You've got questions, I've got answers. Here's everything you need to know to get ready for Selection Weekend.
Q: You've always said the protracted conversation about the number one seeds was one of the most overwrought debates in sports. Is that still the case this year?
Yes and no. Most of the time, the number one seed line is little more than a lovely honorific. What is really the difference between being a No. 1 or No. 2? You still have to play the games, right?
This year, however, there is some added significance to the debate over the order of the No. 1 seeds. The reason is that Kentucky, which is likely the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, is basically equidistant between St. Louis, site of the Midwest regional, and Atlanta, site of the South. All things being equal, the committee would prefer to put Kentucky in Atlanta, but the decision will determine the remaining seed order. If North Carolina or Duke is the third No. 1, then that team can go to Atlanta and Kentucky will go to St. Louis. If Kansas is the No. 3 overall seed, then the Jayhawks will go to St. Louis, Kentucky will go to Atlanta, and Duke or North Carolina (if one of them wins the ACC tourney) could get shipped west to Phoenix. If Michigan State or Ohio State wins the Big Ten tournament, that team could also have a bead on the Midwest as a No. 1.
When it comes to the NCAA tournament, geography matters much more than seeding. If you asked Bill Self if he would rather be the No. 1 seed in the West or the No. 2 in the Midwest, I'm sure he would tell you he wants to be in St. Louis. Ditto for Missouri, which could actually benefit from losing in the Big 12 tournament if Kansas ends up being the No. 1 in the West and Missouri gets to play in its home state. Of course, if that's the case, it's very possible that would mean the Tigers have to be in the same region as Kentucky. And that's the one thing nobody wants.
Q: So you're saying the committee actually ranks the number one seeds in order? Does it do the same for the No. 2 seeds, the No. 3's, etc.?
Yes. Most people don't know this, but the committee ranks the entire field 1 through 68. Only when the entire tournament is selected and seeded does the committee start placing teams into the bracket. This happens a lot later than you would expect. Bracketing probably won't begin until Sunday morning at the earliest, maybe not even until early Sunday afternoon.
Q: How come we've never seen this overall seed list?
Because the NCAA has a habit of keeping secret things it shouldn't. But I have some good news: This year, for the very first time, the committee is going to release its overall seed list. That ranking is going to be revealed on Sunday at 7 p.m. as part of a new show on truTV called "Hardcore Brackets." (See what we did there?) The show will be hosted by Greg Gumbel, and the panel will include Greg Anthony, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and myself. The chair of the committee, Jeff Hathaway, will be interviewed alongside next year's chair, Mike Bobinski. Those guys have promised that unlike in past years, they are going to give detailed explanations as to why decisions were made, including why teams were left out. We probably won't have an official "first four out" list -- there is no such thing, since there's no need to seed teams that weren't selected -- but we will be given a list of teams that were among the last ones discussed. That should make for some very spicy conversation.
I'm sure the teams that were left out and their fans will be more enraged by this information, but I think we'll all benefit from this greater emphasis on transparency.
Q: But we don't need to see the overall seed list because we have the bracket, right? Doesn't the committee just place teams in by the S-curve?
This might be the biggest misconception regarding what the committee does. Geography far, far outweighs the S-curve. The NCAA believes that a team that has been highly seeded should be rewarded by getting the chance to play close to home. This also, not so incidentally, maximizes ticket sales. So if, for example, Duke is the fifth overall seed, e.g. the top No. 2 seed, then the Blue Devils will probably be sent to Atlanta as long as North Carolina isn't there. (Teams from the same conference can't be seeded fewer than four lines apart unless there are more than five teams from that conference in that quadrant.)
Which is not to say that competitive balance isn't important. As anyone who has attended the NCAA's mock selection seminar can tell you, as the teams are placed in the bracket, their overall seed numbers are added up region by region. So if the overall No. 1, 5, 12 and 15 are in the same region, the committee will see the number 33 at the bottom of that region's column. After four seed lines are filled in, the committee will stop to compare the totals to see if any adjustments need to be made for competitive balance. Note the chronology: First the teams are placed on the basis of geography. Then adjustments are made for competitive balance.
In short: Geography>S-curve. The S-curve is like a Big Ten fast break. It doesn't exist.
Q: Wait a minute. So you're saying if Duke is the top No. 2 seed, they could be sent to Atlanta? With Kentucky? Are you saying what I think you're saying?
Indeed I am. We could be treated to a Duke-Kentucky regional final exactly 20 years after the Laettner shot. Some things are too delicious to contemplate.
Q: Let's get to the good stuff. Who's the most interesting -- and vexing -- bubble team on the board?
Easy: Drexel. The Dragons lost four of their first six games, but after that they were positively superb. They ended the season winning 19 consecutive games before losing the CAA tournament final to VCU. Let me repeat that: They won 19 straight games, including a 20-point flyby at Cleveland State during Bracket Busters weekend. If you're going to apply the eye test, the Dragons pass it with flying colors.
Still, the closer you look at this team's resume, the less impressive it becomes. Drexel benefited from an inbalanced conference schedule that did not require it to play either George Mason or VCU on the road. The Dragons' win at Cleveland State came during a stretch when the Vikings were losing five games in a row. Though Drexel's worst loss was at Delaware, which is ranked 152nd in the RPI, it did lose at Saint Joseph's on Nov. 30. It's never good when you lose to another bubble team with a comparable resume.
Most damning of all, Drexel's nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 217th in the country. Its overall strength of schedule is ranked 208th. If they get a bid, they would be the lowest overall SOS any at-large team has had since the NCAA started using the RPI.
At the end of the day, I have to believe Drexel is getting into this tournament. Given the way so many bubble teams from power conferences have been playing themselves out of the mix, I think the committee is going to reward a team that has done everything it could to win its way in.
Q: You mentioned Drexel lost games early in the season but won big late. Does the committee take that into account, or does it count all wins (and losses) the same?
The answer depends on which committee member you ask, and on how honest he or she wants to be. For many years, the committee included a team's record over its last 10 games as part of its official criteria. A few years ago, it increased that window to the last 12 games, but eventually it got rid of the category altogether. The message was that, yes, all games are created equal, but of course committee members are free to take into account whether a team is gaining or losing momentum at the end of the regular season. I have had more than one member tell me in candid conversation that the way a team plays late in the season is a factor in their decisions. I suspect it's a bigger factor than many fans assume.
Incidentally, I've also asked plenty of members if they take scoring margin into account, and to a person they have all said they do not. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. Simple as that.
Q: Which bubble teams will force the committee to factor in personnel issues?
Two come to mind. The first is South Florida, which started off 6-5 but was missing some combination of Anthony Collins, Augustus Gilchrist and Jawanza Poland because of injuries and suspension. That's three of the team's top four scorers. With all of those guys in the fold, the Bulls went 14-7, including a win at Louisville two weeks ago. That stands as the team's only top-50 win, but it also beat No. 56 Cincinnati and No. 66 Seton Hall. The Bulls passed the eye test Thursday night, going dribble for dribble with Notre Dame in the Big East quarterfinals before falling in overtime.
The other team is Tennessee, which added freshman forward Jarnell Stokes in December. The Vols were 8-8 when Stokes came on board, but they won eight of their last nine to claim the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament. They have four top-50 wins, including a road win at Florida and a win over UConn in Knoxville. That's a pretty strong bubble resume even if you don't take into consideration the addition of Stokes, who is currently the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. A win over Ole Miss in the SEC quarterfinal strengthens Tennessee's case. Two wins in that tournament will seal the deal.
Q: Who is most likely to be surprised, for better or worse?
Every year the committee pulls a move or two that nobody expects. Last year it was including VCU and dissing Virginia Tech. Remember when Air Force came out of nowhere in 2006 to get a bid? Or when Syracuse was shockingly omitted in '07? We know we're gonna be surprised. We just don't know exactly how.
If you're looking for a bad kind of surprise, look at Virginia. This is even more likely in the wake of the Cavaliers' loss to N.C. State in the ACC tournament. Right now, Virginia only has two wins against the top 50. One was against No. 49 Miami at home, and the second was at home against Michigan on Nov. 29. The Cavaliers have been saddled by injuries the last month, which caused them to lose four of seven down the stretch. Most damning of all is their nonconference strength of schedule, which is ranked No. 236 in the country. The committee will not take kindly to that number. That's what did in Colorado last year.
On the flip side, here's a team nobody is talking about for an at-large: Marshall. Yes, the Thundering Herd went 9-7 in Conference USA, so things look pretty hopeless, but they do have some upside. They have two wins over the top 50 (both at home over Southern Miss and Iona), but they also have a road win at Cincinnati (albeit back on Nov. 25). Their record against the top 100 is a respectable 5-9, and best of all they have a great strength of schedule rank: No. 32 overall, No. 10 in the nonconference. Marshall's overall RPI rank is 56, so that should at least tell you the team's closer than people think. Marshall's win over Southern Miss in the Conference USA semifinal, has certainly earned the team a longer look.
If the Herd got a bid it would be a huge surprise, but remember -- we've been surprised before.