Bubbling Basketball, 2/23/09

Every season about this time I start to take a look at how the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is shaping up, and begin to project the bracket, just like numerous other lost souls, some of whom get paid to do so.  It’s probably a pointless exercise, because A) it’s still too early, and B) it’s not really possible to replicate the selection committee.  Kyle Whelliston at The Mid-Majority made this point in a chat about ten days ago, and he’s absolutely right.  As he says, individual projecting “involves one person trying to simulate the groupthink brain processes of ten people”.

Even if you took a bunch of projections and combined them, it’s not quite the same thing, because it doesn’t account for the interaction between people sitting together in one room and developing a consensus.  It also doesn’t account for the nuts and bolts of the process, which involves a lot of voting on teams, grouping of teams, etc.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to guess at what the brackets might look like on Selection Sunday, though…

Before I get into specifics for this year’s tournament, I want to address the notion that various teams are “locks” for the tournament.  To me, a “lock” is a team that could lose every game the rest of the season and still make the NCAAs.  In other words, there aren’t a lot of locks at this point.  Nothing is more ridiculous than to assert a team is a lock in your brackets, then to take lock status away from that team and put it back in the mix of teams competing for at-large berths, all because it lost a game or two.

ESPN.com did just that this past week with Butler, which had been a “lock” in that site’s version of “Bubble Watch” for about a month.  Once Butler dropped games to Loyola of Chicago and UW-Milwaukee, though, the Bulldogs were “de-locked”.  Butler is now again a “lock” on ESPN.com after beating Davidson on Saturday.  Truthfully, Butler won’t be a lock until (or if) it wins the Horizon League tournament.

On this site, you won’t see any team called a lock unless it really is one.  Sipping on some Paul Masson somewhere in the great beyond, I think Orson Welles approves of this notion.

I’m not going to play the assign-a-team-a-regional game today.  I’m going to simply break down the prospective field by groups of eight:

Group 1:  Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Connecticut, North Carolina, Memphis, Michigan State, Duke, Louisville

I don’t think the committee is going to penalize Oklahoma too much for losing a close game at Texas in which Blake Griffin was a non-factor due to injury.  As of right now, though, Pittsburgh almost has to be the number 1 overall seed.

Group 2:  Villanova, Kansas, Missouri, Clemson, Wake Forest, Purdue, Washington, Marquette

I think Washington will grab a top-16 seed if it wins the Pac-10 regular season title outright.  It would also help the selection committee when assigning teams to regionals.  There is a distinct lack of western options when it comes to highly seeded teams.

Group 3:  Arizona State, Xavier, UCLA, Utah, Florida State, Illinois, West Virginia, LSU

I don’t know what the committee will do with Utah or LSU in terms of seeding.  I know LSU has a gaudy SEC record, but this season that’s not the most impressive of accomplishments.  Utah has done similar work in the Mountain West — and of course, beat LSU earlier this season by 30 points.  I think LSU is a 6 seed-type, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers wind up with a 4.

Group 4:  Texas, Gonzaga, California, Syracuse, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Dayton

Distinguishing between the bubblicious SEC teams is not easy.  Kentucky has swept Tennessee and may deserve to be in this group;  it can move to this level by winning at South Carolina or at Florida (the Wildcats also have a home game against LSU, so it’s all in front of them).  The Vols played a much tougher non-conference schedule than its fellow SEC East contenders and will presumably be rewarded for it.  Florida has 21 wins, but the average RPI of the teams it has beaten is 176.  Of course, South Carolina’s average RPI victory is 179, while Kentucky’s is 169.  LSU?  173.  (Tennessee’s is 125.)

You get the idea.  This is not a banner season for the SEC.  This is highlighted by Gonzaga’s average RPI win being 155, better than any of the SEC contenders save Tennessee, despite the Bulldogs playing in the WCC (and having also played a non-conference game against Texas Southern of the SWAC).  Comparing the SEC numbers with those of standard-bearers for the Big East and ACC is even more instructive.  Pittsburgh has beaten teams with an average RPI of 100; North Carolina’s number is 96.  Honestly, I think the SEC teams could each be a group below where I’ve listed them.

Group 5:  Wisconsin, Ohio State, Butler, Kentucky, Boston College, UNLV, Arizona, Minnesota

I like UNLV’s resume a little more than some people.  Vegas has some tough road losses to overcome (Colorado State, Wyoming, TCU), but also has road wins over Louisville and BYU (the latter completing a sweep).  Minnesota also has a win over Louisville, but needs to win a couple more games down the stretch. 

Group 6 (six teams):  Brigham Young, Penn State, Utah State, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Temple

The remaining 19 bids go to small-conference automatic qualifiers.  One-bid leagues, in my estimation:  MAAC, Southern, Missouri Valley, Colonial, Big South, Big West, MEAC, SWAC, Ivy, Sun Belt, Northeast, America East, Summit, Southland, Atlantic Sun, Patriot, Big West, MAC, Ohio Valley

I don’t think Davidson has enough juice to warrant an at-large bid, no matter how much Stephen Curry’s injury is taken into consideration by the selection committee.  Creighton is making a strong push late in the season, and has a win against Dayton, so the Blue Jays may have a chance at an at-large, if needed.  Siena played a great schedule, but didn’t beat anyone on it.  None of the other sixteen conferences listed has a serious at-large candidate.

Other teams still in the mix include Michigan, Cincinnati, Miami (FL), UAB, Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, St. Mary’s, Southern California, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Providence.  That doesn’t mean other schools couldn’t make last-minute runs into the at-large pool, obviously.

Starting around Group 3, you have a lot of teams that haven’t really separated themselves from the field.  It would be surprising, but not completely shocking, for a team from Group 3 to ultimately miss the tournament.  You could make good arguments against all the teams in Groups 5 and 6.  Utah State is in a bit of a tenuous position, because one loss could be enough to end its at-large chances, and of course to need an at-large bid in the first place it would have to lose at least one game (in its conference tournament).  Maryland jumped into the prospective field with its overtime win over North Carolina, giving it two wins over top-6 RPI teams.  The Terps still have work to do.   Of course, you could say that about a lot of teams.

A few other notes:

  • While I’m not overly impressed with Butler’s profile, the Bulldogs have eleven road wins this season — not eleven road/neutral wins, mind you, but eleven “true” road wins.  That currently leads the nation, and is the kind of thing that can differentiate a team (in other words, it’s easier for the committee to justify its selection/seeding).
  • Right now I have only four Big XII schools in the tournament in my projections.  I suspect when the dust settles that the Big XII will wind up with five teams in the tourney, but some team has to make a move.  The best candidate to do so is probably Oklahoma State, which has the computer numbers but not the wins. 
  • Tennessee and Georgetown rank 1-2 in strength of schedule (as of today).  The Volunteers have a slightly better record, and have performed a little better over the last twelve games (6-6 versus 4-8).  The Hoyas still have an opportunity to make the field, despite all their losses, but they have to start winning games.  Louisville comes to town on Monday night.
  • Speaking of big games for at-large consideration, Temple plays at Dayton on Saturday.   It’s possible that the Owls need to win that game to garner at-large consideration.
  • UAB has its shot to make a statement on Thursday night, at home against Memphis.  Right now the Blazers’ resume has a gift-wrapped road win over Arizona and very little else. 
  • I think the SWAC champ can be pencilled in for the play-in game, which is not exactly news, but that league is taking being the lowest-rated conference to a new level; no team has an RPI better than 206, and seven of the ten teams in the conference have RPIs of 294 or worse.  Against Division I competition, the SWAC is 5-96.
  • St. Mary’s is probably an NCAA-caliber team, but I don’t know what the selection committee will think of the Gaels, given both the injury status of Patty Mills and the fact St. Mary’s hasn’t really beaten any team of consequence other than Utah State.  My guess is that the Gaels need to win the WCC tourney.
  • Memphis has to be a serious candidate for a 1 seed; among other things, the Tigers have the longest current winning streak in the country, at 18 games.  The next longest current winning streak is 10, by none other than…The Citadel (which, alas, is not a candidate for an at-large bid).

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