The five most difficult decisions facing the NCAA tournament selection committee
On Sunday evening, the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee will email a completed bracket to CBS to unveil on the selection show. A look at some of the most difficult decisions that the committee will have to make between now and then:
1. Florida, Arizona and Wichita State will all be No. 1 seeds. Who will get the fourth one?
Michigan could make things fairly easy on the selection committee if it defeats rival Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Not only would the Wolverines be the regular season and tournament champs of one of the nation's toughest leagues, they also would have an impressive 10-4 record against the RPI top 50 and a trio of victories over Michigan State. That would be enough to outweigh seven losses, including an ugly one to Charlotte back in November.
If the Wolverines lose Sunday, that brings several other teams into play and complicates the decision. One option is Big East regular-season champ Villanova, which has a gaudy 28-4 record but lost to Seton Hall in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and has only beaten one team higher than No. 39 in the RPI. Another option could have been Duke, which likely blew its chance with Sunday's defeat to Virginia in the ACC title game. The Devils have victories over Michigan, UCLA, Syracuse and North Carolina, but they also have eight losses including a pair of brutal ones against Notre Dame and Wake Forest.
The only way Louisville or Virginia could enter the conversation is if the committee ignores that both their resumes are inferior to the teams mentioned above as well as perhaps Wisconsin or Kansas. Even with Virginia beating Duke on Sunday, it still has only five RPI top 50 wins, less than half as many as Kansas' 12. Similarly, Louisville is playing as well as anyone in the nation, but it is just 5-5 against the RPI top 50 with three of those wins coming at the expense of UConn.
One final option might be rewarding Michigan, win or lose. A No. 1 seed has never had more than seven losses and Michigan would have eight if it fell in the Big Ten title game, but in a year that really should have three No. 1s and five No. 2s, perhaps the Wolverines might have a shot anyway.
2. Considering Joel Embiid is likely to be unavailable for at least the first week of the tournament, where should Kansas be seeded?
At face value, Kansas' resume probably is worthy of no worse than a No. 3 seed. Nine losses are a lot, but the Jayhawks have played the nation's toughest schedule, have defeated 12 RPI top 50 teams and have not lost to a team outside the top 100. They might even be able to land a No. 2 seed depending on how much the committee values quality wins and a league title in the nation's toughest conference.
The problem with seeding Kansas that high is the Jayhawks may not have the same lineup they had while amassing most of those marquee wins. Joel Embiid, the potential No. 1 overall pick, has sat out Kansas' past four games with a stress fracture in his back and is likely to miss at least the opening week of the NCAA tournament too. The Jayhawks are 2-2 without their rim-protecting center, routing Texas Tech, escaping Oklahoma State in overtime and getting shredded defensively by West Virginia and Iowa State.
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Would the committee make the judgment call that Kansas isn't the same team based on that small a sample size? It has happened before, most notably in 2000 when Cincinnati fell from No. 1 overall to a No. 2 seed after Kenyon Martin got hurt in the Conference USA quarterfinals. Kansas could fall from a No. 2 to a No. 3 seed because of the questions surrounding Embiid, but it's hard to imagine the Jayhawks falling any lower than that. They're too talented and too accomplished to force a No. 1 seed to play them in the Sweet 16.
3. Should Kyle Collinsworth's torn ACL impact BYU's at-large hopes?
Already squarely on the bubble after its WCC title-game loss Tuesday night, BYU received some brutal injury news the following day that made its NCAA tournament hopes all the more tenuous. All-conference guard Kyle Collinsworth, the Cougars' second-leading scorer and leader in rebounds and assists, tore an ACL and will not be available in the postseason.
What the committee now must decide is first if BYU's resume is worthy of NCAA tournament inclusion and second whether the Cougars should be assessed differently without Collinsworth. There is precedent for the committee lowering the seeding of a team because of a key injury, a la Martin and Cincinnati in 2000, but it's unclear what would happen if the team in question is in line to receive one of the final at-large bids.
Most mock brackets had BYU (23-11) as one of the final at-large teams before the loss to Gonzaga and the Collinsworth injury, but the Cougars certainly weren't a lock. Bolstering BYU's case is a formidable non-conference schedule rated fifth-toughest in the nation. The Cougars beat Texas on a neutral floor, won at Stanford and suffered narrow losses to NCAA tournament-bound Wichita State, Iowa State, UMass and Oregon. What detracts from BYU's resume are the bad losses it suffered in WCC play. Pacific, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Portland each upset the Cougars.
4. Should Louisville's seeding be more representative of its No. 22 RPI or its No. 5 AP ranking?
No team has a greater discrepancy than Louisville between where it stands in the RPI and how voters and analytics experts perceive it. The Cardinals are No. 23 in the RPI, behind the likes of Gonzaga and Virginia Commonwealth. Conversely, the Cardinals are No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll and No. 2 in the rankings done by college basketball statistical guru Ken Pomeroy.
What explains the difference is Louisville's margin of victory against a bad schedule. On one hand, the Cardinals only faced the 100th toughest schedule in the nation, managed just five RPI top 50 wins and beat only two teams certain to make the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, the defending national champs have zero losses to teams outside the RPI top 50, their average margin of victory in their 29 victories was 22 points and they appear to be peaking at the proper time for the third straight season.
The guess here is the committee will split the difference and give Louisville a No. 3 seed. The Cardinals are too good to award a No. 4 seed and imperil a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16, yet Louisville simply doesn't have a resume in the same class as some of the contenders for the final No. 1 seed.
5. Does getting healthy at the right time merit bumping Michigan State up a seed line or two?
Once ranked No. 1 in the nation and considered a national title contender, Michigan State could not maintain that level of play during the Big Ten season when injuries left the Spartans depleted. Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, Branden Dawson and Gary Harris all missed stretches of the season, contributing to Michigan State dropping seven of its last 12 games and plummeting out of contention in the Big Ten.
With Dawson back from his broken hand and Appling finally looking healthier, Michigan State has played better in the Big Ten tournament, ousting Wisconsin on Saturday to reach the title game against Michigan. It was only one game, but the Spartans looked more like the team they were in November and December than the one that struggled through February. They'll have a chance to prove that's no fluke Sunday against the Wolverines.
Michigan State's profile resembles that of a No. 4 seed at this point, but the question is whether the committee would move the Spartans up a line or two because so many of their losses came at less than full strength. The answer is likely yes but within reason. Could Michigan State get a No. 3 seed with a victory Sunday or even a narrow loss? Probably. Could the Spartans even move up to a No. 2? Highly unlikely. Their resume isn't good enough and their improvement in the Big Ten tournament is too small a sample size.
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