As we predicted, the NCAA tournament field was watered down (tournament Flaw #1) by the conference tournaments that concluded over the weekend. In the twenty-two one-bid conferences, thirteen regular season champions were eliminated by weaker teams that will now be easy pickings for high seeds in round one. All thirteen of the winners are seeded 13–16, meaning the joy they experienced on Saturday or Sunday will be replaced by awe for the teams seeded 1-4 that will crush them on Thursday or Friday.
Two conference tournament upsets spelled doom for teams that clearly deserved bids. Davidson upset Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10, and San Diego State defeated Nevada. Since Rhode Island and Nevada still received well-deserved at-large bids, the field for other at-large bids shrank by two spots. The victims were likely St. Mary’s and Louisville.
Louisville’s quirky last second loss to Virginia at the end of the regular became the difference for them. The case against St. Mary’s is more difficult to make. The culprit seems to be the Quadrant system based upon the illogical RPI (which we discussed in our last post). St. Mary’s has a low RPI (43) and only one Quadrant One win (over Gonzaga). The rest of its schedule was admittedly weak, the weakest among the 34 teams we rank.
However, St. Mary’s did defeat Gonzaga, a #4 seed, as well as New Mexico State and Cal State Fullerton, both of whom are in the tournament field. More importantly, St. Mary’s covered the spread. Not the Vegas spread, but the RPG spread. RPG knows precisely how good each opponent is, and how well a ranked team should play, on average, against that opponent. St. Mary’s consistently played better against its opponents than other ranked teams should have played against those opponents. They covered the spread.
In fact, if we look at the raw playing performance grades of our 34 ranked teams, the grades before they are adjusted for strength of opponent, St. Mary’s ranked eleventh, ahead of Selection Committee favorites like Xavier, Auburn, Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee and Kansas. For those teams, the raw RPG grades were adjusted upwards for strength of schedule while St. Mary’s was adjusted downwards for weakness of schedule. That left St. Mary’s at #18 in our rankings. Clearly the committee made mistakes by inviting Arizona State, Butler, Alabama and Oklahoma ahead of St. Mary’s.
While the committee doesn’t love St. Mary’s, they are apparently head-over heels in love with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders win the trophy for most over-seeded team in this year’s field at #3 when we believe they deserved a #6 seed (Tournament Flaw #4). Add the fact that they will play at home in Dallas and the fact that Florida is over-seeded at #6 in their bracket, and you have the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Texas Tech was likely given the present of an undeserved trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
Other teams who are playing at home in rounds one and two include Kansas (Wichita), Gonzaga (Boise), North Carolina (Charlotte) and Michigan State (Detroit). Those four teams should be locks to reach the Sweet Sixteen (Tournament Flaw #5). Teams playing road games in rounds one and two include Auburn, Clemson and West Virginia all of whom play in San Diego although none of them are in the West Region. Also playing road games, all in Boise, are Ohio State, Buffalo, Davidson, and Kentucky, which adds to the likelihood that Gonzaga will emerge victorious. But, the worst travel schedule belongs to Arizona State which has suffered through a dismal last half of its season. Its woes are likely to continue as it plays a First Four game in Dayton, and if it wins, a First Round game in Detroit. Bring your galoshes.
Of the four regions, the easiest seems to be the East, where Villanova is #1, Purdue #2, Texas Tech #3 and Wichita #4. Purdue and Texas Tech are over-seeded and this Wichita team doesn’t seem to have the mental toughness of past Shocker units.
North Carolina also seems to have a clear path to the Final Four. They play rounds one and two at home in Charlotte before traveling to LA for the West Regionals. Although they are the #2 seed, North Carolina should like the fact that Xavier is over-seeded at #1, and that Michigan (#3) has had a long layoff in which to cool off since its Big Ten championship. Look for a rematch of last year’s National Championship game, North Carolina vs. Gonzaga, in the Elite Eight.
The toughest region, at least at the top, is the Midwest where Kansas is #1, Duke is #2, Michigan State is #3 and Auburn is #4. Auburn is clearly fading since suffering an important injury and Kansas is on a roll. Had the committee seeded these teams correctly, Duke would have been #1, Michigan State #2 and Kansas #3. With that seeding Duke would have had Auburn or familiar Clemson in the Sweet Sixteen and either Kansas or Michigan State in the Elite Eight. With that seeding, Duke would have become our choice to win it all. With the committee seeding, their chances are diminished because they will have to go through both Kansas and Michigan State. Only one of these three teams will join Villanova and North Carolina in the Final Four. That’s how seeding can affect the tournament results (Tournament Flaw #4).
And, the hardest region to predict is the South where all the slow, careful teams meet. Virginia is #1, Cincinnati #2, Tennessee #3, and Arizona #4. Virginia frustrates teams that like to play fast but its opponents in this region can play the Cavaliers’ game. Cincinnati deserved a #1 bid and #5 Kentucky is the hottest team around. We’ll take the field against Virginia but we’re not ready to say which team will reach the Final Four.
As always, up-to-the-minute rankings can be found at www.nemosnumbers.com/basketball-rankings/. Look for more posts as the week proceeds toward Thursday’s First Round.