With the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day in the rearview mirror, that can only mean one thing: the NCAA championship is almost here.
Twenty-two days before the scheduled Sunday, the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee shared a snapshot of the top 16 teams. Here’s the partial slide the panel revealed on Saturday afternoon and four main meals.
1. GONZAGA, NOT ARIZONA, IT IS NOT. 1 in the west
Take a look at biographies of Gonzaga and Arizona, and it’s not easy to tell them apart.
One is 22-2. The other 23-2.
One has a tight grip on the first place in the extraordinarily strong WCC. The other has a tight grip on number one in the extraordinarily heavy Pac-12.
One has a 6-2 record in Quadrant 1 games, including marquee victories over Texas Tech, UCLA, and Texas. The other has a 5-2 record at Quadrant 1 games, including marquee victories over Illinois, UCLA and USC.
Even the systems they run have similarities. Arizona coaching is overseen by Tommy Lloyd, who until last spring was Mark Vue’s second-in-command at Gonzaga.
So why is Gonzaga the current first team on the selection panel with a geographically friendly path to a potential third quadruple final since 2017? And why is Arizona behind Zags and Auburn and settles on top seed in the Southern region?
Selection committee chair Tom Burnett described the margin between these three teams as “extremely thin” but noted who defeated Gonzaga outside the convention.
“The quality of the wins has really impressed the panel this week,” Burnett said during CBS’s Bracket Preview Show. “They beat Texas Tech. They beat UCSD. They beat Texas.”
What didn’t come but may also have been a factor: Gonzaga’s victory margin cuts short his schedule. Only five of the 22 teams that Gonzaga has defeated this season have come under 20 points. None of them lost by less than nine.
In predictive metrics that take a margin of victory into account, Gonzaga is the best team in the country by a large margin. Arizona has more chances to boost its resume with a date on the road at USC and the Pac-12 Championship still to play. However, it can be difficult to catch zags if they do not suffer the loss of at least one more.
2. KS controls the race for the final. 1 seed
While it was a foregone conclusion that Gonzaga, Auburn and Arizona would land the top seed in the committee class of the season, which team would claim last place in the top seed streak wasn’t clear.
Will it be Kansas, which tops the formidable Big 12 list and has an impressive 14-4 record in the 1st and 2nd quarter games? Or will it be Kentucky, which beat the Jayhawks three weeks ago by 18 points at Allen Fieldhouse? Or maybe Baylor, which like KS has nine wins in the first quarter?
Burnett admitted there was “possibly a slight disconnect” between the top three teams and the top seed. He and his teammates eventually chose Kansas because of their 9-3 best national record in the Quadrant 1 games. The Jayhawks beat Baylor, which the panel considered the strongest among the No. 2 seed. They also beat Texas Tech and Michigan State, as well as a large number of Big 12 NCAA Championship Winners.
Given the strength of their remaining schedule and their outright defeat in Kansas, Kentucky seems to have the best chance of getting past the Jayhawks or one of the other three presumed seeds should any of them falter. The Wildcats have chances for wins at home against Alabama, LSU and in Arkansas over the next eight days. Then there’s the SEC Championship, where it will likely wait for the chance to avenge a previous loss to Auburn.
Although the primary purpose of previewing the NCAA’s in-season arc is to spark discussion, the first seed streak has often proven to be a harbinger of things to come. In four of the past five years, three of the top four seeds from the NCAA’s early peek have stayed on the arc in the first seed streak come Sunday’s selection. This pattern will likely continue into 2020, barring the absence of an NCAA Championship.
3. How the commission will be served (and what it means for others)
One of the most difficult decisions the commission had to make was to locate Providence. That’s because the brothers have resumes that rival the likes of Duke or Villanova, but computer benchmarks suggest they’re nowhere near that good.
Providence established itself as a team to watch in no-conference play with a win on the road in Wisconsin, followed by a home win over Texas Tech. Since then, the brothers have climbed to the top of the loaded Big East which can send up to seven teams to the NCAA Championship.
However, despite this success, Providence is still ranked 29th in the network, 40th in Bart Turvik’s rankings and 45 In KenPom. Metrics that take margin of victory into account don’t like the brothers, who are 9-1 in games marked by five points or less and have lost in Virginia and Marquette’s loss.
Ultimately, the commission paid attention to predictive metrics and ranked Providence second to last in fourth place. It’s a decision that provides insight into how the committee deals with other teams whose resumes and metrics don’t match.
Among the teams that rely on favorable predictive metrics to boost their rankings: Houston, LSU, St. Mary’s, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma.
Among the teams that ranked, like Providence, rank lower on predictive metrics than their resume might suggest: USC, Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Oregon.
4. Who was the older sister?
There were four teams vying for last place in the top 16. Burnett said the committee ultimately chose Texas over Alabama, Houston and Ohio.
Of those three, the team with the biggest hunger might be Team Houston, which has a 21-4 overall, fourth in the net, and seventh in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. Predictive metrics like Cougars do much more than the likes of Texas, Wisconsin, and Providence, which all landed in fourth place.
What hindered the Cougars was the dearth of marquee victories. Their most impressive victory so far is… Virginia? Oregon? Maybe Oklahoma. Not beating a confirmed NCAA Championship team after this season outperformed other metrics in the panel’s eye.
“The network is a great screening tool for the committee, but it’s not everything to us,” Burnett said. “I’m looking at NET as a first step. I want to see why the network looks like this. We’ve all seen Providence. We’ve all seen Houston. Houston definitely has trouble not getting a 1 quad win this year, while Providence has had a lot of quadruple opportunities at the convention.” The Great East has benefited from it.”
In addition to Houston, Alabama had an argument for being on the No. 4 seed streak. While the tide had taken nine losses including some suspect losses for the middle bottom feeders Iona and SEC, Missouri and Georgia, they also had some more impressive wins. For any team in the country. Who else has defeated the likes of Gonzaga, Baylor, Tennessee, Houston, Arkansas and Elsaw State University?
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