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Selection Sunday morning 2018: One projection of the NCAA tourney field

March 11, 2018 Columns No Comments

My, how things change in a couple days.

As recently as probably Thursday, maybe even Friday morning, the prevailing banter from bracket projectors on social media and elsewhere was about how unpredictable and wide open the final selections for this year’s NCAA Tournament were.

Yet as we sit on the morning of Selection Sunday 2018, the number of open spots in the field is actually quite small. We estimate only 6-7 spots available at absolute most, depending on the result of the Atlantic 10 final today where Davidson could send Rhode Island into the at-large pool and therefore steal one of those bids away.

Even of those openings, 4-5 of them are still filled by teams that most would be quite surprised to see left out of the tournament. The most controversial teams in our final bracket might be Arizona State or Oklahoma State, though we’d suggest there should be almost as much questioning of Oklahoma or Texas, too.

But who to fill those spots? That’s a major problem.

We mentioned last year that, while the term ‘soft bubble’ is used every year, many times inaccurately, there are years when it certainly does apply. This is without a doubt another of those years.

The NCAA’s new quadrant groupings haven’t done a thing to make the resumes of teams right on the cut line look better. If anything, they look worse than ever. It may have given teams more Quadrant 1 wins, but it also has given them plenty more losses, something that apparently we care about more than just about anyone else (and will never understand why that’s the case).

All we know is when teams like Baylor and Louisville with the profiles they have this year are considered legitimate at-large candidates, it is an ugly year.

We feel strongly that Middle Tennessee State should be in the field, ahead of teams like Oklahoma State who win a couple games against top squads, lose far more of them, and stay at home in the non-conference season playing nobody, completely hiding behind their conference and its massive scheduling advantages that aren’t punished nearly enough by any ratings formula.

MTSU will probably be this year’s Illinois State, in favor of another team with a pitiful road record and a couple major wins in a ton of opportunities. That the Blue Raiders also were flat-out ripped off in their seed last year makes this doubly frustrating.

The Blue Raiders clearly made every effort to put together a tough schedule. They won 12 road games. They played down to the wire against Auburn, Miami and USC. They were the best team in a top-15 conference. Anyone who has seen this program in recent years knows it can compete with anyone. If they’re not in the field, they’re being penalized far more for lack of opportunity than lack of performance in the opportunities they had.

After them, though? There’s no one that we can make a great argument for to be in the field.

Once again, we don’t do daily or weekly (or even monthly) bracket projections here. There are plenty of others who do, many doing an outstanding job of it. We’re not asleep during the season, though, constantly following the sport from a national angle and tracking results and data regularly.

This is our final guess at the field (with some commentary) on this Sunday morning of Selection Sunday. While this isn’t the same bracketology as most do, we enjoy doing it. Following brackets all year is fun and certainly keeps fans engaged. But this method allows us to keep a clearer head about ratings, records and information (a.k.a. we have no preconceived notions from a team’s profile earlier in the season, and we also don’t waste time fuming about power ratings in the middle of January). And we’re also more than happy to opine about not just who the committee will vote in, but who should and shouldn’t make it.

Last year in this column we picked 67 of the 68 teams in the field, the lone miss being we had Syracuse in and Kansas State out.

The obvious (49 or 50 teams total)
Automatics (27 after Saturday, will be 32 total): Arizona (Pac-12), Bucknell (Patriot), Buffalo (MAC), Cal State Fullerton (Big West), College of Charleston (CAA), Gonzaga (WCC), Iona (MAAC), Kansas (Big 12), Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun), LIU (NEC), Loyola Chicago (MVC), Marshall (C-USA), Maryland-Baltimore County (America East), Michigan (Big Ten), Montana (Big Sky), Murray State (OVC), New Mexico State (WAC), North Carolina Central (MEAC), UNC Greensboro (Southern), Radford (Big South), San Diego State (MWC), South Dakota State (Summit), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Texas Southern (SWAC), Villanova (Big East), Virginia (ACC), Wright State (Horizon)

At-large locks (17 or 18):

AAC: Cincinnati/Houston loser, Wichita State
ACC:
 Clemson, Duke, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina
Atlantic 10: Rhode Island (if loses Atlantic 10 final)
Big East: Xavier
Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue
Big 12: Texas Tech, West Virginia
SEC: Auburn, Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M, Kentucky/Tennessee loser
Two of the remaining five automatic bids are certain to come out of this pot of at-large locks (AAC, SEC). The Atlantic 10 also has a team (Rhode Island) that could lose and is still a lock for an at-large bid. The Ivy League and Sun Belt are both one-bid leagues who play their championship games today.

Near-locks. Suppose there’s some chance could be left out, but highly unlikely (12 teams):
Alabama: The Crimson Tide likely did enough with their SEC tourney run. 7-7 against Quadrant 1 and 11-12 vs. quads 1 & 2. That loss total and overall record (just 19-15) bother us just like it bothered us with Vanderbilt last year. And three Quadrant 3 losses negate some of those big wins. Like Vandy last year, though, give Bama credit for smart non-conference scheduling. Playing teams like Central Florida, Lipscomb, Louisiana Tech, Rhode Island, Texas-Arlington and even Mercer pays off far more than the fodder a team like Oklahoma State chose to play. The Tide was sufficiently challenged in those games (all but one was decided by four points or less) and deserves the SOS boost it got for it.
Arkansas: The Hogs have had their fits and starts all year, but a 6-9 Quadrant 1 mark and 9-10 vs. the top two quadrants is enough to offset a not-good-at-all 3-7 road record.
Florida State: The terribly inconsistent Seminoles have more than their share of moments that make one scratch their head, but their top-flight wins (North Carolina, Clemson, Miami, Florida, plus 6-7 vs. Quadrant 1) are simply too much to ignore, especially with so many bad profiles this year.
Kansas State: The Wildcats ought to be in some trouble with a poor 4-9 mark against Quadrant 1 and a hideous No. 337 non-conference strength of schedule that is daring the committee to keep them out. Ultimately, though, we’d be stunned if the committee bypassed a team that is 9-10 against the top two quadrants and finished fourth in the double round-robin Big 12.
Nevada: OK, the Wolf Pack looked putrid in their Mountain West semifinal loss to San Diego State, and there are ‘only’ two Quadrant 1 wins (even though they came in just four chances) plus two Quadrant 3 losses. They’re still 10-5 vs. Quadrants 1 & 2 and have a 12-3 road record. If the committee ignores that, we may as well just draw teams out of a hat.
North Carolina State: For those who think the committee just ticks down the RPI list to pick teams (they don’t, and never have), the Wolfpack’s No. 64 ranking there might be damaging. State will be fine with a 5-7 Quad 1 mark and major league marquee wins over the likes of Arizona, Duke and North Carolina, the last one on the road.
Providence: The Friars’ Big East tourney run almost certainly wraps up a bid-it’s hard to imagine the committee leaving a team out after it took Villanova to OT, and this after beating the Wildcats already once this year. Really, everything about PC’s profile is sufficient with the notable exception of three very bad losses, two of the Quadrant 4 variety.
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies have made a whale of a run since a midseason skid of four losses in five games, with 13 straight wins before an Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to eventual champion Davidson, when most assumed another loss or two would do them in. Bona is a superb 9-4 vs. Quadrants 1 & 2, including 3-2 vs. Q1. Even two Quad 3 and a Quad 4 loss (in the season opener when Jaylen Adams was out) aren’t nearly enough to offset the good in the resume, which also includes a 9-4 road record.
Seton Hall: Maybe some years, the Pirates might be in trouble with their unimpressive 4-8 mark vs. Quadrant 1 and two bad Quadrant 3 losses. This year, though, it’s more than good enough, especially with a win over Texas Tech.
TCU: The Horned Frogs are 4-8 against Quadrant 1, which we will regularly remind people is not something to brag about. Nor is a 3-7 road record. But the lack of a hint of a bad loss will have Jamie Dixon’s team more than safe, and non-conference wins over two teams in this group (Nevada and St. Bonaventure) help significantly, too. Some years a resume like this might mean a play-in game. This year it’s probably good for an 8/9 game. Maybe even better.
USC: We’ve read the relative nitpicking about the Trojans not having a win over a surefire at-large team. That’s fair. They do have wins over good Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State teams, though, still finished second in the Pac-12 (it will be noticed, regardless of whether on team sheets or not), and have respectable overall numbers (4-6 vs. Quadrant 1, 5-4 vs. Q2). Who is one going to put in instead? Louisville? No way.
Virginia Tech: See N.C. State. The Hokies did play a terrible non-conference schedule (331st-best, or 20th-worst in the country), but everything else-chiefly wins over Virginia, Duke and North Carolina-says they’ll be fine.

That puts us at 61 or 62 teams in the field, depending on the Atlantic 10 final result.

 

On the fence. In contention for the final 6-7 spots. We cast a wide net here, to cover anyone who may have a remote chance or at least should be up for brief discussion. Take a breath:
Arizona State, Baylor, Boise State, Butler, Creighton, Louisiana-Lafayette, LSU, Louisville, Marquette, Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, New Mexico State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Penn State, Saint Mary’s, Syracuse, Texas, UCLA, USC, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Western Kentucky

Bubble-in (6 teams). The predictions here
Butler:
The Bulldogs will probably get in, but let’s be clear: there are plenty of reasons to leave them out. They’re just 4-10 against Quadrant 1, 8-12 against the top two quadrants, 3-7 on the road and even have a Quadrant 4 loss. A win over Villanova is gold, though, as is one over Ohio State. To break down their profile another way, too: Butler is 8-10 against the top 60.
Creighton: The Bluejays may not be as safe as most think, even with their athletic director chairing the selection committee. A 2-9 mark against Quadrant 1 is nothing less than awful. 7-11 vs. the top two quadrants combined starts to make up for that, as does a home win over Villanova and the lack of any bad losses. If the Jays hadn’t beaten the Wildcats, though, this easily could’ve been an NIT team.
Oklahoma: Like a lot of Big 12 teams, the Sooners’ profile essentially rests on quantity of Quadrant 1 wins. 6-9 vs. Q1 is all right, not overwhelmingly great. 9-12 vs. quads 1 & 2 is very middling (though still better than their Red River rival two spots below this), and a 2-9 road record is terrible. An 18-13 record should demand more than mediocrity. More importantly, OU has looked nothing-zero-like an NCAA Tournament team for two months now.
Oklahoma State: We’re guessing the Cowboys slide in despite their awful RPI. They shouldn’t. For as many nice wins as OSU has-and they are nice-it’s also a team that is still just 5-12 against Quadrant 1 & 8-14 against quads 1 & 2. In 17 quad 1 games and 22 quad 2 games-a plenty large sample size-the Cowboys lose 71% and 64%, respectively. Oklahoma State chose to play an awful, home-dominated non-conference schedule and hide behind its conference affiliation, and deserves to pay for it.
Texas: The Longhorns seemed to keep doing just enough to stay in the field this year. The six Quadrant 1 wins are more the product of opportunity based on scheduling advantages than excellence; the record of 6-11 is not that impressive, and neither is the 8-14 mark vs. quads 1 & 2. There’s also a 4-7 road record. This year, it’s probably enough to get by.
UCLA: The Bruins are just 3-7 against Quadrant 1, 8-10 against quads 1 & 2. We’re guessing, though, that brand name wins over Arizona and Kentucky plus a sweep of L.A. rival USC will offset their spats of real mediocrity at times.

On standby:
Arizona State (if Rhode Island wins Atlantic 10 final; out if Davidson wins): If it’s us, the Sun Devils aren’t getting in. It’s plain as day this was not the same team the last two months as it was in November. Aside from wins over Kansas and Xavier eons ago, the resume really isn’t that impressive, either, 8-9 against Quadrants 1 & 2 being OK, not special. Like Oklahoma, ASU hasn’t been an NCAA tourney team for two months. But the committee has seemed hell-bent on proving that it values every single game of the season the same-no matter how impractical that can be-so we’re guessing they put the Sun Devils in anyway.

Bubble-out:
Baylor: The Bears made a nice run at it late, but their overall D-I record is 17-14. Even in these times when record seems to be almost an afterthought for the committee, that’s bad. Even more importantly, Baylor is 4-12 mark against Quadrant 1 and 2-9 on the road, which tells us quite clearly this is a team that is no threat to advance far in the NCAAs.
Boise State: The Broncos have a little bit better case than is being acknowledged. A blowout of Loyola Chicago and victory at Oregon are a reasonable start, and 2-3 vs. Quadrant 1 and 7-5 vs. quads 1 & 2 combined isn’t bad, especially compared to some teams being bandied as real contenders (ahem, Louisville, Syracuse). Most likely the three Quadrant 3 losses will do in Boise, as well as the fact that most of the Quadrant 2 wins on the road aren’t flashy.
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajuns had a whale of a season and are absolutely good enough to win a game in the NCAAs. Unfortunately, they only played two games against top 100 teams, one of them a blowout at Clemson, the other a loss to Wyoming on a neutral court. ULL also lost its season opener at Mississippi, which finished last in the SEC. We’d gladly argue for the Cajuns’ regular season title deserving to be respected heavily by the committee, but the Sun Belt’s weakness (No. 21 in conference RPI) hurts there, too.
LSU: The Tigers do own a 6-5 mark vs. Quadrant 1. If that’s all the committee looks at, they just might sneak in. However, 3-7 vs. Quadrant 2 plus a 3-7 road mark and a 17-14 record overall are clear marks of an NIT club, at best.
Louisville: They’re 3-10 against Quadrant 1, 5-13 over quads 1 & 2 combined, 0-11 against teams in the RPI top 50, and also possess another poor road record (4-7). As much as Nebraska is (rightly) being considered a team that should be certainly out, the exact same should be said the Cardinals too. Road wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina State are nice, but not close to making up for the rest.
Marquette:
The ultimate bubble team. The Golden Eagles are 3-8 vs. Quadrant 1 (not good), 5-3 vs. Quadrant 2 (better) and have two Quadrant 3 losses in six games (ugh). They did sweep Creighton and Seton Hall, though, won at Providence and are 5-5 on the road…it wouldn’t surprise us at all if this team that relies essentially on three players and only three players for scoring sneaks in.
Middle Tennessee State: Unquestionably, the Blue Raiders’ Conference USA tourney loss to Southern Mississippi hurt, but one still has to look pretty hard to find reasons to keep them out compared to the many other lousy resumes around them. MTSU is 2-3 against Quadrant 1 and 5-4 against quads 1 & 2 combined-the latter despite just one of those nine games being at home. It also has a remarkable 12-1 road record and-unlike a Saint Mary’s-has worked very hard to build as good of a non-conference schedule as possible. The three combined Quadrant 3/4 losses don’t help, but shouldn’t erase all the good work this team has done.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have made a heck of a run at it, but 2-8 vs. Quadrant 1 and a 2-9 road record are likely too much to overcome. The non-conference schedule was awful, too.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have had a very nice season, and that can’t be forgotten. A 3-9 mark against Quadrants 1 & 2 plus a 4-7 road record are just nowhere close to NCAA tourney credentials, no matter how many games a team wins or what conference they’re in.
Notre Dame: ESPN has made every attempt to mandate the Fighting Irish’s presence, but free publicity campaign aside, their season just has not been good enough. ND has a win over Wichita State and then…a win over Syracuse? Florida State? Virginia Tech? Those are nice, but don’t offset a bad 2-9 Quadrant 1 record or three Quadrant 3 losses. NIT.
Oregon: The Ducks had a good year, not a great one. Other than home wins over Arizona and UCLA, there’s very little to sell them as anything more than an NIT squad.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions’ profile basically consists of mastery of one team, and that’s it. Three wins over Ohio State are nice, but 5-10 combined vs. quadrants 1 & 2 plus a combined three Quadrant 3 & 4 losses isn’t. Like a number of these other bubble teams from Big Football conferences, frankly it shouldn’t even be close.
Saint Mary’s: Make no mistake, the Gaels could be in trouble. Fourteen of their 28 wins are against Quadrant 4, and 10 more against Quadrant 3, where two of their losses also fall. We would’ve guessed that the wins at Gonzaga, against New Mexico State and two against BYU in the regular season, plus high margin-of-victory rankings would get SMC in barely. But upset conference tourney winners like Marshall and San Diego State may have been the dagger.
Syracuse: The Orange’s resume remarkably looks a little better now than a day earlier, providing proof why people shouldn’t freak out about RPI rankings until after the season. It’s still not very good, 4-8 vs. Quadrant 1, 7-11 vs. quads 1 & 2 (though just 5-10 against the top 70), plus two Quadrant 3 losses. Other than-ironically-a strong non-conference strength of schedule and wins over Clemson (home) and at Miami, there’s just very little there.
Utah: The Utes are most likely out, much like fellow Pac-12 member Oregon a team that had a good year, not a great one. Their best wins are home against UCLA and Missouri and road at Oregon, with a combined 6-10 mark against quads 1 & 2. In both teams’ cases, it depends on what the committee thinks of the Pac-12 (or maybe the SEC, if the committee is enthralled with drilling Missouri). If it loves the league far more than most…it honestly wouldn’t surprise us much at all if the Utes (or Ducks) snuck in.
Vermont: Like Louisiana-Lafayette, the Catamounts at least deserve a look based on complete dominance in their league and the fact that their seven losses are by a combined 28 points, six of them by four points or less. UVM has proven it can play with anyone, including on the road at Kentucky. Unfortunately, Vermont missed chances at St. Bonaventure (a three-pointer at the buzzer) and Marquette, winnable enough games that it needed to win at least one of them to have an argument.
Washington: The Huskies have had a nice bounce-back year and do have three high-quality wins (at Kansas, Arizona at home and at USC), so it’s not a total reach. Just 5-10 combined against the top two quadrants, two Quadrant 3 losses and an overall so-so showing in a down Pac-12 likely mean NIT.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers at least deserve a look because of their win over Purdue and a 4-5 mark against Quadrants 1 & 2. Five Quadrant 3 losses, though, mean WKU pretty much made its own bed this year.

Bubble-in, but should be out:
Arizona State (if URI wins A-10): Aside from wins over Kansas and Xavier eons ago, the resume really isn’t as impressive as might think. In fact, we’d take conference mate Utah before the Sun Devils if it were us.
Oklahoma: Like ASU, the Sooners haven’t looked remotely like an NCAA tourney team for two months. Anyone expecting a sudden resurgence is almost certainly dreaming.
Oklahoma State: If some don’t like this, there’s a simple cure-the Cowboys should’ve played a better non-conference schedule. Rather than nine OOC games at home and just one on the road (mandated by the Big 12/SEC Challenge), OSU could’ve improved its schedule dramatically and proven more by playing and winning a couple more road games, maybe against a Missouri Valley or Summit League team or two. The Cowboys chose not to; because of it, their combined 8-14 mark vs. quads 1 & 2 (5-12 vs. Q1) doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Bubble-out, but should be in:
Middle Tennessee State: If there is going to be some attempt at all of offering a fair playing field for all teams, you simply have to reward MTSU’s attempts to schedule well, their road wins and the obvious fact that they were in it to the final seconds even as they lost to Auburn, Miami and USC.
Saint Mary’s: We’d take the Gaels, barely, on the strength of the win at Gonzaga-among the best road wins of any team in the country this year, their win over a very good New Mexico State team, and dominance most of the year (though obviously not all). But we totally understand why some would feel otherwise on this team.
Syracuse (if URI wins A-10): Or Boise State, or maybe Marquette. From here, it’s really, really hard to find 68 worthy teams for this year’s tourney. Really hard. We’d rather put a team like Louisiana-Lafayette or Vermont here. But acknowledging that those teams just don’t have anything for quality wins to support them, we’d take the Orange, who-even if by accident-did play a tough non-conference schedule and showed they can win some on the road.

 

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

 

 

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