Midwest region overrated, no love for UNC, more bracket thoughts
The debate over the makeup of the 68-team field for the 2014 NCAA tournament has only just begun. The next four days will be filled with bracket prognostications, trendy upset picks and championship predictions. Before getting to that, though, let's consider some immediate impressions after the unveiling of this year's field.
Most overrated region: Midwest
If you're considering the path for the top seed, this is not nearly the gauntlet for No. 1 Wichita State that it might appear to be on first glance. It's not that there aren't Final Four worthy teams in this region. It's just that it has the fewest legitimate contenders to reach Dallas as any region in the field.
Speaking of Louisville, plenty of ink has been spilled about the Cardinals' run through the second half of the AAC season, as well as the conference tournament, but the bottom line is that they looked like an average team during their non-conference schedule. Even after splitting the AAC regular season crown with Cincinnati, the defending national champions won just five top-50 games, and three of those were against Connecticut. Of Louisville's 29 wins, exactly four came against teams in the field of 68.
Meanwhile, No. 5 seed Saint Louis is the least impressive team seeded that high or better in the entire tournament (more on that below). The Billikens sputtered down the stretch, losing three of their last four games in the regular season, then fell to lowly St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. They did not win one impressive game out of the A-10, and lost both of the games they played against top-10 RPI teams (to Wisconsin and Wichita State).
Michigan and Duke, the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the region, respectively, are both legitimate threats to make the Final Four, but the Shockers will only have to beat one at most to get to Dallas, and they reached last year's Final Four by knocking off both the No. 1 and 2 seeds in their region. It feels safe to narrow the Midwest's number of contenders to reach the last weekend in April to just three teams: the Shockers, Wolverines and Blue Devils. That makes it the weakest of the four regions.
Toughest region: South
Florida may be the No. 1 overall seed, but you wouldn't know it from this loaded region. Despite going 18-0 in the SEC, winning the conference tournament and being the consensus best team in the country for the last month -- and, some would argue, even when Syracuse was still undefeated in mid-February -- the committee stuck the Gators with the toughest bracket in the tournament.
Kansas, which lost to Florida on the road in December, is the No. 2 seed. The Jayhawks were in contention for the last No. 1 seed until losing their regular season finale at West Virginia and again in the Big 12 semifinals to Iowa State, but they still rank No. 3 in RPI. Kansas may be without freshman center Joel Embiid, whose bad back makes his status for the tournament unclear; the Jayhawks are hopeful he can play if they make it to the second weekend. That means he'd be back on the court with fellow freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins, who is improving rapidly, for what would be a monumental rematch with the Gators in the Elite Eight.
The No. 3 seed is Syracuse, which topped the polls for a significant stretch of the season. The Orange may have gone into a tailspin since mid-February, losing five of their last seven, but they were without Jerami Grant for much of that time. Now that Grant has returned after dealing with a back injury, Syracuse will be as tough an out as anyone from the 3-line.
It doesn't end there, though. No. 5 seed VCU won at Virginia and Dayton, swept George Washington and beat Saint Louis. Ohio State, the surprising No. 6 seed, won at Wisconsin, swept Nebraska and beat Michigan State and North Dakota State. New Mexico, the South's No. 7 seed despite being No. 15 in RPI, just won the Mountain West Conference tournament after beating San Diego State for the second time this year. In short, this is the only region with at least seven teams in the RPI top 25.
Weakest region: West
The West has two high-quality teams in Arizona (No. 1) and Wisconsin (No. 2), respectively, but Creighton at No. 3 and San Diego State at No. 4 really push down the overall strength of the region a few pegs. The Blue Jays are beloved by the ratings systems (No. 7 in RPI and No. 8 on KenPom), but they've also proven themselves susceptible to losing to teams all over the bracket. They lost to San Diego State, George Washington, Xavier and Providence, teams seeded fourth, ninth, 11th and 12th in the field. They boast the certain national player of the year in Doug McDermott, crushed Villanova twice and are the proud owners of eight top-50 wins, but they just don't measure up to Duke, Iowa State and Syracuse, the other No. 3 seeds.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, have three top-20 wins, but they are largely untested for a No. 4 seed. Their non-conference schedule ranked 160th in the country, even though they played Arizona, Kansas and Creighton. San Diego State played just six games against the top 50 all year, and three of those were against New Mexico, two of which the Aztecs lost. They only had one bad loss, but their resume falls short of fellow No. 4 seeds Michigan State, Louisville and UCLA.
Oklahoma and Baylor are solid as Nos. 5 and 6 seeds. The Sooners went 7-5 against the top 50, while the Bears rode a hot finish to an 8-9 record against the top 50 and the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma State lurks as a semi-dangerous No. 9, especially given the fact the Big 12 ranked as the second-best conference in the country according to KenPom. Still, when you're counting on the second quarter of the seeds in a region to make up for the teams seeded third and fourth, you're probably looking at the softest region in the bracket.
NEXT: Surprises on Tobacco Road
No love from the committee: North Carolina
There will always be a few surprise seedings, but rarely have they been as glaring as when North Carolina was revealed as the East region's No. 6 seed. To use just one team for a comparison, there is no way that Saint Louis should get a No. 5 while the Tar Heels get shunted to a No. 6, even if the committee put a great deal of emphasis on UNC's losses to UAB, Wake Forest and Miami (Belmont, which beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in November, proved to be a pretty good team, finishing No. 55 in the RPI.)
The Billikens suffered two bad losses of their own and had the worst loss of the two teams, falling at home to Duquesne, a team ranked 199th in RPI. As for notable wins, North Carolina won five top-50 games, including a neutral-court victory over Louisville and a true road win at Michigan State. The Tar Heels also beat Duke, Kentucky and Pittsburgh. Saint Louis' best win, meanwhile, was over VCU. North Carolina had four top-25 wins. Saint Louis had one. In no objective way is the Billkens' resume better than the Tar Heels'.
There's also a strong argument to be made that North Carolina deserved to be seeded higher than VCU, the No. 5 in the South. The committee can defend nearly all its seeding decisions, but it's hard to see North Carolina as a No. 6 in what looks like the second-toughest region in the field.
North Carolina State had two top-50 wins at the start of the ACC tournament. Even though the Wolfpack beat Syracuse in the quarterfinals, they appeared out of luck after losing to Duke in the semifinals on Saturday. They went 3-9 against the top 50, 6-10 against the top 100 and lost three games to teams with sub-100 RPIs. That's why it was such a surprise to see them revealed as one of the last four teams in the field. They'll meet Xavier on Tuesday in the First Four. The Musketeers seemed to be more securely in the bracket, but the committee deemed Nebraska and Dayton more worthy of what is technically a first-round bye. The winner of N.C. State vs. Xavier will play Saint Louis in the second round.
The other surprising team to see among the last four in is Iowa. At one point the Hawkeyes looked like they could contend for the Big Ten championship. Then they lost six of their last seven games, with the lone win coming over Purdue, the league's last-place team. Still, Iowa seemed to have a strong enough resume, highlighted by wins over Michigan and Ohio State, to avoid one of the First Four games. They may have been knocked to a play-in game by virtue of Providence, which also got an 11-seed, winning the Big East tournament. Iowa will face Tennessee, a team many pegged as one of the last four in, on Wednesday, with the winner advancing to take on Massachusetts. The Volunteers did what they had to do in the final week of the regular season and in the SEC championship game, avoiding bad losses that could have made them vulnerable to being left out. After teams like Minnesota and Arkansas that were chasing bids failed to pick up big wins in their conference tournaments, Tennessee looked like a safe bet for one of the last four spots.
SMU is easily the most surprising omission from the field. Even after flaming out in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals against Houston, the Mustangs looked to have a strong enough case to make the field. They owned four top-40 wins, all of which were over teams that are going dancing. While the loss to the Cougars may have been the last straw for the committee, SMU provided reason to doubt its worthiness earlier in the season by losing to South Florida and Temple, both of which have RPIs worse than 175. The Mustangs' non-conference strength of schedule ranked 303rd in the country, and that didn't do them any favors, either.
SMU was the only team in our final bracket before the selection show that did not end up making the field. While teams like Minnesota, Arkansas, California and UW-Green Bay certainly had cases for inclusion, the Mustangs are the only team that should feel truly snubbed on Sunday night.
How unexpected was it for N.C. State to make the field while SMU got left out? According to bracketmatrix.com, which culls projected brackets from around the Internet, of the 85 projected brackets, 72 had the Mustangs in the field. Only two included the Wolfpack.
And the last No. 1 seed is . . .
The Virginia Cavaliers. While Florida (South), Wichita State (Midwest) and Arizona (West) were long ago assured of getting a No. 1 seed, the top spot in the East remained up for grabs right up until the final hours before the brackets were revealed. In the end, the selection committee rewarded Virginia for winning both the ACC regular season and tournament championship, making the Cavs one of just two power conference teams to sweep both of their league titles. The other? The Gators, the No. 1 overall seed.
Speaking of those double-titles, last year's Miami Hurricanes were the first ACC team ever to win the league's regular season and tournament championships and not get a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. The committee did not make a habit of that decision this year.
Every contender for that last No. 1 seed had flaws, so it's hard to argue with the anointing of Virginia, which won five games against the RPI top 50, went 13-6 against the top 100 and boast the No. 10 RPI and No. 4 ranking on kenpom.com. Michigan was the likely No. 1 seed in the East heading into Sunday, but the Wolverines opened the door by losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. Michigan, Kansas, Villanova and Wisconsin also had legitimate arguments for the final No. 1 seed, but none of them took full advantage of their opportunities in the respective conference tournaments over the last week.
While the committee granted the Cavaliers a No. 1 seed, it didn't do them any more favors. A region that includes Villanova (the Big East regular season champion; No. 2), Iowa State (the Big 12 tournament champion; No. 3), Michigan State (the Big Ten tournament champion; No. 4), Cincinnati (the co-AAC regular season champion; No. 5) and North Carolina (No. 6) will be hard for any team to win.