Sports, Thrill of Victory

A thoughtful look at the potential NCAA Tournament field (with seedings)

The men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament is three weeks away, and with it, everybody in the sports world is talking about bubble teams, No. 1 seeds, and all that comes with March Madness. Today, I’ll jump in the fray as well with list of the teams that I feel deserve to be in the tournament (through Wednesday night) and my rankings of those teams.

First, a note: I’m not trying to predict that the Selection Committee will do, I’m only trying to pick the teams I feel belong. One thing I weigh heavily is whether a team beat other NCAA Tournament-worthy teams; you want teams that prove they can play with the others at this level. “Bad losses” result in black marks against teams; I defined a “bad loss” as a loss to a team that Ken Pomeroy rated as 100 or worse.

Then, there’s the middle part of the schedule, games that count as neither good wins nor bad losses, which comprises the bulk of what these teams play. For help with that, I consulted Pomeroy’s ratings as well as two other computer ranking systems, the RPI and Jeff Sagarin’s model as they reflect those dynamics quite well.

One more thing: I’m ranking 46 teams because there are 68 teams, 32 automatic bids and 22 leagues that will probably get just one bid. At the moment, I have neither the time nor the interest in telling you who’s going to win the tournaments in the one-bid leagues and they’re really not important for this kind of exercise. Of those 46 teams, they’ll start getting picked off one-by one, starting at the bottom, any time a team from the Big 12, Pac-12, Big 10, Atlantic 10, American Athletic, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Mountain West or West Coast Conferences wins its league.

When the dust settled, here’s how I ordered the field of deserving candidates. Within each seed, teams are listed in the order I rank them.

1s: Arizona, Florida, Syracuse, Wichita State

Florida's Scottie Wilbekin has led the Gators to a potential No. 1 seed.

Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin has led the Gators to a potential No. 1 seed.

 

Arizona is my undisputed best team in the land. It has lost two games (both to teams I have in the field) by a total of five points and it has beaten Duke, San Diego State, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal at home, and Michigan and UCLA on the road. I had no qualms putting the top three as 1-seeds, but I debated the Shockers as the other No. 1 — 30-0 is great, but with only two wins over teams I have on this list (St. Louis, Tennessee). On the other hand, going to last year’s Final Four seems to prove this bunch can play with the rest.

2s: Kansas, Wisconsin, Duke and Creighton

Picking the 2s was equally easy; the only real decision was whether to move Kansas up a seed. The Jayhawks have already clinched the title in the land’s toughest league, and yes, they’ve lost six times but they also have played maybe the toughest schedule in recent memory. Here’s a prediction: Syracuse’s slide continues and KU eventually claims a No. 1.

3s: Villanova, Virginia, Iowa St., Michigan

An Atlantic Coast Conference team with only one conference loss as a 3-seed? Take a look at UVA’s slate; the ACC has an unbalanced schedule and the Cavaliers couldn’t have possibly faced an easier league slate so far. Villanova is a tough team to figure; the computers all love the Wildcats but Iowa is VU’s only win over a team safely in the field, and the ‘Cats lost their three games by a combined 65 points to Syracuse and Creighton twice.

4s: Louisville, Michigan St., St. Louis, San Diego St.

Pomeroy loves the defending national champs, ranking them second, but the Cardinals are just 3-4 against teams that I have in the field. San Diego State’s early wins over Kansas and Creighton have carried them as the Mountain West isn’t strong this year. St. Louis is a six-point loss to Wisconsin and a five-point loss to Wichita State from being unbeaten. As for MSU, if it could only get healthy, you could be looking at your national title winner.

5s: Iowa, UCLA, Cincinnati, Texas

The computers think I have Texas three seeds too high and that gave me pause for putting them here. But when you beat Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor at home, and Baylor and North Carolina on the road… well, how do you justify putting the Longhorns much lower?

6s: North Carolina, Ohio State, Kentucky, Oklahoma

The computers vehemently disagree with my 6-seeds, ranking all of them higher except Oklahoma, which they insist should drop a line. There’s a legitimate case against each, though. Carolina has three bad losses — nobody above them has more than one, and no other team in the field has more than two — and that has to count for something. Kentucky has six losses in a weak SEC and has wins over just two teams in my field — Louisville and Tennessee, and Tennessee could easily be left out. Ohio State is 3-5 against teams in my field, which isn’t as impressive as OU’s 7-5, so how do you deny the Sooners a spot in this stratosphere? I’ve ranked teams on overall merit, but my guess is that in comparing the upside of this with the 5s, opponents might rather play against that group rather than this one.

7s: SMU, Connecticut, VCU, New Mexico

This bunch isn’t as flashy as the others, but if you’re looking for a giant-killer, remember that UConn took down Florida and VCU won at Virginia.

8s: Stanford, Massachusetts, Pitt, Memphis

Pitt is one of the hardest teams in the field to seed. The computers tell me the Panthers should be a 7, which is because the Panthers have the uncanny ability to play elite teams close: they lost by one to Cincinnati and Virginia, by two to Syracuse, by four to North Carolina and by five to Florida State and (again) Syracuse. The lone win against teams in the field came over Stanford, which was by 19 on a neutral floor. There’s an argument that Pitt shouldn’t be considered a lock and I can see merit to it; I wouldn’t have them nearly this high if not for the computers. Giant-killer potential seems to be missing from this bunch, as its best collective win came when Memphis won at Louisville.

9s: George Washington, Kansas St., Arizona St., Baylor

Now for the bipolar bunch: Baylor once lost seven games in a row and yet has five wins over teams in my field; Kansas State has a pair of terrible losses to Charlotte and Northern Colorado and yet has beaten Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, George Washington, Oklahoma State and Gonzaga; and ASU has knocked off Arizona, Stanford, Cal and Colorado but also lost by 23 or more three times. Baylor is understandably a tough sell this high, but (if you didn’t notice) I think a lot of the Big 12.

10s: Minnesota, Colorado, Oklahoma St., Florida St.

I think people are missing the boat on Minnesota; a lot of mainstream bracketologists don’t have the Gophers in, but tell me how many teams below them have wins as good as the ones they have over Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State? Oklahoma State is Baylor, Part II, and now that Marcus Smart is back, it’s make-or-break time for OSU with Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State up next.

11s with byes: Gonzaga, Cal

If only I could converse with the computers, here’s what I’d ask: how in the world do you give a consensus rating to the Bulldogs around 29th overall? Do you know how many teams Gonzaga has beaten that I’ve got in my field? That would be zero, though some think that BYU is deserving and Arkansas is close. The ‘Zags also have bad losses to Portland and San Diego. I put them in the field only because I figure they must know something that I don’t. Cal was brutal last night but hey, wins over Arizona and Stanford count for something.

Looking at a play-in game: Xavier, Nebraska, Tennessee, Providence

Not a lot of folks see the Huskers as deserving, but nobody below them has wins like Michigan State (on the road, no less), Ohio State and Minnesota. The Cornhuskers could easily finish 10-8 in the Big Ten and that probably deserves a bid. Tennessee’s another hard team to figure; even Vol fans don’t think they deserve a bid, but the computers love them thanks to that 35-point whipping of Virginia. A lone win over Xavier is the only thing the Vols have otherwise done of significance and even then, the Musketeers got them in the other meeting between the two. All these teams really need to focus on moving up, because at least one is likely to be knocked out with conference tournament upsets.

Left out:

It’s really too close to call between St. John’s, St. Joe’s and Providence, but I put the Friars in thanks to slightly-better top-end wins. … More people have Oregon in that not, but I don’t see it: no wins over teams I have deserving of bids. … Most also have BYU in — I see those wins over Texas, Stanford and Gonzaga, but I also see four bad losses. Carolina’s the only other team in the nation’s top 60 or so that even had three. … Some have Georgetown in, and if so, why not Clemson? Both have very similar profiles. … Richmond is in most people’s first four out, but I see all the teams above as more deserving. … It’s been a pitiful year for the SEC and that’s why I don’t see the case for Missouri as it has only wins over UCLA and Tennessee to brag about. Arkansas has better marquee wins (Kentucky, SMU, Minnesota) but it also lost twice to the Tigers.