9 Big Reasons You Need to Watch Selection Sunday
This year's NCAA Tournament selection show cannot get here soon enough.
Less than a week away from the Round of 64 tipping off, we still have many more questions than answers about how the bracket will shape up when Greg Gumbel announces the seedings on Sunday evening. While it can be argued that the perceived increase in parity and a lack of great teams is good for the game (everyone's got a shot to make a run) or bad (the lack of elite teams cuts down on transcendent story lines and casual interest), one thing is for sure: the past few months have created the most confusing bubble situation in recent memory.
That was only exponentially augmented when, last week, I innocently asked if any of the best mid-majors could survive losing their conference tournaments to still get a bid -- and then basically all of them got bounced early, creating a David versus Goliath bracket-building philosophical debate that only the Selection Committee can settle (for this year, anyway).
Here's a preview of some of the biggest questions that will finally be answered -- and still hotly debated after -- Selection Sunday.
1. Did Vanderbilt's loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament cost them a trip to the Big Dance?
After being ranked 18th in the AP's preseason poll, Vanderbilt started to make good on their potential late in the season by going 11-4 in their final 15 games prior to the SEC Tournament. That run finally seemed to be enough to get Vandy into the field after a shaky first half of the season. Seemingly all the Commodores needed to do to secure a bid was to avoid a bad loss to Tennessee (ranked outside the top 100 in RPI and our nERD power rankings).
After Wade Baldwin IV's last-second shot to tie Thursday's game was deemed to be one second too late -- and waived off -- Vanderbilt plunged back into the uncertainty they've been mired in most of the season. Power rankings and analytics would suggest Vanderbilt is tournament-quality, but their resume still leaves the door open to disappointment come Sunday.
2. How far will Iowa fall?
Just a few weeks back, Iowa was ranked third in the AP poll and led the pack in the Big Ten standings. But Fran McCaffery's group has swooned, losing six of their final eight, including Thursday's Big Ten tourney game against 12th-seeded Illinois.
Iowa was in the conversation for a 1 or 2 seed a little under a month ago, but now they may be lucky to avoid falling into an 8-9 game and facing the prospect of going up against a 1 seed before the second weekend. Iowa's resume still has them safely in the field, and our power rankings have them inside the top 20 overall. But they needed to improve upon their total of eight top-100 wins down the stretch to fortify their resume, and they failed in every opportunity to do so.
3. How will the Selection Committee handle Syracuse?
Depending on who you ask, Syracuse's resume comes with an asterisk, because head coach Jim Boeheim and others have made the case that the Orange should not be punished for going 4-5 in the nine games during which he was suspended.
Crushing his protege, assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who led the team during that time, isn't exactly the nicest thing Boeheim could have done to make his team's case to the committee, but it may be the best card he has to play. Wins at Duke and over Texas A&M on a neutral court help Syracuse's resume stand out a bit from the bubble field. But 13 losses that include three outside the top 100, and three to fellow bubble dweller Pittsburgh, will keep Syracuse sweating until Sunday.
Should a team that lost their coach due to NCAA violations be graded on a curve? This week, some former Selection Committee members said "no way," and if Syracuse misses the field, that means the current committee likely agrees.
4. Wichita State has one win inside the RPI's top 70. They're also ranked 22nd in nERD. Which matters more?
In most years, a team with Wichita State's RPI-based resume wouldn't merit much at-large consideration from the Selection Committee. Their signature win over Utah by double figures is a great one to have earned, but only three more top-100 wins outside of that, and an RPI of 46, make the Shockers' team sheet look underwhelming. But as CBS' Matt Norlander pointed out earlier this week, Wichita State's exclusion from the tournament field would be jarring from an advanced analytics perspective.
Since Ken Pomeroy launched his notable and oft-cited KenPom basketball ratings back in 2002, no team ranked 21st or better has ever been omitted from the field. Wichita State's standing at 11th in the site's rankings, and second in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, would have made them a lock in each of the last 14 years. They rank 22nd according to our nERD metric, too.
The Shockers' fate is the best litmus test we have for how much the committee values traditional RPI measures versus advanced ratings like KenPom's and ours.
5. Which team from the crowded, confusing American Athletic Conference most deserves an at-large bid?
The American will, in all likelihood, get more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament. Who, exactly, will represent them?
Well, whoever wins the auto bid and... can I wait until Sunday to answer? There's a ton of sameness among the resumes of the conference's top four teams -- Cincinnati, Connecticut, Temple, and Tulsa. Each has an RPI between 40 and 60, which is firmly in bubble territory. All four teams have just one top 25 win. Each team has between six and eight top 100 wins, and each has no more than two bad losses.
All four of these teams are clearly on the bubble, and if someone else wins the conference tourney (say, 2-seeded Houston), it will likely come at the expense of someone else in the American. If forced to choose, the answer to the initial question might be Cincinnati. But then again, Temple beat them twice. But then again (again), Temple's RPI is ranked 58th, and they're outside the top 90 of our power rankings. Only one thing in the American is certain -- every bubble team outside this conference will be tuned into this tournament and rooting for chaos.
6. Besides Dayton, is anyone from the A-10 a lock?
Outside of the presence of Dayton, the A-10's quagmire looks a lot like the American's. These two conferences will be locked in head-to-head competition against each other for the committee's last few selections. Saint Joseph's, St. Bonaventure, and VCU all have just one top 25 win, and between five and six top-100 wins.
St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph's have an edge over VCU, and the American teams, in RPI, ranked 25th and 32nd, respectively, but that's about that makes them stand out. And those RPIs do not put either team in what would be considered "lock" territory. Some bracketologists have suggested that one or two of these A-10 bubble teams are safe, but a hard look at the resumes doesn't seem to bear that out.
7. Who's the team that may surprise everyone by landing in the First Four or missing the tournament altogether?
With a 24-7 record coming into the SEC Tournament and scattered appearances in this year's AP Top 25 rankings, South Carolina might appear to some to be safely in the field, especially given all the weakness found on the bubble this year. But there's more than meets the eye with that presumably solid record.
Six of South Carolina's seven losses have come to sub-70 RPI teams, including three to sub-150 teams. It's top 25/50/100 win profile goes one, two, and eight, which is worse than the profile of Syracuse, Tulsa, and Temple. The Gamecocks are 53th in RPI, 74th in strength of schedule, and nowhere to be found in our bracketology. The aggregated projections over at The Bracket Project has South Carolina as a 9 seed, but a loss to Georgia on Friday could be disastrous to South Carolina's chances of a long-awaited return to March Madness.
8. Will Monmouth's animated bench hold its next performance at the First Four, or the NIT?
We spoke about Monmouth last week, and the unfortunate truth is that Monmouth's resume has declined in prestige throughout the season due to the under-performance of Georgetown and UCLA, two of Monmouth's, at the time, shocking non-conference wins.
Monmouth's two non-conference wins against teams likely to make the NCAA Tournament came against the 37th- (Notre Dame) and 46th- (USC) ranked teams in RPI. Outside of those wins, there are only two more top-100 wins on their resume (for a total of four, equal to Wichita State), and three losses to sub-200 teams. Monmouth's last best chance is to root hard for Notre Dame to win the ACC Tournament, and hope that the Selection Committee rewards a 27-7 record in spite of a 164th-ranked strength of schedule.
9. Should everyone with even a passing interest in college hoops be paying attention on Sunday?
This one's the only easy question on the board. For all the reasons listed above, and even more questions that, if asked, would have even further exceeded this article's suggested word count, the answer is yes. There are probably three times more teams sweating it out on the bubble than usual, and with Kansas the only lock for a 1 seed, Sunday's bracket announcement has the potential to surprise from 1 to all the way to 16.