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March 12, 2007
An Annual Confession
I have no baseball for you today. If that makes you unhappy, check out Kevin Goldstein's Ten-Pack, Maury Brown's analysis of the DirecTV deal, or the latest in our Hope and Faith series. Until we launch College Basketball Prospectus, however, I'll do this once a year.
As many of you know, I love college basketball. It's my #2 sports passion behind baseball, so for the past couple of weeks, I've been as obsessed with that game as I usually am with hardball for most of the year. I love the conference tournaments-which, to me, counter the argument for an expanded NCAA tournament, as they effectively act as play-ins-and the speculation about who will make the NCAA field and who won't. I send e-mails to friends, put together spreadsheets, and watch more games than is healthy.
I missed three teams this year, which ties my maximum since I've been doing this. I had Florida State, Syracuse and Drexel in the field, leaving out Arkansas, Illinois and Old Dominion. I can understand Arkansas being in; they were my last team out, and the 'Cuse among my last four in. The committee valued the late run in the SEC tournament, even though the Razorbacks didn't exactly beat very good teams in reaching the final. Syracuse was penalized, presumably, for a lack of nonconference performance. Their best win outside of conference-where they had three good wins-was at home over Holy Cross. They didn't leave New York state for a nonconference game. That stuff matters when you're doing things like losing to St. John's.
I'm less convinced that the omissions of Florida State and Drexel make sense. Florida State, in fact, wasn't even among my last few teams in. They had six road wins, five Top 50 wins, and no losses outside the Top 100. Moreover, they were 19-8 with Toney Douglas on the court, and he's been back and healthy for a few weeks. I understand the arguments against them-eighth in their own conference, 8-10 in conference, 13 sub-100 wins-but I fail to see where the bad outweighs the good. Contrasting them with Illinois…they had better wins, generally better losses, better road performance, and seemed subjectively to be a better team during the time they had Douglas.
In fact, the way to get into the tournament this year seemed to be to have lots of games with Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. The Big 11 was simply a bad basketball conference this year, with two of the best teams in the country, a third good one in Indiana, and nothing after.
Leaving Drexel out so that three Big 11 teams could keep playing is simply criminal. Illinois, Michigan State, and Purdue had six road wins combined, every one of them at Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State. When you get down to it, the reason the Big 11 got six teams in this year is because the bottom of their conference was a joke, and fed enough wins to the middle to inflate their records. That's the entire reason Illinois is in, and it's a significant reason Purdue made it.
As far as the Colonial teams are concerned, it's clear that the in-conference performance meant more than the pre-conference performance. It does seem, however, that the committee has set a very high standard for teams outside of the Big Six. They have to schedule well, pick up some wins, and also be among the top two or maybe three teams in their conference. Again, Drexel had 13 road wins, and I'd say that they had three road wins better than the best road win of at least four at-large teams, maybe more. They had more than twice as many road wins than the middle tier of the Big 11 combined. Yes, they were 1-5 against the top of the Colonial, but all those losses are fairly good ones. Who knew that Old Dominion's 62-52 win in Philly on February 1 was an elimination game?
This isn't 2006, where the committee made some egregious errors. One thing I keep coming back to is that virtually every team with a beef could have won their last game and made the argument moot. This is particularly true for Syracuse, Drexel, Air Force, Appalachian State, and Missouri State, all of whom needed to advance just a bit further in conference tournaments to solidify their cases. I do think the cases of Drexel and Appalachian State-which was a truly terrific team when Donte Minter was healthy-serve to make the point that outside of the top ten conferences, there's virtually no amount of nonconference performance that will make you an at-large candidate without at least winning the regular-season conference title. For those teams, getting into the dance is such a slog that it may not be worth trying. Drexel and Appy State had the #5 and #7 nonconference RPIs, and they're going to the NIT. At that point, it's time to knock on the glass ceiling and walk away.
While the selection of the field was sensible, the seeding was not. Certainly, performance in conference tournaments-the weight of which shifts from year to year-was considered heavily in seeding. Sometimes. UCLA's loss to Cal Thursday knocked them off the top line as four other #1 candidates-including Kansas, which may finally get a first-round matchup it can win-won their tournaments. It's interesting to me that in doing so, the four teams only played five games of 12 against NCAA tournament teams, and of those, only two were against clearly good teams (Ohio State over Wisconsin, and Kansas over Texas). That doesn't excuse UCLA's loss, but it's an indication of how weak the middle of the top conferences were this year, and that perhaps weighting the conference tournaments as highly as the committee did was a mistake.
There are odd seeds on nearly every line after the top three. Texas is underseeded at four. Butler peaked a long time ago, and is violently overseeded at five. Duke is high at six, UNLV low at seven. In fact, the UNLV seed is inexplicable. They were second in a good conference, won the conference tournament, and won a number of tough games out of conference. Subjectively, I think they're a quality team, one that plays defense and can win in the 60s or the 80s. You could flip them and Butler-or them and Virginia at four-and have a better bracket. Creighton is far too low in a tenth slot as well.
A couple more notes before we turn back to baseball…
We'll get back to baseball tomorrow. Thanks for indulging me.