (Patriot), Memphis (Conference USA), Maryland-Baltimore County (America East), UCLA (Pac-10), Temple (Atlantic 10), Mississippi Valley State (SWAC), Coppin State (MEAC), Nevada-Las Vegas (Mountain West), Kent State (MAC), Pittsburgh (Big East), Boise State (WAC), Cal State-Fullerton (Big West). The Southland is the only remaining one-bid league.

Bubble (18): In very rough order: St. Joseph’s, Illinois State, Kansas State, Villanova, Baylor, Arizona, Temple, Virginia Tech, VCU, Massachusetts, UAB, Arizona State, Oregon, Ohio State, Dayton, Syracuse, New Mexico, Mississippi.

There are between five and seven at-large bids in play for these teams. Ohio State is back on based on feedback from readers. Back in a few hours with a final.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Joe by clicking here or click here to see Joe's other articles.

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