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Selection Sunday morning 2017: One projection of the NCAA Tournament field

March 12, 2017 Columns No Comments

It’s OK if you used the words earlier this year. And it’s still perfectly fine-and accurate-if you use them now.

Soft bubble.

One of the hot takes as this season went was that the teams on the fence for the NCAA Tournament this year really weren’t any worse than any other year. It was an understandable thought in that the ‘soft’ term gets trotted out every year, often without validity, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ever apply. And it absolutely is applicable this year.

Narrowing down the field for the final spots in this year’s NCAA Tournament is almost an exercise in futility. There’s no other way to say it: there are going to be some lightly qualified teams playing in this year’s event.

The selection committee may not see it as such, but that’s exactly what they will be. The number of teams with records of 4-9 or 3-10 against the RPI top 50 that will likely not just be in the field, but fairly safely, is not a good thing for this hallowed event.

As Big Football conferences have hoarded more and more non-conference home games and, accordingly, an ever larger number of spots in the top 50 in power ratings, bubble teams from those leagues are getting more and more chances against top 50 teams. The problem is, those bubble teams are losing the vast majority of those games.

One lesson that should’ve been learned last year: do not dismiss a team’s chances too early, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. Tulsa was a perfect example. The Golden Hurricane had a profile that was worthy of consideration. Whether that consideration warranted a bid is something one could debate all day, but it was closer than most felt. The shock about Tulsa making the field last year had far more to do with its name than a profile being utterly deficient.

Another lesson that has been obvious in recent years: the committee just doesn’t care about losses right now. It has been beyond obsessed with total top 25 and top 50 wins, and will gladly ignore teams’ losses in such games as long as they won a few of them.

With these two bits of knowledge, from this view we’re seeing a whole lot more open spots in the field entering Selection Sunday than most bracketologists might. By our count, there are only 55 spots completely locked in entering today. Another 5-6 spots (depending on the result of the Atlantic 10 final between Rhode Island and VCU) are almost as good as locks.

Of the final 7-8 teams we project in, frankly every single one of them could be out, and the tourney would not be poorer for it. The only problem is there aren’t many candidates to overtake them. A prime example is Vanderbilt, a team with an unsightly 15 losses and mediocrity (11-13 record) against top 100 teams, yet it’s hard to find enough candidates to knock the Commodores out.

We don’t like a lot of these teams that we’re projecting to make it, but again, the options are slim. And frankly, committees’ decisions the past three years indicate there isn’t a lot of deep thinking going on when it comes to teams who by conference don’t get as many chances at top competition. We’re skeptical of that changing any time soon.

Also: don’t be stunned if teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech or Iowa in the NCAA field. Even an Illinois-which just fired its coach yesterday-has a fighters’ chance.

As far as a team like Illinois State? It’s likely one of two ways. Either the committee finally realizes it got it right several years back when it was rewarding teams like Iona and Middle Tennessee State with at-large bids even when they didn’t have many chances at top teams. Or the Redbirds will get the Murray State treatment from a few years ago and will have never even been considered seriously this week.

As we have mentioned in the past, we don’t do daily or weekly bracket projections here-there are plenty of others who have covered that for months and do a terrific job of it (in addition to Joe Lunardi’s always good work, a few of the many others we enjoy are herehere and here). We do track the results and data, though, and this is our final guess at the field (with some commentary) on this Sunday morning of Selection Sunday.

The more we’ve done this exercise the past three years, the more we like it. While following brackets all season long is undoubtedly fun and a great way to keep fans engaged, we like this method for being able to reduce bias based on previous performance and for the most part keep a clear head about teams’ ratings and records until just a few days before Selection Sunday.

Last year, we predicted 66 of 68 teams in the field, missing with Monmouth and South Carolina out and Michigan and Tulsa in.

**Numbers used are from CBSSports.com RPI data, the formula still used for the selection comittee’s nitty gritty sheets.
The obvious (55 teams total)
Automatics (26 after Saturday, will be 32 total): Arizona (Pac-12), Bucknell (Patriot), Duke (ACC), East Tennessee State (Southern), Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Gonzaga (WCC), Iona (MAAC), Iowa State (Big 12), Jacksonville State (OVC), Kent State (MAC), Middle Tennessee State (C-USA), Mount St. Mary’s (NEC), Nevada (MWC), New Mexico State (WAC), New Orleans (Southland), North Carolina Central (MEAC), North Dakota (Big Sky) Northern Kentucky (Horizon), South Dakota State (Summit), Texas Southern (SWAC), UC Davis (Big West), UNC Wilmington (CAA), Vermont (America East), Villanova (Big East), Wichita State (MVC), Winthrop (Big South)

At-large locks (23):

AAC: Cincinnati/SMU loser
ACC:
 Florida State, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Big East: Butler, Creighton
Big Ten: Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan/Wisconsin loser
Big 12: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
Pac-12: Oregon, UCLA
SEC: Florida, Arkansas/Kentucky loser
Three of the remaining six automatic bids are certain to come out of this pot of at-large locks (AAC, Big Ten, SEC). The Ivy League will be a one-bid league, the Sun Belt very likely too, though Texas-Arlington (eliminated Saturday) has a slim shot at an at-large spot. The Atlantic 10 has a team (Rhode Island) that could lose and still will be a possibility for an at-large bid.

Near-locks. Suppose there’s some chance could be left out, but highly unlikely (5-6 teams):
Dayton: Knowing how badly his club got ripped in seeding two years ago when it should’ve been safely in the field but was inexplicably placed in a play-in game, Archie Miller seemed a bit nervous after the Flyers’ Atlantic 10 quarterfinal loss to Davidson. He shouldn’t have to be, not with a league champion that’s 4-3 against the top 50 and 12-5 vs. the top 100. Those numbers should be a stone cold lock. The committee seems to regularly underrate the A-10, though, and Dayton didn’t make a good final impression, so who knows.
Marquette: With their fits and starts all year, the Golden Eagles feel like a team that should be squarely on the bubble, yet one looks at their resume and it boasts a whopping seven top 50 wins, four of those at road/neutral sites, and including sweeps of Creighton and Xavier. Hard to argue with that, even as seven of the rest of MU’s wins came against teams ranked 218 or worse.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels should be safely in, but the committee could choose to be a pill about their possessing just two top 50 wins. A win at Dayton should count for a lot, though, and there is nothing remotely close to a bad (sub-100) loss.
Seton Hall: The Pirates are a not-that-hot 4-7 vs. the top 50 but 9-9 vs. the top 100, and three of those losses are to Villanova. Plus, their last impression was pushing the Wildcats to the brink in the Big East Tournament semis. Almost certainly fine.
South Carolina: Yet another of those criteria tweaks in recent years that favors major conference teams, the elimination of the last 10 games criteria gives the Gamecocks an easy cover for their poor play down the stretch. South Carolina enters having lost six of its last nine, and didn’t look good in many of those six Ls. This is team that looks nothing like a threat to advance far in the Big Dance, but did so much good work early though (wins over Florida, Michigan, Monmouth and Syracuse plus streaking America East champion Vermont) that it probably still carries the Gamecocks to a bid.
VCU (if lose in Atlantic 10 final): The Rams are only 3-3 vs. the top 50, and losses to Georgia Tech and Illinois out of conference do not reflect well on them or the Atlantic 10. VCU is 6-2 vs. teams 51-100, though, and was clearly the class of the A-10 along with Dayton. They’ve got a chance to leave no doubt today, though.

On the fence. In contention for the final 7-8 spots:
Alabama, California, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Houston, Illinois, Illinois State, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas State, Monmouth, Oklahoma State, Providence, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Syracuse, Texas-Arlington, TCU, USC, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Xavier

Bubble-in (7 teams). The predictions here
Oklahoma State:
If actually investigating the Cowboys’ profile, it’s not nearly as good as one might think. Frankly, a 3-10 mark vs. the top 50 is awful, and 6-11 vs. the top 100 isn’t much better. OSU has two saving graces: 1) two of those three top 50 wins are on the road, and 2) the margin of victory metrics love them and the Big 12 in general. They’ll get in, but it’s more debatable than most think.
Providence: Essentially Syracuse without the brand name. The Friars (6-8 vs. the top 50) do have a better road record and an actual quality road win (at Creighton), which is offset by less of the Cuse’s flashy wins. A win over possible bubble team Rhode Island also could help in a pinch, but it’s not inconceivable at all that PC could miss.
Syracuse: An ultimate bubble team. Does 6-8 vs. the top 50 outweigh four sub-100 losses and a complete lack of achievement on the road and terrible non-conference schedule? It shouldn’t.
USC: The numbers don’t look good, but we’re suspecting the Trojans will get in, and probably with some comfort. That 2-6 record vs. the top 50 isn’t good (though wins over UCLA and SMU are), but 8-5 in road/neutral games will help the Trojans, as will their Pac-12 affiliation and the fact that it’s hard to imagine the committee only taking three from that conference. And the truth is, the late four-game losing streak aside, Southern Cal has looked like an NCAA-caliber team.
Vanderbilt: Like Syracuse, Vandy is 6-8 vs. the top 50. Unlike Syracuse, the Commodores’ non-conference strength of schedule ranks 1st, not 198th. There are some catches to that-look at Vandy’s OOC opponents and then be honest, if an Atlantic 10 or Mountain West team played that schedule, they’d almost certainly be ripped for ‘gaming the RPI.’ We do know Bryce Drew has made this team tougher than we ever could’ve expected early in the year.
Wake Forest: We’re not sure where the idea came from that the Demon Deacons are a near-lock. We suspect it’s based solely on their good week at the end of February with wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech, because otherwise their 3-10 mark vs. the top 50 is awful, and like Vanderbilt, many of the games puffing up their non-conference strength of schedule are the exact types that, if not scheduled by an ACC team, would be leading to endless charges of them ‘gaming’ the power ratings. This is also another team that shows how ‘advanced’ metrics place way too much importance on playing close, not enough on winning.
Xavier: We thought the Musketeers were safe, but a 4-9 record vs. the top 50 is not pretty, and neither is 7-13 vs. the top 100. Still, with the NCAA abolishing the Last 10 criteria, X cannot be punished for its late six-game losing streak. The 14th-best strength of schedule should help, too. Oh, and the Musketeers also won a head-to-head with the team directly above them here.

On standby:
Iowa (if VCU wins Atlantic 10 final; out if Rhode Island wins): Or maybe Clemson, or Georgia Tech. The Hawkeyes had a nice finish to the season but a 7-11 mark vs. the top 100 should say NIT. Still, again-if the committee only conveniently picks teams based on total top 50 wins, regardless of chances, well, Iowa has five of them in 12 chances. One would also think the final loss in the Big Ten Tournament to Indiana was not a good impression, but Tulsa proved last year the committee can quickly overlook those things, too. Whether it’s the Hawkeyes, Tigers or Yellow Jackets, we just have a feeling a team or two like this will slip in.

Bubble-out:
Alabama: If a team like Georgia allegedly is on the fringe (as seems to have been the discussion for weeks), the plucky Crimson Tide have to be too. Just 3-6 vs. the top 50 and 5-11 vs. the top 100, though, equals an NIT club.
California: The Golden Bears are 2-8 vs. the top 50. We suspect the committee is going to overrate the Pac-12 again to an extent, much like it did last year, but even with that considered Cal should be an easy call for the NIT.
Clemson: The Tigers are 4-12 vs. the top 50…but Michigan was 4-11 a year ago. The committee will almost certainly again value top 50 wins above everything else while also continuing to ignore losses. If the committee is utterly enthralled by the ACC’s strength, we won’t be shocked if Clemson and/or Georgia Tech show up on the bracket even with comparatively hideous overall records. This team did sweep Wake Forest and won at South Carolina, so it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to rationalize.
Georgia: See California. The Bulldogs are a very nice NIT team and J.J. Frazier is fun to watch. They’re just not an NCAA Tournament team, and a 1-9 record vs. the top 50 proves it.
Georgia Tech: Again, if the committee continues its ridiculous-and convenient for Big Football conferences-obsession with top 50 wins and only top 50 wins, then the Yellow Jackets (4-7 vs. the top 50, including 4-4 vs. the top 25) could sneak in. Otherwise, like Clemson, there’s no way this is an NCAA tourney profile.
Houston: The Cougars have had a nice year and continue to progress under Kelvin Sampson, but were 2-7 in games against the six highest-rated teams on their schedule. NIT.
Illinois: It’s pretty silly that the school made the decision to fire John Groce already, considering the Fighting Illini has enough of the quality wins recent committees have held so dear to at least be in the discussion for an NCAA bid. They’re 4-9 vs. the top 50, a respectable 10-11 vs. the top 100 (comparable to Vanderbilt’s 11-13, for example) and played just five sub-200 games.
Illinois State: The Redbirds’ profile numbers (1-2 vs. top 50, 2-4 vs. top 100, two sub-100 losses) aren’t going to say NCAA team. Common sense that notes a co-title in what is still the 12th-best league, only two losses all season at full strength, dominance when healthy and, yes, the eye test, ought to make it an easy decision to put the Redbirds in.
Indiana: Again, this should be an easy call-the Hoosiers frankly probably should be on the bubble to make the NIT. A 3-12 mark vs. the top 50 is awful, but the committee has shown the past few years it will gladly ignore the losses for teams like this, so you can’t dismiss IU’s chances completely.
Kansas State: The Wildcats look firmly like an NCAA team if you catch them at the right time. The profile, unfortunately, says otherwise. A 4-9 mark vs. the top 50 is simply not good, 6-11 vs. the top 100 isn’t either, and the non-conference schedule was worse. K-State could be punished for its intentionally weak non-league slate, and frankly it should be.
Monmouth:
The Hawks’ profile is not nearly as good as a year ago, and if the committee wasn’t going to recognize their work last year, it’s all but unthinkable they would this year. One supposes there could be some guilt over how badly this team was ripped off last year, but the chances of that are as good as the chances of Syracuse going on the road to play the Hawks in West Long Branch.
Rhode Island (if it loses in A-10 final): The committee has seemed to chafe at this league holding its tourney on Selection Sunday for years. Our guess is the Rams aren’t in unless they beat VCU.
Texas-Arlington: Like Illinois State, the Mavericks are a team that has been affected by injuries but at their best deserve more consideration than they’ll probably get. A 1-2 record vs. the top 50 and 1-3 against the top 100 aren’t going to wow anyone, but two early-season losses to Arkansas and Minnesota came when star Kevin Hervey was still getting healthy. And then the Sun Belt tourney final loss came without No. 2 scorer Jalen Jones. The win at Saint Mary’s showed what this team is capable of, but four sub-100 losses hurt.
TCU: Like former SWC rival Houston, the Horned Frogs have had a very credible season in Jamie Dixon’s first year back at his alma mater. The Big 12 tourney win over Kansas plus wins over Iowa State and Illinois State mean they deserve a glance, but 3-11 vs. the top 50 comes up short.

Bubble-in, but should be out:
Iowa (if URI loses):
Good finish for a young team, but while we skeptically can see the committee putting them in, this is an NIT profile. Next year.
Oklahoma State:
We’re huge fans of Brad Underwood’s offensive and defensive systems and enjoy watching OSU play. But the facts are this team’s resume vs. the top 100 just isn’t that great.
Syracuse: The selection committee must punish teams like the Orange who prove virtually nothing on the road and also continue to thumb their noses at past committee’s requests of teams to challenge themselves out of conference. It simply must.
Wake Forest: This is a good team, and it will be fun when the Demon Deacons get back to the tourney. But a 3-10 mark vs. the top 50=a team with no chance to make a deep run.

Bubble-out, but should be in:
Illinois State: The Redbirds are a different team now than the one that had a few close losses on the road early in the season. When healthy as it is now, ISU has size, depth, talent and experience, and is very capable of a Sweet 16 run. Which, frankly, is not something one can say assuredly about some other bubble teams.
Monmouth: The committee owes the Hawks one. While that’s not a real part of the criteria, Monmouth did schedule tough out of conference-again-and though 0-2 vs. the top 50, it is 3-1 vs. teams 51-100. We will always lean towards conference regular season champions for the final at-large slots over middling majors, and make no apologies for it.
Rhode Island (if loses today): URI played a tough non-conference schedule, has battled injuries much of the season but is still playing its best down the stretch. The committee may scoff at 2-3 vs. the top 50 and 8-7 against the top 100, but regardless of the A-10 final result, the Rams deserve to be in for the first time in 17 years.
Texas-Arlington: Champions of a rugged Sun Belt this year, the Mavericks have a take-a-game-over star in Hervey and have proven they will not back down against name competition.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
E-mail: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

 

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