Monday, March 31, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #1-10"

"8. Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76; second in NL West, wild-card team; 623 RS, 597 RA). The largest payroll in baseball history didn't buy a center fielder or a second baseman. It did buy a 32-year-old leadoff man with a .308 OBP from ages 29-31, a $10-million setup man coming off two seasons with a total of 15 2/3 innings pitched, and $27.5 million worth of old and slow on the infield corners. What bugs me about this projection isn't that it's out of sync with everyone else's; what bugs me is that I don't think the Dodgers are even this good. The laser focus on the lack of maturity displayed by a 23-year-old -- as if that's a unique story in baseball, sports or world history -- has distracted from just how flawed this roster is. It is entirely possible that it comes together, that I'm wrong about the patchwork center-field situation, too down on Wilson, and that Alexander Guerrero emerges at second base. What I see, though, is a team that's one serious Clayton Kershaw injury from collapse."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #11-20"

"18. New York Yankees (82-80; fourth, AL East; 704 RS, 683 RA). Remember that last year's team was outscored by 21 runs; this prediction expects them to be a fundamentally better team, thanks in part to all the money spent on free agents. There were critical losses, though, in Robinson Cano, in Mariano Rivera, hell, even in a month of Alex Rodriguez, that cancel out a lot of the gains. The Yankees need half the roster to stop the clock and arrest steep declines, the ravages of age, and that's asking too much. Even the position players they signed are risks for age-related decline. It all adds to up to far too much downside risk, and even 82-80 feels like an overbid."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Excerpt: "Teams #21-30"

"27. New York Mets (69-93; tied for fourth, NL East; 613 RS, 710 RA). They'll draw 2.6 million fans, though, because Curtis Granderson. The Mets are a little like Mariners East, in that they haven't been able to turn their prospects into players. Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis looked like secondary, maybe even core, pieces two years ago. Now, they're trying to hold on to jobs. Kirk Nieuwenhuis never even got that far. Travis d'Arnaud arrived and immediately got hurt. The Mets don't have the resources to patch over that kind of failure, running a below-average payroll despite playing in a nearly-new ballpark in the largest market in baseball and owning most of their own regional sports network. This is a bad situation that may get worse before it gets better, even as the farm system produces a bumper crop of young pitching over the next two years."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Excerpt: "An Ugly 2013 Report Card"

"The best prediction I made was on the Rangers, who were +97 (728 RS, 631 RA) where I had them at +102, but I was way off on the totals (833/731). The only real success here was the Reds. I was off on their run differential by 12 runs, and pretty close on the runs scored (698 actual, 706 projected) and allowed (589/609). I did all right on the Dodgers (649/582 actual, 637/591 projected). I missed by 100 runs of differential or more on more than half the league, and that's just unacceptable. I understand why I missed by 192 runs on the Red Sox, but that doesn't make it easier to see that number on the spreadsheet."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Excerpt: "2-0 and 0-2"

"The Diamondbacks, unlike the Dodgers, have no real holes. If they lack the potential six-win contributor -- save at first base -- they also seem likely to get one or two wins from every spot on the diamond. With a deep rotation, a top prospect on the way and a good bullpen, that's enough to be a part of the NL West race. Trumbo aside, this will be one of the better defensive teams in league as well. The perceived gap between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks is a lot less than the actual one."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Excerpt: "The Phillies and Their Shortstop"

"If Rollins were to approve a -- still theoretical -- trade to Detroit, he'd be a hero on the day he arrived, saving his new team from opening the season with a gaping hole at shortstop. Even in decline, Rollins would represent a one- to two-win upgrade, at minimum, over Hernan Perez and Danny Worth and Deivi Cruz and whoever else is in the mix for the shortstop job in the absence of Jose Iglesias. His playing time would be assured, and he'd be in a stronger position to extend his career by playing for a team that will be highly visible in 2014 and likely play into October. The Jimmy Rollins HOF audition tape will look a lot better if there are shots of Rollins playing ball in front of full stadiums deep into the fall spliced into it."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Excerpt: "Tiger Trouble"

"There are trade options. The Tigers can't get Nick Franklin without ripping a hole open at the MLB level; they don't have the prospects and the Mariners want to add a major-league player, anyway. They could conceivably -- this is Dombrowski -- work out a three-way deal, but again, the Tigers don't have much they can spare in the majors or at all in the minors. A run at Didi Gregorius should be less expensive, but the Diamondbacks are also trying to win this year. I remain a fan of Ruben Tejada, and I wonder if you couldn't get him from the Mets for a song right now. If signing Drew is too daunting, that's a phone call worth making."

Monday, March 17, 2014

From 351 to 68: Epilogue

I thought this bracket was maybe the best I've ever seen the committee put together. They picked the right teams, the seedings were mostly reasonable -- hold that thought -- and they managed to create a terrific set of first-round games.

That's not to say they were perfect. Well, i wasn't, anyway. I missed on one at-large slot, having Southern Methodist in the field and leaving out North Carolina State. It's a reasonable decision by the committee. Had I pulled SMU -- and remember, I had them as a lock when the week began and never moved them -- I would likely have landed upon Wisconsin-Green Bay as their replacement. The Wolfpack were my third team out; I understand why they were selected, as they had some very good wins away from home. As I said on Twitter, there was a pool of about 12 teams around the cutline that all had cases either way. Some pair of teams had to be #36 and #37.

With few inclusion issues to be angry about, the focus was on the seeding of Louisville. The Cardinals, defending champions and winners of the American Athletic Conference tournament, were bizarrely spoken of as a possible #1 seed in some corners. They ended up a #4, which many -- especially ones who work for a network that broadcasted most of the AAC's games -- disagreed with. I thought it made perfect sense, and the discussion illustrated the point that we come back to time and time again: the committee isn't evaluating what you are, it's evaluating what you did, and at that, it's evaluating what you did using some fairly rudimentary tools. So the fact that Louisville looked very impressive in beating Connecticut and Connecticut and Connecticut, or had the #2 rating in Ken Pomeroy's system, is meaningless in this context.

Louisville was the co-champion of the seventh- or eighth-best conference in the country, and won that conference's tournament, beating one postseason team in doing so. Louisville beat UConn three times and Southern Methodist twice. They split a pair of games with Cincinnati. I've just summed up their entire body of work. Their next best win was over Southern Mississippi, at home. Then it's Louisiana-Lafayette, also at home. The American was five deep, giving credit to SMU that it may not deserve, and Louisville's visceral and statistical edges were in no small part a function of that lack of depth. Louisville may be one of the top 12 or top eight teams in the country, but over the course of the 2013-14 season, they didn't build a top-12 or top-eight profile. They beat UConn three times and SMU twice (with those teams' ratings inflated by the same AAC imbalance blowing up Louisville's numbers), Cincy once and did nothing out of conference.

You may argue against that point by citing that #2 Pomeroy ranking. I absolutely take that seriously, and if I'm having a conversation about Louisville's quality, that's an important data point. I'm not having that conversation; I'm having a conversation about tournament seeding, and it's clear that whatever happy talk has occurred about the committee having access to non-RPI data, that data is not driving any decisions. Louisville was a #4. Tennessee is in the damned play-in game. Utah is nowhere to be found. Massachusetts is a #6.

You can criticize the committee for their loyalty to the RPI to the exclusion of other, better information. That criticism, however, is better saved for June, or September, when it's not about LOUISVILLE ANGRY SMASH but about making the process better, building a better bracket, building a better tournament. They weren't using that information last week. Based on the information they were using, Louisville was a #4 seed. Sorry you guys got stuck in Conference 2SA, best of luck in the ACC. It's not about what you are, it's about what you did.

I'll probably continue to guess the field for years to come, but it's definitely not as much fun as it used to be. I don't mean that in a hipster sense -- it's great that so many people do it now, and I think the democratization of the process has forced the committee to be more open about what they do. No, it's just that there are no longer interesting storylines to follow. We're eight years removed from Billy Packer's George Mason rant, three years past VCU and UAB getting in, and the game of college basketball has changed to chip away at the core conflict that made this so interesting -- big versus little. Between realignment that has pushed "mid-majors" upward into major conferences, and a lack of performance (in part due to a lack of access to games) by schools outside the top tier, there's no meat to the discussions. Wisconsin-Green Bay had a case, but it wasn't one you could really get behind, hanging mostly on a single win. Southern Mississippi didn't even have that. And that was pretty much it for the mid-majors.

There are nine true multi-bid conferences in the new college basketball landscape. The six that used to form the BCS, the Atlantic [$NUMBER], the American and the Mountain West. There's a sharp division between them and the Missouri Valley -- what will it be in a post-Creighton world? -- and the West Coast -- will the bottom of the conference improve to support the top as a multi-bid conference? Then, there's everyone else. (The current WAC Belt version of Conference USA is a one-bid league.) Those two had just the two champs and BYU tournament-caliber teams. Everyone else, produced a couple of bubble teams -- Green Bay, Southern Mississippi, maybe Louisiana Tech -- and nothing else. The MAC, the MAAC, the Colonial (destroyed by realignment, along with the WAC), the OVC…nothing. There were no good arguments to be had this year because that central conflict, between the haves and have-nots, has been won by the haves for a few years running.

I imagine there's some kind of one-and-done effect here, and it may be that the repeal of the 2-in-4 rule has been a net negative for mid-majors rather than a positive, leading to the rise of fakeaments that protect Big Six schools from themselves. I know that the true middle tier still can't get home games against the top tier, and nothing is going to change that.

In doing this, though, I miss being able to advocate for a George Mason, an Iona, a VCU or a William and Mary. I miss watching Manhattan or Northern Iowa or South Alabama squeeze out an at-large bid by taking advantage of the few chances they got against good competition out of conference. The past few years, those teams haven't had opportunities, haven't taken advantage of the limited ones they've had, and it's turned Selection Week into a bore.

Nothing can touch the tournament itself, though. I am psyched for Oregon/BYU and Gonzaga/Oklahoma State and the ridiculous 8/9 game being played on Wednesday, Iowa/Tennessee. For all of the arguments about who belongs and how they should be picked, we could probably take the next 68 teams left out, stick them in a bracket and be just as riveted come Thursday afternoon. With all due respect to great players past, present and future, it's the tournament itself that's the star.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From 351 to 68: Final. Final.

I started to do seeds, and then I realized that the bottom of the bracket is such a mess that how they committee slides the 11 16-seeds around will impact everything else as they avoid rematches and such. I do think Michigan gets the fourth #1 seed, even with today's loss, but I'm not terribly confident about that.

Oh, a bit of business left on the table: I wrote earlier this week that we didn't know what Kansas would be without Joel Embiid. The team had actually played three times without him, though none of those games were against tournament-caliber teams. It's clear, looking at those three plus Kansas' Big 12 tournament, that they are a substantially worse defensive team without Embiid. I can't imagine a 15-seed picking off Kansas, but that second game, next weekend, may be substantially more competitive than it might otherwise have been.

Here's my final field:

Automatic Bids (32):
Virginia (Atlantic Coast), SUNY-Albany (America East), Louisville (American), Saint Joseph's (Atlantic N), Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Providence (Big East), Weber State (Big Sky), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Michigan State (Big Ten+2), Iowa State (Big 12-2), Cal Poly - SLO (Big West), Delaware (Colonial), Tulsa (Conference USA), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Western Michigan (Mid-American), North Carolina Central (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Westwood CC (Pac-12), American (Patriot League), Florida (Southeastern), Wofford (Southern), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Texas Southern (Southwestern Athletic), Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt), North Dakota State (Summit League), New Mexico State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast):

On the Board (36):
Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, George Washington, Creighton, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Baylor, San Diego State, Arizona, Tennessee, Duke, Virginia Commonwealth, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Brigham Young, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State, Xavier, Dayton, Nebraska.

Last Four Byes:
Southern Methodist, Brigham Young, Colorado, Stanford

Last Four In: Arizona State, Xavier, Nebraska, Dayton

First Four Out: Wisconsin-Green Bay, Louisiana Tech, North Carolina State, Florida State

Next Four Out: Southern Mississippi, California, Minnesota, St. John's

I'm not confident the last two slots, but the only team in my last eight I can see taking a spot is Green Bay. I would not be surprised if that happened, although I think Dayton and Nebraska are a tick ahead of the Phoenix.

From 351 to 68: Final. Maybe.

It's a rare easy Sunday. There are five conference finals, and in four of them, both teams will make the tournament -- welcome, St. Joseph's. The other, the Sun Belt, will only see the winner advance, probably to the 13 line. Yesterday saw a lot of teams move off the bubble in one way or another. As mentioned, St. Joseph's locked up a bid by advancing to the Atlantic It Changes a Lot final; Providence and Stephen F. Austin did it the old-fashioned way, by winning their conference tournament. On the other side of the ledger, Georgia needed a win over Kentucky to keep their candidacy alive, and they didn't get it.

The board also filled up, as teams who are in lost to take spots on it. After Saturday's games, 28 at-large bids were spoken for by 24 named teams and the losers in the four conference finals today. That left eight slots for, after all was said and done, 19 remaining bubble teams.

Automatic Bids (27): SUNY-Albany (America East), Louisville (American), Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Providence (Big East), Weber State (Big Sky), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Iowa State (Big 12), Cal Poly - SLO (Big West), Delaware (Colonial), Tulsa (Conference USA), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Western Michigan (Mid-American), North Carolina Central (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Westwood CC (Pac-12), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Texas Southern (Southwestern Athletic), North Dakota State (Summit League), New Mexico State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast)

The following teams are no longer eligible for automatic bids and are listed as having clinched at-large bids:

On the Board (24): Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, George Washington, Creighton, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Baylor, San Diego State, Arizona, Tennessee.

There are 36 at-large slots this year. These eight teams are locks to be granted an at-large bid if they don't claim an automatic bid. They will claim four at-large bids, in total.

Locks (8): Duke, Virginia; Virginia Commonwealth, St. Joseph's; Michigan, Michigan State; Florida, Kentucky.

Let's sort out the remaining 19 bubble teams by culling the list. I held out on Oklahoma State, Colorado and BYU, but they're all safely above the line in this group. Similarly, I can't see the committee making its metrics stand on Utah, and road performance is similarly why Arkansas and Minnesota become relatively easy cuts. That leaves five spots for 13 teams. Let's cull Conference USA down to one spot, and say that Louisiana Tech's head-to-head win in the semis puts them ahead of Southern Mississippi. That's 12. I can't see the committee, protestations aside, putting seven Pac-12 teams in. Cal is clearly the seventh, so drop them.

Eleven to make five.

Stanford was just 8-11 against the RPI Top 100. However, they won at Oregon and at Connecticut, and they went 9-8 outside of Palo Alto. They're in good shape. They're clearly ahead of Arizona State, which played poorly away from home (5-10) and whose best wins all came in Tempe.

Let's try this with the Ohio teams. Xavier played a tougher schedule and didn't beat up on as many sub-150 teams as Dayton did. However, they did go 6-10 away from home. Dayton was 10-6 away from home, and the two teams were comparably good against various levels of competition. Both teams have some really good nonconference wins, but Xavier's are a little better. Xavier is a tick ahead of Dayton.

How about the ACC teams? Almost impossible to separate, with similar RPIs and virtually identical schedule strengths. North Carolina State won the only matchup, but it was a home game. Each team won at Pitt. Each has two very strong wins, and deciding which pair is better (N-Syracuse, @Tennessee/N-VCU, N-UMass) is a challenge. I can't separate them, which is bad for both.

This is how I stack the 11 bubble teams that I have remaining:

Arizona State
Wisconsin-Green Bay
Louisiana Tech
North Carolina State
Florida State
St. John's

The two Pac-12 teams go in. That leaves nine for three. I think I can lop off the bottom four as a group, which leaves five for three. This is going to come down to whether the committee takes the smaller-conference champion that didn't get it done in the tournament, or the big-conference team that converted some of its many chances for quality wins, or roughly speaking the Tennessee vs. Southern Mississippi call I got wrong last year.

Actually, I think I'm shorting Nebraska by saying that. This is Dayton vs. Green Bay.

I'm going to reserve the right to change this by 6 p.m., but here's what I have right now.

Last four byes: Oklahoma State, SMU, St. Joseph's, Stanford
Last four in: Arizona State, Xavier, Nebraska, Dayton
First four out: Wisconsin-Green Bay, Louisiana Tech, North Carolina State, Florida State
Next four out: Southern Mississippi, California, Minnesota, St. John's

Excerpt: "Braves Sign Santana"

"This isn't a panic move by the Braves, who aren't overpaying for Santana in cash or in years. It's an appropriate reaction to losing two starters with two weeks to go before Opening Day and a lack of internal options to fill the slots. The Braves are also concerned about Mike Minor, who is behind the other pitchers in camp due to an offseason illness, and who won't be ready for Opening Day. The Braves' rotation might have been something like Julio Teheran, Medlen, Minor, Beachy and Alex Wood. Prior to signing Santana, the rotation for the first two weeks looked something like Teheran, Wood, Freddy Garcia and David Hale."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From 351 to 68: Moving Days

You get a lot of clarity in 38 hours. St. Bonaventure and LaSalle tipped off a tick after noon Eastern time on Thursday afternoon. Cal State-Northridge closed out an upset of Long Beach State around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. In that time, 105 games were played, giving every bubble team one or two opportunities to make their case or make themselves scarce.

I love reading Bracketology content in-season. I love seeing the numbers go up and down. It's catnip to someone who loves college hoops and numbers in, if not equal amounts, proportional ones. However, I jump in at the end because for however much enjoyment I get from looking at mock brackets, I don't think you can generate conclusions off partial seasons. Not having those last one, two, three games against conference competition, good competition, in generally neutral environments, renders the conclusions reached up to that point insufficient. It's not that conference-tournament games are more meaningful than the rest, but that when you're teasing out the differences among teams with similar profiles, the additional data point -- a quality win, or a bad loss -- can swing the entire decision. We simplify this to "they played their way into the discussion" or something akin to that, but we're still looking at all the data -- it's just that conference games on neutral courts are an excellent barometer for a team's skill.

That's what the last two days do. They thin the herd. At this point, frankly, there's not much left to do. North Carolina State and Georgia are the only remaining teams whose status is in question who could still both pick up a win and not gain an automatic bid. For Louisiana Tech, Providence, Stephen F. Austin, it's a matter of whether they play their way in or whether they're good enough even with a loss of varying quality. For everyone else, we have all the information.

Among that information, by the way, is this: the bottom of the NIT is going to be much better than the bottom of the NCAA. Nine regular season champions with no shot at an NCAA at-large bid have lost in their conference tournaments. A number of others play today, with realistic chances of losing. We could see a dozen or more NIT bids end up in the hands of automatic qualifiers.

Let's see where we are as of early afternoon Saturday.

Automatic Bids (13):
Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

The following teams are no longer eligible for automatic bids and are listed as having clinched at-large bids:

On the Board (14): Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist.

Like a lot of people, I took another look at SMU after their loss to Houston. I elected to keep them on the board, but not only will they be wearing red later this week, they could conceivably slip into Dayton.

There are 36 at-large slots this year. These 21 teams are locks to be granted an at-large bid if they don't claim an automatic bid. Welcome, Pittsburgh and Baylor!

Locks (21): Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh; Louisville, Connecticut; Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State; Iowa State, Baylor; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

Those 21 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 12 and 15 at-large bids, leaving seven to ten slots for bubble teams.

Since I last wrote, four teams took losses that eliminated them from consideration: Middle Tennessee State, Illinois, Louisiana State and Clemson. All needed to pick up quality wins and probably to make their conference final; none did. Georgetown has also been removed.  (Note: this list omitted Arizona State the other day.) There are 23 teams currently under consideration. In rough order...

Bubble (23):

Brigham Young: The best RPI (31) in this group, an 8-7 mark against the RPI top 100, KenPom #49, made their conference final. A 1-5 mark against the RPI top 25 and 12 sub-150 wins on the other side of the ledger. They're probably in, with so few bid-stealers.

Colorado: Their early-season home win over Kansas buoys a a profile that would otherwise mostly be about what they did in conference. The numbers are there, and they did go 7-9 away from home, while playing well in the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie.

Oklahoma State: It seems most people are considering them a 21-9 team, giving them a pass for the three games they played without Marcus Smart. I'm not sure treating that as an injury sits well with me. At a full 21-12, it's not that great a profile -- 4-10 against the top 50 (although 14 top-50 games is notable) -- 3-7 in true road games, sub-.500 in conference. They rate this highly in part because of great possession-based numbers (KenPom #21) and whatever credibility you want to give subjectivity: they look, and have looked, like a tournament team.

They started the Big East tournament as a bubble team and they made the tournament final, which would all be more impressive if they'd gotten a win over an NCAA tournament team along the way. They're 14-11 against the RPI top 100, which reflects the lack of truly bad teams in the new Big East. I think they're high on the bubble; their non-conference schedule is littered with attempts to schedule reasonably well against teams that had bad years: LaSalle, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Rhode Island.

Stanford: The Pac-12 gives me a headache. i don't think any of the middle tier of teams is all that good, save a small crush on Jahii Carson and what he might do in the next week. As with Colorado, Stanford is living off one win back in 2013, theirs being on the road over Connecticut, and their win over Carson's Arizona State team on Thursday keeps them ahead of the Sun Devils.

Arizona State: As mentioned, Carson. Arizona State has been on the bubble all week, but at one point in the process, I thought they might have been in already, hence their absence from the earlier write-ups. They also had a non-conference slate fall apart on them, as wins over Marquette and UNLV are doing them no good today. It's hard to draw the line between Stanford and ASU; both are probably going in.

I expect the above six teams to get in. From here down is where it gets a little sticky.

St. Joseph's:
They're now 3-0 against Dayton, which helps to clarify the pecking order in the Atlantic 10. A win today over St. Bonventure wouldn't change much -- the Bonnies, even after their wins this week, aren't rated highly -- but advancing to the conference final would be the kind of thing that improves the profile just enough to make a difference. Losing to St. Bonaventure isn't going to help, either. Let's leave them here for a day.

Dayton: The #daytonindayton movement is about the best the Flyers can hope for after a crushing loss to St. Joseph's. Their decision to play the Maui Invitational -- where they picked up wins over Gonzaga and Cal -- looks very good right now, because if they make the tournament, that will be why.

Xavier: They seem to be in on most boards, which isn't unreasonable, although I wouldn't argue that they helped themselves in New York. I have Providence ahead of them at the moment. Two excellent non-conference wins, over Cincinnati and Tennessee, will probably be the difference for them.

North Carolina State: If they beat Duke, they're in. If they don't beat Duke, they have a case, one we'll revisit tomorrow.

Nebraska: Had they held an 18-point second-half lead, we wouldn't be having this conversation. They're 4-11 outside of Lincoln, although one of the four is a huge win at East Lansing. They're a good story, which may matter more than it should. Arguably helped by Minnesota losing as well. I suspect that if they're in, they'll go to Dayton.

California: They needed to beat Colorado more than Colorado needed to beat them. Now left with 13 losses, an RPI of 63, 4-10 against the top 100…they've more or less proven they can be beat by all the teams going to the tournament instead of them.

Louisiana Tech: They have UAB's case from two years ago, when UAB was a surprise pick for one of the final spots in the field, but without "we beat out Memphis" and "sole champion" to help. With so few teams helping themselves this week, they should get a look if they lose to Tulsa.

Florida State:
Like Xavier, two good non-conference wins (neutral-court over VCU and UMass) holding up a profile that didn't get as much bounce from its name conference than you would think. Losing to Virginia probably ended the dream. 3-9 versus the top 50, 6-12 versus the top 100 are killer numbers.

From here down, we mostly have teams who I don't think are going to make it.

Southern Mississippi:
The best profile of the various 13-3 Conference USA teams, it couldn't survive losing in the semifinals to a direct competitor. The lack of signature wins was always going to be a problem. Still, an RPI of 33, a 25-6 record, 13-6 away from home, 8-5 against the top 150…there's a numbers case here.

St. John's: The absolute zero in non-conference play -- San Francisco, Columbia? -- comes back to haunt them, as they lost some key games down the stretch and them a showdown with Providence. Given the likelihood of an NIT one-seed and the home games at Carnesecca Arena it comes with, they're a big favorite to play some more games at the Garden this year.

Georgia: Their RPI is now a not-ridiculous 66, and they'll get a shot to improve their top-50 record today. They're not in with a win, like North Carolina State is, but they will stay on the board with one -- and fall off if they lose.

Missouri: Hanging on due to a couple of good non-conference wins over UCLA and North Carolina State. Beating Texas A&M in double overtime on a neutral floor is a sign that you don't belong, not one that you do.

They went 4-10 away from home, which is the kind of thing you can survive if everything else looks good. They needed to beat Wisconsin.

Wisconsin-Green Bay: Not even making the conference final, despite a rigged tournament and home-court advantage, is a bad look that probably wipes everything else out, including a win over Virginia. If you squint, you can see some 2012 UAB or Iona here. If the committee surprises us, I suspect this will be the team they do it with.

Stephen F. Austin: Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, just two eligible teams have lost three or fewer games and missed the tournament -- Utah State in 2004 and College of Charleston in 1996. And unfortunately, the Lumberjacks look exactly like those teams, playing in small conferences and getting nothing done outside of the league. If they lose tonight…I guess the thing to keep in mind is that apparently Oral Roberts, out of the Summit League then, was right on the bubble two years ago. Win tonight, SFA.

Arkansas: It was just ten days ago that they hung 110 on Mississippi, but that's their last win. Losses to teams that aren't even going to the NIT, Alabama and South Carolina, have buried their profile.

Utah: A test case for whether the committee is moving away from the RPI and towards tempo-free stats. Utah is 36th in KenPom with an RPI of 78. Then again, they might miss just because they did little in the non-conference and went 3-9 away from home. It would reflect a sea change in the process if they were selected.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

From 351 to 68: Hoya Sackeda

We very nearly got through yesterday with absolutely nothing changing on the board or the bubble. Then Georgetown got involved. The Hoyas' loss to DePaul, one of the worst major-conference teams, likely ends their at-large hopes. I'm leaving them on the board for now, just in case the bubble falls apart. They do have five RPI top-50 wins, including three strong neutral-court victories over teams in the field, and in recent years good wins have seemed to carry more weight than bad losses.

Nothing else happened. The other bubble teams won games they had to win just to stay in the discussion, although Stanford and Colorado sure made it interesting for a while in the Pac-12 tournament. Oh, we added another NIT team, as Boston University was taken out at home by American U. That makes eight NIT bids from the 12 small conferences that have completed their tournaments.

In (13): Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

There are 36 at-large slots this year, While nodding to Colorado, 33 teams are locks to make the tournament::

Locks (33): Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Southern Methodist; Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Villanova, Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa; Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA, Oregon; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

Those 33 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 24 and 33 at-large bids, leaving three to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here's my spreadsheet bubble, listed in RPI order.

Bubble (29): Colorado, Southern Mississippi, Baylor, Brigham Young, Arizona State, Dayton, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Xavier, Minnesota, Missouri, California, Georgetown, Providence, Florida State,, Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, St. John's, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana State, Georgia, Clemson, Utah

We're going to see a lot of movement today, one way or another. By conference:

ACC: Florida State is squarely on the bubble and will stay there with a win or a loss to Maryland -- and we'll see what happens Friday if they win -- while Maryland needs this game and probably one more to stay in the discussion. Very, very big game for a Thursday afternoon. Pitt gets stuck playing an improving Wake Forest team in a quasi-road game. They cannot take a bad loss right now. North Carolina State is also in a must-win situation, because losing to Miami would both hurt their case and deprive them of a chance for a good win on Friday. Clemson has to win at least twice to be taken seriously -- they draw Georgia Tech.

As an aside, the first day of the ACC tournament was awful, a prima facie case against the expansion of leagues we've seen. Bad teams playing bad basketball in a region they have no connection to. The ACC tournament set the standard, and it's kind of sad to see what's happened to it. But at least the football championship game is a rousing success.

I don't believe I've ever seen a nominally major league with no bubble teams. This is the American's peak -- they trade Louisville for three bad basketball programs from Conference USA next year. Even if Temple bounces back, the American is going to be right on the line as a "major" conference, arguably more Atlantic 10 than Atlantic Coast.

Atlantic 10: A don't-dare-lose game for Dayton against Fordham, which won a postseason game last night for the first time since it was my safety school. There's probably a world where Richmond can win three times and get into the conversation, but we'll worry about that once they get past Duquesne.

Big East: Both Providence and St. John's can get into the field, but the team that loses today -- the two play at 2:30 p.m. -- is going to be pretty miserable until Sunday night worrying. The winner isn't in, but they get a leg up, not least for winning the rubber game against a direct bubble rival. Xavier may be able to lose to Marquette and still get in, but they shouldn't test the theory.

Big Ten: Illinois has to beat Indiana just to stay on the board. Minnesota's situation isn't quite that dire -- but their lack of anything away from home means that today's game is as much about location as it is opponent (Penn State). They're 3-9 in road and neutral games.

Big 12: The big story on what will be the best conference-tournament day all week isn't bubble-related; we'll all be watching to see what Kansas looks like in their first game without Joel Embiid. It's a tough spot for the committee, which is going to get roasted no matter what they do, but at least they'll get to see Kansas without Embiid to help make their decision. My opinion is that a loss today would be worth a seed line, a loss Saturday would not warrant any loss in seed, and a loss tomorrow would…be complicated.

Oklahoma State might be in even if they lose to Kansas, but a 5-11 mark against the top 50 would be a strike against them. They're in, clearly, with a win. The same goes for Baylor, if they beat Oklahoma. The Big 12 has done a very good job of maximizing bids this year, and may get seven from a ten-team league.

Mountain West: No bubble teams for the first time in forever. Thank Boise State and their penchant for collapses.

Pac-12: Utah might be in if they can beat Arizona -- their metrics are far better than the RPI would have you believe. They'll stay on the board even if they lose. Colorado and Cal may well both be in, but I think the winner of this game will advance on to the board immediately. The same is true for Arizona State and Stanford. When the non-meaningful game of the day is Oregon/UCLA, that's a strong day of games. Nice of the bottom four teams to get out of the way yesterday.

Southeastern: Missouri and LSU must win their games against also-rans Texas A&M and Alabama to stay on the bubble. Arkansas is in that no-win spot, where a win over South Carolina doesn't help, but a loss is terrible. The SEC is just barely a major conference the past few years; like in football, they have some amazing anchor programs carrying a lot of overrated ones.

Let's see…all the Conference USA bubble teams play, with Southern Mississippi -- the team with the best case -- getting a bad draw in that they have to play the host, Texas-El Paso. USM's case is going to be pretty good if they add a road win to a strong profile that, admittedly, lacks great wins. That's about it; other than my quixotic notion that Stephen F. Austin is a bubble team, there are no at-large candidates in the eight secondary conferences whose tournaments start or continue today.

We'll know a lot more in 18 hours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From 351 to 68: We Begin Again

Welcome to my annual trip into college basketball coverage.

I started trying to suss out who would make the tournament all the way back in college, when there was a lot less data and a lot more guesswork. I've been a huge college basketball fan since grade school, when the St. John's team led by Chris Mullin became an obsession. These days, about the only fandom that still really gets my blood boiling is USC basketball, which is exactly as sad a notion as it sounds.

A few years back, after launching Basketball Prospectus, I ported the work I'd been doing privately for years to the public, joining approximately 7.2 million people in the act. I don't do mock brackets and I don't seed the field. All I do is try and figure out who will make the cut, and why. If you're looking to know whether North Carolina will stay close to home or if Oregon will be wearing white, you want a different Joe. I do this because I really enjoy it, and I publish it because some vocal subset of people who read it ask for it each year. I don't pretend for a second I'm the best or most thorough at it.

One important note before I throw a lot of names at you: every year, it seems, guys like me complain about the soft bubble, where there are too many teams under consideration who haven't done anything. If anyone uses that term this year, ignore them. There are plenty of teams under consideration who would, in other years, be in great shape for a bid. There are few teams in the mix for an at-large bid as weak as some of the teams who made it right down to the end of the discussion in previous years. There are teams with flawed profiles, to be sure, but deep into the pool of teams under discussion are ones with good wins, good road wins and good metrics. This is not, relative to other recent years, a weak bubble.

There are 68 slots in this year's tournament. 32 will be awarded to the champions of their respective leagues, with 31 of those being determined by the winner of the conference tournament. Bless you, Ancient Eight. Twelve of those have already been determined.

In (12): Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

Note: of those 12, just five won their league's regular-season crown. I'm not terribly opposed to conferences who send their tournament champion to the dance, but for those who are, and who make strong arguments against it, this year is an excellent case study. Davidson, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Vermont went 44-4 in conference, and none of them even reached their conference final.

On the other hand, as someone who roots for NIT chaos, I like that seven bids in that event are already committed, as regular-season league champs are guaranteed NIT bids if they don't reach the NCAA tournament.

There are 36 at-large slots this year, down one due to the Big East schism. Oddly, due to the weakness of conferences like the West Coast and Missouri Valley, none of those bids have yet been claimed -- all at-large candidates have either finished their seasons on the bubble (BYU, Green Bay) or are still playing with a chance to win an automatic bid. Per my analysis, 33 teams are locks to make the tournament:

Locks (33): Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Southern Methodist; Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Villanova, Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa; Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA, Oregon; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

The closest calls here were George Washington, Kansas State and Tennessee, and we'll get into all of them over the next few days. I suspect the last of those causes the most raised eyebrows. I am, to some extent, projecting the committee to be using more tools than just the RPI. For all the data we do have, we're really just guessing as to how the committee members will integrate modern rating systems into their work.

Those 33 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 24 and 33 at-large bids, leaving three to 12 slots for bubble teams. Here's my spreadsheet bubble, listed in RPI order. Keep in mind two things: I am very conservative about moving teams from the bubble to the at-large board, and I try to include everyone at the start who might play their way into the field this week.

Bubble (29): Colorado, Southern Mississippi, Baylor, Brigham Young, Arizona State, Dayton, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Xavier, Minnesota, Missouri, California, Georgetown, Providence, Florida State,, Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, St. John's, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana State, Georgia, Clemson, Utah

The most interesting case on this board in Pittsburgh. Despite "feeling" like a lock, they have a shockingly empty resumé, having beaten no teams in the tournament field and just one team likely to make the tournament (Stanford, back on November 26). It is possible that they could end up having beaten zero tournament teams, pending what a few teams do this week. You wouldn't think you could go 23-8 as an ACC team with this soft a slate, but they went 1-6 against the RPI top 50 and played just five games total against the four good teams in the league. Pitt plays the Notre Dame/Wake Forest winner tomorrow, and cannot afford to lose that game.

I don't think all the Conference USA teams are at-large contenders, but I do think a tournament final between two of them would open the door to an at-large bid for the loser if the bubble fell apart.

We'll go deeper on all these teams as the week goes on. I think, right now, the Big 12 teams, the Pac-12 teams and BYU are all in pretty good shape.

There is some bubble action today in some of the bigger conferences. Colorado, Baylor, Georgetown and Stanford are playing don't-you-dare-lose games against the dregs of their leagues. Utah has a slightly tougher assignment, Washington, but can't afford a loss. Oklahoma State has a competitive game against Texas Tech; they wouldn't fall off the bubble with a loss or move into the field with a win, but with a 5-10 mark against the RPI top 100, they could use another game against a good team.

Also, Oregon plays Oregon State, but Oregon is in no matter what they do in Las Vegas.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Excerpt: "David Price Stays"

"The Rays still lack the one additional big hairy bat who would push the offense over the top. They prefer to use the DH slot to allow their veterans a day off, and because of that, they tend to not get much production from it. Coupled with their commitment to defense -- manifested most clearly in a three-year deal for James Loney -- it leaves them perhaps one bat short. They're again hoping Matt Joyce can recover his 2010-11 form, again hoping Desmond Jennings (who should be batting seventh against righties) stops getting beaten by good fastballs, again relying more on run prevention than run creation. It's a formula that has worked, but the presence of just one .360/.480 guy in the lineup, batting second or fifth, would change the team's projection considerably."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Excerpt: "The Coming Defensive Revolution"

"'Shifting' just begins to get at what optimal defensive alignments might be at any given point in a game. The important thing is to break from the idea of positions, as NFL and NBA teams have, and think in terms of where the play is most likely to be and how to put your defenders in place to make it. You have seven men and the offense has just one baseball. The more confidence teams have in how a given batter and a given pitcher will interact -- as OMGf/x (as Jay Jaffe dubbed it) collects that information -- the more confident they will be that any batted ball will likely end up in a certain area, and the more confident they will be in overloading that area with men and gloves. Eventually, we won't think in terms of shifts; we'll develop a whole new language for how teams choose to position their seven defenders, whether the football terminology I've borrowed here or something more colorful."