As a whole, this year’s selections for the 2017 NCAA Tournament were not filled with a ton of surprises. It doesn’t mean that predictability was a good thing.
The revealing of the bracket for this year’s tourney wasn’t going to induce as much frustration as a year ago for a number of reasons. For one, the pool of at-large contenders on the cut line this season was truly poor. For another, it would’ve been hard for the committee to have done a worse job than it did last year.
Mostly, though, it’s because by now many have become conditioned to the committee’s shift in philosophy over the last four years. They’re getting used to the committee overemphasizing top level wins, ignoring losses when convenient, picking and choosing whichever metrics they find to support putting in the teams they want in, and regularly ignoring just about every other criteria (road wins, non-conference scheduling) that once used to be important parts of selection.
That’s not a good thing.
The concerns with this year’s bracket, in a reversal of most years, have far more to do with seeds than selections, as well as the committee’s continued very clear thumbing of its collective noses at non-major football conference teams. Once a process that honestly seemed intent on finding the best at-large teams, the criteria is bearing the looks of being downright rigged towards conferences that can afford to purchase the most non-conference games, and with every year it’s looking like the chance of turning back from such wrong is diminishing.
As far as teams go, Illinois State was easily the worst snub, no matter how much a certain cable network dominated by Syracuse grads and ACC analysts tells you otherwise. The Redbirds went 27-6, including 17-1 in a Missouri Valley Conference that wasn’t at its best but still ranked 12th of 32 leagues in conference RPI. When it was healthy, ISU lost all of two games all season, and if anyone watched them at full strength, they knew it was a team capable of doing damage in the NCAAs this week.
The Redbirds did not have many of those precious top 50 wins the committee so dearly loves now, but it once practiced nuance with teams like this, selecting Iona in 2012 and Middle Tennessee State in 2013 with similar profiles, recognizing those teams’ strength even as they had few chances for top level wins. Now, the committee goes out of its way to ignore them.
While many are patting the committee on the back for not including Syracuse, they shouldn’t be. Not after it selected essentially Syracuse Light, a Kansas State team that has a slightly better than middling 20-13 record.
Syracuse was obviously this year’s token name team held out, but the Wildcats had a few nice wins against top 50 teams, a whole lot of losses to those same teams, and intentionally played an admittedly weak non-conference schedule, in order to build confidence. That’s understandable, and passable for a team if the rest of a resume overwhelming, but this wasn’t. The committee had every reason to punish K-State for its 230th ranked out of conference slate, yet in this case suddenly developed a case of forgetfulness about this criteria and waved it through.
The main reason Kansas State was picked-perhaps the only reason-is because the committee continues to have a major top 50 wins problem. Seriously, this-combined with convenient use of ‘advanced’ metrics when it supports cases for teams with those wins-appears to be almost the sole criteria for at-large selection right now, with absolutely no consideration for losses.
Reviewing some of the latest at-large teams in the field, Oklahoma State is 3-10 against the top 50. So is Wake Forest. Kansas State is not much better at 4-9. Xavier is also 4-9. USC is 2-6.
That these teams are losing 70% of the time or more in such games means zilch to committee members. They have two, three, four top 50 wins; therefore they apparently are worthy.
If you’re thinking teams with 30.8% winning percentages or worse in numerous chances against top 50 teams are ready to go deep in the NCAA Tournament, dream on. The Musketeers and Trojans at least have injury excuses. The other three do not. They’ve proven without a doubt that they cannot win with any consistency against top 50 teams, and thus are no threat to win anything more than get to maybe the second or third round in the NCAAs.
Also, the idea that a team like Illinois State couldn’t go at least 3-10 against top 50 teams when getting six shots at them at home and another at a neutral site (as Kansas State did) is something you might hear from someone in a bar in who watches two college basketball games a year and couldn’t name half the teams in the Big Ten. Selection committee members should be smarter than that.
This committee philosophical shift almost certainly reeks of convenience. A selection committee dominated by members from the self-righteously titled ‘Power 5’ conferences, plus several others who would give their first born to get their schools into one of those leagues, has found a criteria that blatantly favors those leagues and is almost impenetrable for mass quantities of teams from outside those conferences. It’s awfully easy to put lots of teams in the top 50 when a conference plays 75% of its non-conference games at home and consciously avoids the best teams from outside that sphere. Just the same, it’s difficult for leagues to break into that tier when their teams struggle to play half of their non-league games at home.
When certain leagues dominate the top 50 solely because of finances, it’s not giving a clear view of just how strong teams are, especially those outside the privileged few conferences. Often, neither are so-called ‘advanced’ metrics, championed so much in recent years by some yet, if one reviews them, clearly not penalizing teams in those conferences enough for their home-heavy non-league slates. That makes such a reliance on top-50 wins, or those metrics alone, an incredibly thin and depthless way to select teams to the field.
The amount of time we’re told committee members spend on this task, everyone-players, coaches, fans-has the right to expect better than that.
Of course, the committee has every power to do something about such lopsided scheduling, the same way it has for years-by dinging schools for playing bad non-conference schedules and intentionally avoiding the best teams from those leagues outside the Big Football sphere, and also be rewarding teams that do win games on the road. That’s why it was so critical that the committee not select Kansas State or Syracuse. It failed 50% of the test there.
For a more inclusive event and for overall quality, regular season conference champions that teams like K-State so effectively dodged would’ve been better picks, yet the committee continues to actively ignore those teams. Along with Illinois State, Monmouth didn’t get so much as a sniff from the selection committee, despite a 17-game winning streak before falling on the road in the MAAC Tournament. Texas-Arlington also won a tough Sun Belt this year and played nine non-conference road games, or eight more than Syracuse.
On a conference call afterwards, committee chair Mark Hollis said Monmouth wasn’t even put on the ‘under consideration’ board, meaning a team with 27 wins and a league title wasn’t even discussed. That’s absurd. The Hawks did not achieve as much out of conference this year, but once again major conference teams ducked them as much as possible, and certainly weren’t going to play them at their home in New Jersey. At the least, Monmouth deserved a significant look, especially with the utter mediocrity of so many other bubble teams.
Illinois State tried to schedule better. Redbirds head coach Dan Muller said Sunday night he called at least 20 teams in this year’s NCAA tourney trying to get them on his schedule. None would do so. Exactly what more was ISU supposed to do? The committee pretending that this is somehow the fault of a team like Illinois State is disingenuous and lazy.
Aside from Illinois State, the bigger problems for this year’s committee, far more than selections, are in seeding. Middle Tennessee State as a 12 seed is an embarrassment of the worst kind, and the idea that the Blue Raiders wouldn’t have made the field if they hadn’t won the Conference USA Tournament final on Saturday should be chilling for any fan of this event.
An inconvenient fact for the committee is that the Blue Raiders pummeled Vanderbilt by 23 points in December, a result combined with the team’s record that should’ve told the committee all it needed to know about MTSU’s strength. Yet the committee determined that the Commodores and their 15 losses were not just better than 30-4 Middle Tennessee, they were three seed lines better.
UNC Wilmington as a 12 seed, just like the Blue Raiders, also should be a sign to anyone that the supposed committee over-reliance on RPI is a fable. The Seahawks come into the NCAAs 27th in the RPI and 6-3 vs. the RPI top 100, yet a 29-5 record would’ve also been out with a loss in the CAA final.
Wichita State was pegged with a 10 seed, somewhat understandable if looking at their resume, but not if one has seen the team. Yet again, the committee could’ve just, you know, watched the Shockers play a little bit with an open mind. Or use those other metrics that the committee almost certainly used to get in a team like Kansas State that had a poor RPI. It’s beyond clear that committees of the past couple years, though, have been loaded with people who view teams like the Shockers as second class solely based on their name and conference affiliation.
Also, poor Dayton. The Flyers appear to have been offered up as a sacrificial lamb for Wichita State, given a generous seven seed but then stuck against a team that apparently everyone but those in the committee room know is a serious threat for at least the Sweet 16, if not more.
As much as any team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, though, it is the aforementioned Vanderbilt that sums up the state of college basketball hierarchy and NCAA tourney selection right now.
A year ago as head coach at Valparaiso, Bryce Drew coached a team that went 26-6 through the regular season and Horizon League Tournament, defeated NCAA 7 seed Oregon State on the road, blew through its conference in the regular season before being upset in its league tourney-and was left out of the NCAAs.
Drew jumped ship to Vanderbilt after the Crusaders’ season ended all the way in the NIT championship game. In his first year at the SEC school, the Commodores started slowly, but got tougher as the season went on, picked up the pace late and finished with a 19-15 record.
Valparaiso’s NIT finalist team last year was flat-out better than Vanderbilt’s team last year or this year. Yet the Crusaders lost out on a bid to the Commodores last year, then lost their coach, and then watched that coach’s team lose 15 games this year and make the NCAAs. As a 9 seed, and the highest rated of 9 seeds at that.
The scars from last year’s selection miscues still run deep. Monmouth, St. Bonaventure and Valparaiso-all teams that should’ve been selected a year ago-did not get back into so much as at-large consideration this year, even with veteran teams returning.
It’s not easy for teams like them to get to this point, the precipice of an at-large bid, and it’s even harder when such teams’ coaches are regularly plucked as soon as they do have big success. That’s why it’s essential that the committee is doing all it can to fairly evaluate these teams. This year showed, though, that little has changed, and it still has a long, long way to go to get back to that point. If it ever does again.
More thoughts on the field
- Once again, this year’s tourney has just nine conferences represented by more than one team. A bad trend continues, as since 1997, an average of just 10.8 conferences per year are receiving multiple bids, a severe drop from an average of 13.3 from 1985-96, the first 12 years of the 64+ team era. The number is even lower since the field was increased to 68 teams-an average of just 10.3.
- Clearly the committee was not so impressed with the Big Ten this year. It’s highest-seeded team was Purdue at a 4, and Maryland was just a 6, Michigan played its way to a 7 but no further, and Wisconsin was somewhat surprising as low as an 8. On the other hand, Minnesota was credited well for its season, Northwestern’s 8 seed was plenty generous, and Michigan State was still clearly in the field.
- Providence and USC are opening the tourney against each other for the second straight year. The two met in an 8/9 game a year ago.
- It seemed pretty clear CBS was wary of a bracket leak again, for the network breezed through the brackets quickly. It should’ve rebuilt some goodwill with viewers, and also allowed plenty of time for analysis after.
- ESPN has typically shown some excellent college basketball-related 30 for 30 documentaries after its bracket discussions. This year, they substituted that for an NBA game. If anyone wonders where the network’s real loyalties lie as far as college basketball goes, it let us know loud and clear Sunday night.
- Seeded too high: Almost the entire SEC
The Big Football centrism of this committee is shown in its seeming attempts to make up for years of the SEC getting few bids by overrating almost every one of its entries this year. South Carolina may be the most overseeded team in the field. The Gamecocks have looked nothing like a 7 seed down the stretch, and their final resume reflects it and illustrates a team that has slid after a great start. Florida is 6-8 vs. the top 50; that’s not the resume of a 4 seed. Arkansas earned its way safely in the field, but an 8 seed is at least a line high. Vanderbilt was fine in the field, but not as a 9 seed and certainly not seeded ahead of Middle Tennessee State.
- Seeded too low: Middle Tennessee State, SMU, UNC Wilmington, Wichita State. The Blue Raiders’ seed is a joke, pure and simple. SMU has had a splendid year but, again, was knocked because it doesn’t have a ton of top 50 wins. The Mustangs should’ve been a 5 seed at worst. UNCW should’ve been at least an 11 seed. Wichita State-and the MVC as a whole-have proven enough in the past that they deserve the benefit of the doubt, regardless of metrics or schedule strengths.
- The pod system. West top seed Gonzaga would travel 720 miles on the ground for its first round game in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, Midwest 3 seed Oregon gets to play more than 250 miles closer in the first round in Sacramento. We also get the joy of East Regional games in Tulsa, South Regional games in Milwaukee and West Regional games in Orlando. Please, NCAA, end this misery and get rid of the nonsense and confusion this system creates.
- What the committee got right:
USC: We’re fine with the Trojans being in on the understanding that Bennie Boatwright’s injury may have affected their resume.
Not overreacting to the ACC: The conference was very, very good this year, but the committee’s treatment of it was largely appropriate and did not go over the top.
Gonzaga as a 1 seed: This shouldn’t even have been up for debate, but with the lack of respect for teams of the Bulldogs’ ilk you can be sure it was.
Dayton: The Flyers were deserving of a 7 seed, though they were not deserving of being matched with underseeded Wichita State in their opener.
Best first round matchups
- Middle Tennessee State-Minnesota: This game is literally a toss-up, another sign of just how badly the committee screwed up the Blue Raiders’ seeding, and also punished the Golden Gophers as a result of it. MTSU has tournament experience and is very, very good.
- Virginia-UNC Wilmington: A fantastic clash of styles, the Cavaliers’ halfcourt game against the Seahawks’ pressure and fast pace. UNCW doesn’t have much size to bang inside, but if it is hitting jump shots, does UVA have enough offense to keep up?
- Saint Mary’s-VCU: Another major clash of styles. Let’s see how the Gaels handle the Rams’ constant pressure, and how smallish VCU handles Jock Landale.
- Dayton-Wichita State: It’s a crime that these two have to play each other this early, but what a matchup it is. Two Sweet 16-caliber teams if the Flyers are on.
- Iowa State-Nevada: The Wolf Pack have the shooters to match the Cyclones, and Nevada’s Cameron Oliver has a chance to dominate the paint.
- Notre Dame-Princeton: Two very similar teams, and the Tigers have the shooters to match the Irish. We also know by now not to overlook Ivy teams in March.
- Wisconsin-Virginia Tech: The Badgers are experienced in March, while the Hokies back down against no one.
- Creighton-Rhode Island: The Bluejays may have too much firepower, but the Rams come in hot and will try to out-physical Creighton.
- Baylor-New Mexico State: The Bears are ripe for picking in this tourney, maybe as early as the first round.
- Florida-East Tennessee State: Another definite upset possibility, as the Gators have been sliding down the stretch and the Buccaneers have the shooting and inside game to push.