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March 14, 2010
From 347 to 65
Final Field Projection

by Joe Sheehan

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Thanks, Bulldogs. Mississippi State had a chance to make this afternoon a bit easier, but they missed enough foul shots while protecting a late lead to allow Kentucky to tie the game with a tenth of a second left in regulation. The Wildcats went on to win in overtime, thanks in large part to an off-balance three by John Wall. The Bulldogs…we'll get to them a bit later.

The words "the eye test" are going to be heard a lot today. Let's call the fabled eye test what it is: a restatement of what is already known, that the biggest schools in the biggest conferences get the best basketball players. Getting into the tournament, however, shouldn't be about having the best basketball players or even having the best basketball team; it should be about how you performed over the course of the season. Every time the eye test gets cited, just remember that all it is is another way of boosting the marginal teams in the BCS conferences-the ones with high-profile recruits-at the expense of teams that get seen a lot less. All subjective arguments, which includes using the words "the best 34 teams," are essentially placing the importance of having good basketball players ahead of winning basketball games against good teams.

This has been a very difficult process this season. So many teams on the margins failed to show up at their conference tournaments, winning the game or two that would have put them into the NCAA tournament. The unbalanced schedules in the ACC and SEC rendered good conference records in those leagues less so, and teams in those leagues are largely the ones under discussion. I find myself, in looking to ape what the committee was doing, coming back to one or two key factors. One is records against the RPI top 50 and top 100. These wins simply matter more in the process, and they should matter more. Being able to hold your own against these pools is an indication that you can compete with tournament-caliber teams.

I also find myself considering road and road-and-neutral records heavily. How well you defend your home court just doesn't matter that much. Lots of teams are home-court heroes, and there's a tournament committee that loves those teams: the NIT one. To play in the NCAAs, you have to do more than win your home games.

Overall record matters, RPI matters, conference performance matters, nonconference record and scheduling matters. Avoid bad losses matters. But when I was down to my last few teams, I kept coming back to top 50, top 100, and performance away from home in separating them.

After this morning's Unfiltered post, I went back and moved Georgia Tech off the board and into the field. Beating North Carolina State to reach the ACC finals didn't exactly jump off the page, but their overall case now includes a 33 RPI, a 5-6 (now 5-7) record against the top 25, 11-10 against the top 100, and reaching the ACC championship game. They're in.

With Richmond and Tech taking two spots, I'm left with four spots for 13 teams. Let's simplify this process and move the bottom two teams, Kent State and Memphis, off the board. Both were marginal calls all week, and with a number of surprises in the conference tournaments, both are too far from the bubble to make a difference. That makes 11 teams for four spots.

Louisville has the lowest RPI of any of the bubble teams, 37. They have the highest average RPI of opponents (92) and win (120), and it's not close. They went just 3-7 against the RPI top 50, but 8-11 against the top 100, and just 5-8 away from Freedom Hall. Louisville went 11-7 in the Big East, and there's no precedent for leaving out an 11-7 Big East team. They beat a #1 seed, Syracuse twice, and that's why they will be in.

Missouri went 10-6 in the Big 12, which isn't an automatic but is the best marker in their favor. They went 1-7 against the RPI top 25, 4-7 against the top 50 and 6-7 against the top 100. They have one strong nonconference win, over Old Dominion. Were the committee still considering late-season performance, Missouri might well be in trouble. Had marginal teams in other conferences not aped their no-show against Nebraska, Missouri might well be in trouble. As is, they'll probably squeak in.

Minnesota has added two huge scalps in the last two days, neutral-court wins over Michigan State and Purdue. Neither team was at full strength, something that has to be considered subjectively. Even with those wins, they have an RPI of just 60, with unimpressive average opponent/win/loss numbers. They have upped their record against the top 50 to 5-6, and the top 100 to 6-8, and their away-from-home record to 7-9. They absolutely had to win yesterday to stay in the discussion, and now, if they lose today, will be one of the last two teams in or out.

Mississippi State picked up one decent and one good win at the SEC tournament, then lost the championship game in overtime. That's going to serve them well with the subjective crowd, which tends to focus on the last thing they saw, and handwave stuff like a home loss to Rider, or four other sub-100 defeats. Mississippi State was 2-5 against the top 25 and 7-6 against the top 100, a mixed bag. They were a strong 11-8 away from home. One way or another, Mississippi State is the cut line.

I started pushing William and Mary earlier this week almost on a lark, but the deeper into the week we get, the more seriously I take them. They went 10-6 on the road, 12-7 in road-and-neutral games, blowing away this field. They were 3-3 against the RPI top 50; no one else was .500 or better, and just Missouri, Minnesota and Illinois have more top-50 wins; the latter two have other issues. The Tribe was 6-6 against the top 100; four of this group had better records, including Mississippi State (8-6) and Virginia Tech (8-7). Then again, William and Mary had nearly as many top-100 games and wins as those two teams, which says a lot about the schedules the three teams played. William and Mary's RPI of 58 puts them in a group with all of these teams save Louisville and Missouri, essentially a wash. To me, William and Mary did the things the committee asks mid-majors to do. I don't think they'll make, and I probably won't include them, but if you compare them straight up with any of the teams on this list, they look pretty good. Their best wins, their road work, their scheduling, their conference-tournament achievement. William and Mary is, if nothing else, a better choice than Virginia Tech is.

Virginia Tech should be an easy leave out, and that they're this high on my list doesn't bode well for my opinion of the committee. The Hokies played one of the 10 worst nonconference schedules in the country. (Sidebar: there's this meme developing that some midlevel teams "game" the RPI by playing teams in the 100s rather than the 200s, and that there's no difference between the two groups. Well, one, there is; two, I'm incredibly impressed with the idea that it's the BCS schools playing MEAC schools that are somehow victims. Let's hope that catches on.) Virginia Tech has a poor RPI, one good win away from home, 15 of their 23 wins against 100+ of the RPI and lost in the first game of its conference tournament to the #12 seed. Why are we still talking about them? What have they done other than beat comparable teams at home?

Florida was 1-8 against the top 25 and 3-8 against the top 50, and whenever I tried to move them up the list I was stopped by those numbers. Like Siena, which eventually won its way into the field through an automatic bid, few teams have done so much to show that they cannot hang with tourmament-caliber competition. The wins over Michigan State and Florida State got them pretty far, but not far enough. They needed that Mississippi State game.

Rhode Island needed to win yesterday, and if they didn't need to win, they needed to show better than they did. The win over Oklahoma State had legs, but others over Providence and Boston College didn't. They're basically just an RPI at this point, with a 1-5 mark against the top 50.

Wichita State is the clear #2 team in the #11 conference, but that's extent of their case. The Shockers were just 8-9 away from home, and 1-4 against the top 50, although they are 9-5 against the top 100. That's by far their strongest point, but it's not enough.

Mississippi had two great wins in the conconference, and had they won a single game in their conference against a team going to the tourament, they probably would have been in the field. 2-6 against the top 50, 5-9 against the top 100 make leaving them out simple.

Illinois might have made the list had they won yesterday's double-overtime thriller in Indianapolis. As is, we're left with a team that has 14 losses and an RPI of 75. The NCAA has put two teams in with 14 losses, and both had good RPIs and great schedules. Illinois has neither. They were 5-9 against the top 50 and 6-10 against the top 100. As with Florida, they've done more to show that they belong out than in.

Automatic Bids (31): Duke (ACC), Vermont (America East), Temple (Atlantic 10), East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), West Virginia (Big East), Montana (Big Sky), Winthrop (Big South), Ohio State (Big Ten), Kansas (Big 12), UC Santa Barbara (Big West), Old Dominion (Colonial), Houston (Conference USA), Butler (Horizon), Cornell (Ivy), Siena (MAAC), Ohio (Mid-American), Morgan State (MEAC), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (Mountain West), Robert Morris (Northeast), Murray State (Ohio Valley), Washington (Pac-10), Lehigh (Patriot), Kentucky (SEC), Wofford (Southern), Sam Houston State (Southland), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (SWAC), North Texas (Sun Belt), Oakland (Summit), New Mexico State (WAC), St, Mary's (West Coast).

In (34): Gonzaga, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Clemson, Texas, Oklahoma State, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Maryland, Texas A&M, Marquette, New Mexico, Florida State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Brigham Young, Texas-El Paso, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Purdue, California, Kansas State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Georgetown, Utah State, Richmond, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Missouri, Mississippi State, William and Mary.

Last Four In: William and Mary, Mississippi State, Missouri, Louisville

First Four Out: Virginia Tech, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wichita State

Next Four Out: Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Memphis

Yeah, William and Mary. When I compare them directly to the other teams, they beat more good teams and played better away from home. The only thing Virginia Tech did better than them was get top-100 teams to play against them at home, and with enough chances they won a few games. I'll put the Tribe's wins up against the Hokies' wins any day.

I usually get between zero to two of these wrong a year. I may get a decade's worth wrong today. Let's make it clear: the teams below the top 25 or so in the country did a terrible job separating themselves this year, and unless the committee leaves out UTEP or UNLV or something silly like that, no team will have a strong case for inclusion. All of the teams in the last group out earned their NIT bids.

If you follow me you know that I don't do brackets, because I can't keep all those rules straight. My S-curve follows:

Kansas

Kentucky

West Virginia
Duke
Syracuse
Kansas State
Ohio State
Georgetown

Villanova
Pittsburgh
Baylor
Temple
Tennessee
Texas A&M
New Mexico
Purdue

Maryland
Vanderbilt
Wisconsin
Richmond
Michigan State
Brigham Young
Butler
Marquette

Xavier
Florida State
Gonzaga
Clemson
Notre Dame
Northern Iowa
Oklahoma State
Texas

California
San Diego State
Nevada-Las Vegas
Georgia Tech
Old Dominion
Texas El-Paso
Wake Forest
Washington

St. Mary's
Utah State
Louisville
Siena
Cornell
Missouri
Mississippi State
William and Mary

New Mexico State
Wofford
Oakland
Murray State
Houston
San Houston State
Ohio
Montana

UC Santa Barbara
Vermont
Morgan State
North Texas
Robert Morris
Lehigh
East Tennessee State
Winthrop
Arkansas-Pine Bluff

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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