Thursday, March 14, 2013

From 348 to 68: Welcome Back

I'm getting a late start this year for a few reasons. One, Jerry Palm's move to CBS Sports was great for Jerry and for college-basketball fans in general, but lousy for the loss of as a resource. His team pages, his entire site, were essential to my process, and even in starting the work I haven't found anything that apes it. As someone who uses and the Play Index about as often as I do hand soap, it's a reminder that we're very lucky to have Sean Forman's great work -- and very lucky he never made a similar move.

If you're new to this, hi. I mostly write about baseball, but since I was a kid I've loved college hoops as well, and for the past 20 years ago I've worked to figure out what teams would make the tournament as at-large selections. I'm not Jerry or Joe Lunardi or Andy Glockner; I don't build brackets and I don't start doing this the previous fall. I parachute in during Championship Week and do what I can, generally missing one or two teams a year, although I have nailed the field twice. I used to just have this conversation with my best friend (@MikeReganNC), and later I'd send out this stuff to a small group of friends. When Basketball Prospectus launched, I did it there for a couple of years. I got some attention a few years ago for 1) having Virginia Commonwealth in my field, and 2) for a bit of a screed I wrote when reacting to the reaction to their selection.

I'm trying to ape the committee here, not set up the Sheehan Invitational. I do have a preference for teams that do well in smaller conferences, because they get few opportunities to post quality wins, and they never get the kind of home opportunities majors do. If the choice is between the #6 team in a Big Six league and the MAAC champ, I'd like to see the committee choose the latter, even if the former beat a couple of top-ten teams at home. I try to keep that out of my predictions, and it's pretty easy to do so this year. For a variety of reasons, there just aren't very many viable candidates for at-large berths from outside the top nine conferences. Here's the complete list of teams below that line that are or would have been under consideration for a bid: Gonzaga, Creighton, Wichita State, St. Mary's, Belmont, Middle Tennessee State, Bucknell, Louisiana Tech, Akron, Stephen F. Austin. That's it. The Colonial tanked this year. The WAC has been ruined by realignment. Everybody else in the Valley tanked. Butler and VCU moved into top-nine conferences. Teams that have been in the mix in previous years -- Davidson, Long Beach State, Iona, Kent State, Brigham Young -- didn't make the cut this year.

There's also an odd dynamic in the power conferences, which split more cleanly this year than in other years. The combination could make for a week without much drama. There just aren't that many teams in contention for the available bids, and the ones that are will find themselves in fairly clear win-and-in, lose-and-out spots over the next two days. There is the unknown of how much the off-board metrics -- Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, the fabled "eye test" -- are playing a role in the process. I think I had a better handle on the committee's approach five years ago. They may be doing a better job of selecting the field today, while making that job slightly more opaque while doing so.

As I start this process Thursday morning, I have one team already on the board in Wichita State. I have 33 locks, which will combine for somewhere between 24 and 31 at-large spots depending on who wins the conference tournaments. That leaves at least five, and as many as 12, slots for bubble teams. There are no bid thieves left in the Big East or Mountain West tournaments. I am exceptionally conservative; if there's a chance a team could lose its next game get left out, they stay on the bubble. We have some win-and-in games Thursday -- Minnesota vs. Illinois, Iowa State vs. Oklahoma -- where the loser is probably in as well, but I'm leaving both teams on the bubble this morning. Boise State vs. San Diego State was a similar game last night.

On the Board (1): Wichita State.

In (33): Duke, Miami (FL), North Carolina, North Carolina State, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, Temple, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Villanova, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Memphis, New Mexico, Colorado State, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State, UCLA, Arizona, Florida, Missouri.

Those teams will account for at least 24 and no more than 31 at-large bids, leaving five to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here are those teams in rough order as of Thursday morning. We'll go deeper on them after the list gets culled Thursday. There's at least some chance we're going to be down to just a few spots by the morning.

Bubble (23): Oklahoma, Illinois, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Kentucky, Iowa State, Virginia, LaSalle, Oregon, Saint Mary's, Tennessee, Mississippi, Baylor, Alabama, Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, Massachusetts, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, Iowa, Akron, Stephen F. Austin.