Five takeaways from the NCAA tournament bracket preview show

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Saturday February 11th, 2017

When the NCAA first announced that it would pull back the curtain and give us a peak at the top of the bracket a month before Selection Sunday, I was among the masses that rose up in opposition. It’s only fair that I admit, then, that as I sat on my couch watching the bracket reveal in rapt attention on Saturday morning, that my initial reaction was dead wrong. The event had the feel of a mini-Selection Sunday, generating excitement for the sport while letting not only the 16 teams included in the reveal, but those who just missed out, know exactly where they stand with one month to go before the real thing. I still think the field of 68 changes too frequently for this to eventually be a weekly event, akin to what we see in college football, but I am now firmly in the pro-bracket-reveal camp.

The entertainment value of Reveal Saturday—a moniker sure to catch on as strongly as Selection Sunday—was merely a bonus. By planting a flag, the committee showed the college basketball community what it values most when building the bracket. Here are my five big takeaways from the unveiling.

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​1. The Selection Committee is not impressed by the Big Ten

The Big Ten was the lone power conference without a team in the top 16. Not Wisconsin, which is 21-3 overall, 10-1 in the Big Ten, ranked 12th on kenpom.com and 18th in the RPI. Not Purdue, which is 20-5 overall, 9-3 in conference, 11th on kenpom.com and 19th in the RPI. Selection Committee Chair Mark Hollis—who, coincidentally, is Michigan State’s athletic director—did mention both the Badgers and Boilermakers as teams that just missed out on the top 16, along with Creighton, so it’s entirely possible one or both play their way into the top quarter of the field. Still, it’s clear that the committee has an unfavorable view of the Big Ten, which is admittedly down this year. While Wisconsin and Purdue will be safely in the field, this could be terrible news for the conference’s bubble teams, such as Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan.

​2. Performance against top-50 RPI teams is paramount 

We say in the Bracket and Bubble Watch every week that what teams do against tournament-quality competition matters more than anything else. For the committee, that means win-loss record against the RPI top 50. It explains why Wisconsin is no more than a No. 5 seed in the committee’s eye right now; the Badgers are 2-3 against the top 50. Florida, which surprisingly checked in as a No. 3 seed, is 5-5 against the same group. Kentucky, which has struggled recently, is also 5-5. Butler played its way onto the 3-line on the strength of its seven top-50 wins. The best way for a team to move up the seed list over the next month is by beating RPI top-50 teams, which is great news for teams in the ACC and Big 12.

​3. The Pac-12 tournament will determine the composition of the West Region

For the sake of conversation, let’s assume that Gonzaga will be one of the top-two seeds out west, likely a safe assumption no matter what the Bulldogs do the rest of the season. That means there’s just one spot in San Jose for the Pac-12’s great triumvirate. The committee has Oregon in the driver’s seat, a spot it is likely to occupy heading into the Pac-12 tournament, despite Thursday’s letdown at Pauley Pavilion.

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The Ducks are 2-1 against Arizona and UCLA, with both wins coming at home. They’re also done with their fellow competitors for the conference’s regular season title, with their six remaining regular season games against the middle and bottom tiers of the Pac-12. Arizona and UCLA, meanwhile, still have one meeting left in the regular season, with this one in Tucson on the last Saturday of February. If the Ducks win out, we can safely expect them to be alongside Gonzaga in pole position for the top-two seeds in the West Region, but they won’t be head and shoulders ahead of either the Bruins or Wildcats. With the next closest region in Kansas City, whichever among the Pac-12’s big three is left out will have a lot of traveling to do. The winner of the Pac-12 tournament will be most likely to stay close to home in San Jose.

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​4. The makeup of the bracket runs through Chapel Hill 

In last week’s Bracket Watch, we explained why the ranking of the ACC’s top teams will be the single most important factor as the committee builds the bracket. Hollis, the committee chair, did a great job of explaining why on Reveal Saturday.

In short, the top four teams in any conference cannot be in the same region, assuming all four are also top-16 overall seeds. That will be the case for the top-four teams in the ACC, which actually had five of its members included in Saturday’s reveal. The trickle-down effect of having at least one ACC team in the top quarter of every region will be massive, especially with the top four being spread out across every region. The committee cannot slot the second, third and fourth ACC teams before it knows where it’s sending the first, and that’s what why North Carolina holds the strings with a month to go before Selection Sunday.

The committee revealed the Tar Heels as the No. 5 overall seed and top team in the ACC on Saturday. Following right behind are Florida State (No. 6) and Louisville (No. 7), with Virginia at No. 10 overall. The Heels, by virtue of being a No. 2 seed, also got to stay as close to home as possible, placing them in the South Region, hosted in Memphis and topped by Baylor. This is where the dominoes start to fall. Florida State was sent to Kansas City, a region headed by Kansas, with Louisville joining Villanova in New York. Virginia, which is a No. 3 seed and the fourth team from the ACC, now must go into the only region without another top team from the conference, the West.

The dominoes won’t stop falling there. With Duke climbing back to a No. 4 seed—and potentially still rising—Notre Dame likely in the top half of the field, and as many as six more ACC teams getting an invite to the dance, the committee is going to need a deft hand to place all of them in the field while adhering to bracketing principles.

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​5. Don't chalk up a win for the metrics guys just yet 

Before announcing that it would reveal a portion of the bracket before Selection Sunday for the first time ever, the NCAA made waves when it announced it would meet with analytics gurus, such as Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, to get a better feel for how their rankings work, and how those could be a bigger part of the selection process. That was seen as a win for that corner of the college basketball world, but Saturday’s reveal threw some cold water on that idea.

Let’s use the rankings on kenpom.com as our prism for viewing the impact of the analytics crowd. Gonzaga is KenPom’s No. 1 team, but the Bulldogs are the No. 4 overall seed, and could fall down to the 2-line in the West should they drop a game in the West Coast Conference. Virginia and Louisville check in at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, on KenPom, but are trailing North Carolina and Florida State in their own conference, according to the committee. West Virginia, KenPom’s fourth-ranked team, is the No. 4 seed in the West Region. We already detailed how Wisconsin and Purdue are both top-12 KenPom teams, but fell short of the top 16.

The fact that the selection committee is willing to include the Pomeroys and Sagarins of the world is a step in the right direction, but it appears that analytics are still just a minor part of the selection equation.

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