Sunday, March 13, 2011

From 345 to 68, Sunday 5 p.m.

I'm assuming Ohio State beats Penn State, and even if they don't, nothing in here will change.


With Richmond beating Dayton in the Atlantic 14 final, there are six spots remaining in the field for bubble teams. Dayton's run wasn't good enough to get them on the board, although it did get me to at least peek at their season. Their RPI, top-50 and top-100 performance are comparable to the bubble teams, but you can't erase a T-8 performance in the conference with two wins, just one a good one.

Let's attempt to narrow down the 12-team field -- or at least put it into a coherent order -- by using smaller groupings. The ACC, for example, has four bubble teams with very similar resumes. Florida State (55). Clemson (56), Boston College (58) and Virginia Tech (61) sit in a narrow band of the RPI. They have virtually identical records (20-21 wins, 11-13 losses apiece), records against the top 25 (zero or one win, four or five losses) and top 50 (0-2 wins, 5-6 losses). Florida State finished an outright third in the ACC, ahead of the next three who tied for fourth. (However, Florida State finished the season without its best player, Chris Singleton, and went 3-3 without a quality win. Singleton is expected back for the postseason, but as I said on Twitter, unless a player is provably dead, teams will insist that he's going to play so as to not negatively affect their selection or seeding.) Two of the three fourth-place teams, Clemson and Tech, made the ACC semifinals.

Florida State stands out from the group in a positive way. They had the regular-season finish and their 8-5 road record is by far the best of the bunch. Let's slot them first. I think you can pull Boston College out and place them towards the bottom: they were the one T-4 to not make the semis. They have the worst record against the RPI top 100 (7-11) of the three and just a 1-5 mark against the top 150.

Clemson versus Virginia Tech is something of a toss-up. Both T-4, both lost in the ACC semis, they have essentially identical RPIs. Tech has wins over Duke and Penn State for a 2-5 mark against the RPI top 50. Clemson has no top-50 wins. Clemson beat Virginia Tech, but it was at home and their only matchup, so it's not a fair separator. Tech was better in true road games and in R/N games. Clemson played a slightly tougher schedule. Because I have to choose, I'll put VPI slightly ahead based on road performance and better wins.

The thing is, I'm not sure VPI is the best Virginia school in the discussion. Virginia Commonwealth has a better tournament resume, based on all the criteria listed by the committee than the four ACC teams in toto. They have a higher RPI (49) than all; they reached their conference final; they were just fourth in their conference, and the #3 team is not under consideration -- that hurts. VCU was 8-6 in true road games (the non-FSU ACC teams only played 10 road games each and none was above .500) and 12-8 in R/N. VCU had as many top-25 wins (2-3) as the four ACC bubble teams combined, and nearly as many top-50 wins (3-6) as the group (four). Echoes of William and Mary. VCU also had an 8-8 mark against the RPI top 100, which matches VPI and trails only Clemson (9-8).

Unless the argument comes down to "was Duke forced to play a game in your building," I don't see how VCU ranks below any of these teams save perhaps Florida State, and then only if you give them full credit for a healthy Chris Singleton. This isn't a William and Mary argument, which relied on some key pieces of data -- ALL the data has VCU ahead of this group of teams.

I don't know what the committee will do. I just know what the data says. I might be able to get one or two of the ACC bubble teams in ahead of VCU, but I can't see three or four.

VCU, by the way, rates ahead of Harvard due to the quality wins (3-6 vs. 1-5 top-50; 8-8 vs. 3-5 top-100). Harvard has the best at-large case of any Ivy League runner-up there's ever been, with quality wins over bubble teams (Boston College, Colorado), great stats (35 RPI, 9-6 R/N 140 SOS -- in the Ivy!) and a pretty good subjective case. The lack of top-50 wins doesn't hurt them relative to the ACC teams, but the lack of top-100 wins does, and while I'm willing to back a two-bid Ivy, I just don't know if the committee will take a team with three top-100 wins that didn't win its third-tier conference.

The lack of quality wins leads us into the other regular-season champs or co-champs on the bubble. VCU and Harvard are ahead of them all. Alabama-Birmingham, St. Mary's and Missouri State combined have two top-50 wins, and that's just not enough. UAB has the best case, with 10 top-100 wins, but the quarterfinal flameout in the Conference USA tournament was exactly the wrong move at the wrong time. St. Mary's and Missouri State have three top-100 wins apiece. It is possible the committee will look at their conference championships and tournament-final losses and put them in, but the lack of wins will probably carry greater weight.

The SEC teams are similarly hard to separate. Georgia has a much higher RPI than does Alabama, went 10-8 in the good half of the SEC, was 9-7 outside of Athens and 7-4 in true road games. They also went 3-9 against the top 50 and 5-11 against the top 100, which are really unimpressive numbers that seem to indicate Georgia cannot play with tournament-caliber teams. Alabama also had just five top-100 wins, but in the weaker SEC West -- which they did win with a 12-4 mark -- played just 12 games against the top 100, going 5-7. Their 4-4 mark against the top 50 is their strongest case, but those four wins (home against Georgia and Kentucky, at Tennessee in OT, Friday over Georgia in OT) are their whole case. They have what would be a record-setting RPI for an at-large bid (80) and they were lousy away from home (5-11).

The head-to-head results aside, I'll take Georgia ahead of Alabama. Neither is all that impressive, and both are, at best, destined to play Tuesday or Wednesday.

That leaves Colorado, which is 4-3 against the top 25, 5-7 against the top 50 and 8-10 against the top 100. That is mostly owning Kansas State, but the data counts. They played a wretched nonconference slate filled with free wins, and were terrible on the road (3-9) and in R/N games (6-11). They look like an NIT team to me, but again, seven of these teams have to get in the field.

I had taken Southern California off the board, but I went back and put them on after looking at how weak this field was. The fact is, their low RPI, high number of losses and middling finish in the Pac-10 should have left them out of this discussion. The slightly lowered bar for entry as well as the weak performance by the bubble pool gets them back in, and they actually look very good. Their RPI is higher than even Colorado's (69), which reflects their many bad losses. On the other hand, no team on the bubble has their wins -- 2-3 against the top 25, 5-5 against the top 100 -- and they were a much better team with him, going 13-10 with wins at Tennessee, over UCLA and over Arizona. The Trojans in their current state, with Fontan, have shown more than Michigan State or Florida State have in their current states, and certainly more than Georgetown or BYU have in theirs. All things considered, they're slightly behind Colorado.

In this strange year, what I know for sure -- what I think may be the most important thing to come out of the 2011 bracket -- is that the committee is going to be forced to make itself explicit about its criteria. There will be no hiding why a team is chosen or excluded, seeded up or down. The choices it makes this afternoon will be a de facto referendum on factors such as the impact of injuries in evaluation; on the value of non-majors in NCAA basketball; on winning a conference title; on unbalanced schedules within a conference; on performance away from home. Despite removing data on it from the "Nitty Gritty" sheets, is the committee still putting weight on some subset of recent games? Are they applying any or all of these criteria consistently?

To put in Virginia Tech over VCU is to say that the opportunity, by conference affiliation, to play home games against top teams is the most important path to a bid. To put in Alabama over Georgia is to abandon RPI and road record in favor of head-to-head and conference record absent context. To select UAB or Missouri State but not Clemson is to emphasize winning your league above other factors.

The committee's choices between VCU/Harvard and the ACC/SEC teams are going to reverberate, are going to make clear whether teams in non-BCS leagues are going to be evaluated on their merits. We have a situation where despite not having the opportunity to build up quality wins or RPI points in conference, these teams have been able to produce RPIs, top-25 records and top-50 records nearly identical to the big boys. Will that be taken seriously?

Finally, will the committee continue to value the ability to lose to good teams disproportionately? This trend is disappointing and is the biggest edge teams in megaconferences have. Michigan State, Marquette, Illinois, Clemson, Georgia…these teams have done as much to show that they cannot compete with the top 50 teams in America as anything else, but in some cases even I've had to put them in. If this trend continues, teams in the the BCS leagues will be even more free to ignore the ones in the next nine, counting on playing each other and their conference schedule secure in the knowledge that a dozen good losses and a dozen bad wins will add up to a bid.

Based on the factors in play, the NCAA tournament selection committee could pick any of the teams I've put in at the end of this process, or none of them. The resumes are simply so disparate this year that finding teams who have similar traits to compare is nearly impossible. (This is one reason for the smaller groupings above, which at least enabled manageable comparisons.) I do not envy the committee this year, but I grant them this: no team left out of this field is going to have a strong argument for inclusion. After about the first 30 at-large slots, everyone is wildly flawed, and if you couldn't be better than that group, you don't get to bitch to Greg and Seth, or whine to Digger and Jay. You had your chance.

Automatic bids (31): Duke (Atlantic Coast), Boston University (America East), Richmond (Atlantic 10) Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Connecticut (Big East), Northern Colorado (Big Sky), North Carolina-Asheville (Big South), Ohio State (Big Ten), Kansas (Big 12), UC-Santa Barbara (Big West), Old Dominion (Colonial), Memphis (Conference USA), Butler (Horizon League), Princeton (Ivy), St. Peter's (MAAC), Akron (Mid-American), Hampton (MEAC), Indiana State (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (Mountain West), Long Island (Northeast), Morehead State (Ohio Valley), Washington (Pac-10), Bucknell (Patriot), Kentucky (Southeastern), Wofford (Southern), Texas-San Antonio (Southland), Alabama State (SWAC), Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt), Oakland (Summit), Utah State (WAC), Gonzaga (West Coast).

In (37): George Mason, Villanova, Georgetown, West Virginia, Kansas State, Missouri, Pittsburgh, St. John's, Cincinnati, Marquette, UCLA, Xavier, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Purdue, Wisconsin, Nevada-Las Vegas, Tennessee, Temple, Texas, Louisville, Brigham Young, Arizona, Vanderbilt, Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, Florida, Penn State, Florida State, Virginia Commonwealth, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Colorado.

Last four placed in second round: Villanova, Florida State, Illiinois, Virginia Commonwealth
Last four in: Colorado, Georgia, Virginia Tech, Clemson
First four out: Southern California, Alabama, Harvard, Saint Mary's
Next four out: Boston College, Alabama-Birmingham, Missouri State, Texas-El Paso

I don't know how well the following is going to show up in this space. I took a run at seeding the field, taking an S-curve, trying to balance and avoid rematches and adhere to conference separation rules, but not taking into account geography.

After doing this for 40 minutes, I now have a raging meth habit. Joe, Andy, Jerry…love you, but you're nutbars.

1 Ohio State Kansas Pittsburgh Duke
2 Texas Connecticut San Diego State Notre Dame
3 Florida Kentucky North Carolina Purdue
4 Louisville Wisconsin Brigham Young Syracuse
5 Temple Arizona Vanderbilt TAMU
6 West Virginia Kansas State Tennessee Xavier
7 UCLA George Mason St. John's Old Dominion
8 Cincinnati Richmond Utah State Georgetown
9 UNLV Villanova Missouri Michigan State
10 Penn State Marquette Michigan Washington
11 Memphis Florida State Gonzaga Illinois
12 Colo/VT Uga/Clemson VCU Butler
13 Princeton Belmont Oakland LIU
14 SPC Indiana State Bucknell Morehead State
15 Northern Colo Akron Wofford Boston U

UTSA Alabama State