The NCAA tournament selection committee unveiled its bracket Sunday evening. Here’s a look at three things it got right and three things it got wrong:
What committee got right: Emphasis on schedule strength
When selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen was asked why 28-win Saint Mary’s did not receive an at-large bid, he offered a blunt response. Rasmussen noted that only four of the Gaels’ wins came against the top two quadrants and added that Gaels coach Randy Bennett did not assemble a tough enough schedule.
All but two of the opponents on Bennett’s non-league slate finished the season outside the top 100 in the RPI. The two exceptions were WAC champion New Mexico State and a Georgia team that finished in the bottom half of the SEC.
One valid excuse Saint Mary’s can offer is that scheduling Cal and Dayton didn’t provide the expected boost. The Bears finished second-to-last in the Pac-12 and the Flyers endured a rebuilding season. Another worthwhile counterpoint is that it’s hard for a mid-major like Saint Mary’s to assemble a formidable schedule. No Pac-12 programs are eager to schedule a home-and-home with the Gaels.
The message from Rasmussen is that Bennett can’t rely on just piling up third and fourth quadrant wins and beating Gonzaga once in league play. He needs to get creative. Reach out to top-tier Mountain West and Atlantic 10 schools about scheduling a series. Go find a mid-tier Pac-12 team who’s willing to play on a neutral site.
Ultimately, it’s important for the sport that the selection committee rewards strong non-conference schedules and penalizes teams who don’t play anyone. College basketball already has too many one-sided games between sharks and minnows in November and December. The committee can’t give teams incentive to schedule more.
What committee got wrong: Syracuse
The most surprising inclusion in this year’s NCAA tournament was a team who is accustomed to nabbing unexpected at-large bids. Syracuse made it again with a resume that upon close inspection does not appear good enough.
One of a record five at-large teams to make the NCAA tournament despite a sub-.500 record in its league, Syracuse went 8-10 in the ACC, suffered sub-100 RPI losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech and crashed out of the league tournament in the second round. The Orange went 0-5 against the ACC’s three best teams, though they did pick up solid home wins against Clemson and Virginia Tech and quality road victories at Miami and Louisville.
Syracuse played a respectable non-conference schedule, but both Kansas and St. Bonaventure beat the Orange. Their best non-conference wins were against Buffalo, Maryland and Iona.
Every bubble team’s resume was flawed, but there were a handful with a stronger argument than Syracuse’s. Oklahoma State boasted a much stronger collection of quality wins. USC finished second in its league and reached its conference tournament title game. Louisville didn’t lose to a single team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
None of those teams are egregious snubs, but you can make a case for any of them over the Orange.
What committee got right: Seeding (with one exception)
Of all the years I’ve done this column, this was the toughest one to identify egregious seeding errors from the committee. There were no inexplicable decisions like Wichita State receiving a No. 10 seed seed last year despite a top 10 KenPom ranking or Oregon getting jobbed with a No. 12 seed four years ago when most projected them six or seven seed lines higher.
This year’s committee made the obvious choice in selecting Virginia, Villanova, Kansas and Xavier as the No. 1 seeds. It’s hard to argue with any of the No. 2 seeds either as North Carolina and Duke were clear picks, Purdue had the strongest resume of any Big Ten team and Cincinnati left no doubt with its sweep of the American regular season and tournament titles.
There are some who believe Big Ten regular season champion Michigan State got shafted with a No. 3 seed, but only two of the Spartans’ 29 wins this season came against NCAA tournament teams. There are some who have argued Arizona deserved better than a No. 4 seed after sweeping the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles, but the highest seeded teams the Wildcats beat all season were Texas A&M (7) and Alabama (9).
You could reasonably argue that West Virginia (5) shouldn’t be two seed lines below fellow Big 12 power Texas Tech (3), but give credit to the committee if something that minor is among the biggest blunders. In fact, there’s only one team in the whole field who has a real gripe about its seeding, and that team is way down on the No. 16 line.
What committee got wrong: Penn’s No. 16 seed (the exception)
Some of the closest calls No. 1 seeds have endured in the opening round of the NCAA tournament occurred because the No. 16 seeds they were facing were grossly underseeded. That could happen again this year to Kansas when it takes on Ivy League champion Penn.
At 127 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Penn (24-8) is the highest ranked No. 16 seed since 2012. The Quakers check in ahead of 14th seeded Wright State and three of this year’s four No. 15 seeds.
Penn hasn’t beaten any power-conference teams this season — it lost by 28 at Villanova and by nine to Temple — but the Quakers hail from a conference with a history of opening-round upsets. In the past eight years, Cornell has made a Sweet 16 run, Harvard has upset New Mexico and Cincinnati, Yale has toppled Baylor and Princeton has pushed Kentucky and Notre Dame to the brink.
None of this will probably matter because No. 1 seeds always manage to find a way, but consider this aspect of the matchup for a moment. Kansas’ greatest strength this season is its 3-point shooting. The single best thing Penn does is limit opponents to under 30 percent shooting from behind the arc.
What committee got right: Regional balance
Put a quick poll up on social media asking which region is the toughest. The fact that you’ll get votes for several different regions is a testament to the job the committee did balancing them this year.
There’s no unfairly overloaded region like a few years ago when the committee set up a gauntlet that included Kentucky, Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Duke. There’s also no empty region in which the No. 1 seed can just coast to the Final Four.
The No. 1 seed with the biggest gripe is probably the No. 1 overall seed. The committee did Virginia no favors by throwing it into a region that includes four different regular season or tournament champs from major conferences, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Arizona and Kentucky.
This year’s most top-heavy region is the midwest as top three seeds Kansas, Duke and Michigan State are all title threats. But the committee did a reasonable job balancing that with sputtering Auburn, shorthanded Clemson and far-from intimidating TCU as the next three seeds.
Xavier was the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds, but the committee did a fairly good job offsetting that with the rest of the teams in the West Region. Second-seeded North Carolina had the most quadrant 1 wins of any team in the country, third-seeded Michigan enters the NCAA tournament on a tear after winning the Big Ten tournament and fourth-seeded Gonzaga is a top 10 team according to every predictive metric.
The one region that might be a little thin is Villanova’s. No. 2 seed Purdue and No. 3 seed Texas Tech may have peaked earlier in the season. But West Virginia is a tough team to prepare for in the NCAA tournament, and Wichita State is certainly no easy out.
What committee got wrong: USC
Halfway through the selection show, a text from a Pac-12 assistant coach popped up on my phone.
“Did I just witness USC not get in the tournament?” he said. “But the ninth-place team in the Pac-12 did?”
It’s surprising USC did not make the field when you consider that the Trojans finished second in the league and reached the conference tournament title game. It’s even more stunning when you consider that three other Pac-12 teams did make the NCAA tournament including an Arizona State team that finished four full games behind the Trojans in the Pac-12 standings.
You can certainly understand the committee’s thought process. Arizona State went 12-0 in non-league play including victories over Kansas, Xavier, Kansas State and San Diego State. USC beat only two NCAA tournament-bound teams all season, Big West tournament champ Cal State Fullerton and WAC champ New Mexico State.
But USC’s profile is not as empty as that would suggest. The Trojans finished with nine quadrant 1 and 2 wins, more than most bubble teams. And seven of those came away from home.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t with Arizona State making the field. It’s that if you take the Sun Devils, it seems like the Trojans belong too.
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