Mail: Duke's chances at a No. 1 seed, the SEC's struggles, more

Wednesday February 15th, 2017

These days, a trip to Twitter is a visit to Bracketville. Everyone wants me to gauge the present and predict the future. Truth be told, I’m just guessing like all of you, and there are professional bracket guys out there who know more about this stuff than I do. But there is one intriguing scenario that I want to address:

If Oregon, Arizona or UCLA ran the table, would it get a No. 1 seed? — Gabriel Secrest (@gsecrest7)

It is difficult to answer this in a vacuum, because there are obviously other teams vying for a No. 1 seed. But consider three factors in play here:

1. Gonzaga is almost certainly going to get a No. 1 seed

2. The West region is going to be hosted in San Jose

3. The selection committee will not put two teams from the same conference in the first four seeds of any particular region, unless that conference has five teams among the top 16 overall seeds—which will not be the case with the Pac-12

So the more important question here is not which of the Pac-12 teams may or may not get a No. 1 seed, but whether they will even want one. Because if Gonzaga is seeded higher than the top team from the Pac-12, and if that top team is a No. 1 seed, then that team will not be able to play in San Jose. If that’s what happens, then the second best Pac-12 gets that coveted assignment. And I’d bet if you asked any of the players and coaches from that league, they’d much rather be the No. 2 seed in San Jose than the No. 1 seed in Memphis.

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That, however, doesn’t mean it is necessarily better to be the conference’s No. 2-rated team. (Notice I am not speaking in terms of winning the conference or finishing in second place. That does not always translate exactly to seedings.) Because the other scenario, which was reflected in the committee’s midseason bracket reveal, is that none of the Pac-12 teams get awarded a No. 1 seed. In that case, the top-seeded team will get the opportunity to play in San Jose as a No. 2 seed. That was huge on Saturday as the committee ranked Oregon as the No. 8 overall seed, just ahead of Arizona at No. 9. Therefore, Oregon was the No. 2 seed in the West, and Arizona was shipped to the Midwest (Kansas City) as a No. 3 seed.

When I asked committee chair Mark Hollis why the Ducks had gotten the nod given that they had just lost at UCLA two nights before, he pointed to Oregon’s head-to-head victory over Arizona in Eugene on Feb. 4. The two teams do not play each other again in the regular season, so the only opportunity for Arizona to vanquish that result would potentially come in the conference tournament.

UCLA, meanwhile, was surprisingly several slots below those two as the No. 15 overall seed, which translated to the No. 4 in the East. The Bruins split their regular season series with Oregon, and though they lost at home to Arizona on Jan. 21, they can return the favor in Tucson on Feb. 25. If UCLA wins that game and wins the Pac-12 tournament, there is a very good chance that the Bruins will be the highest-seeded Pac-12 team on Selection Sunday. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Now on to the rest of the Twitterbag. . . .

Are the Badgers actually in danger of missing the tournament if they don’t get it together quickly? — Adam (@asb613)

Gotta love mid-February panic! I was among the many people who were surprised to learn that the committee had left Wisconsin out of the top 16. Upon closer inspection, however, it makes sense. The Badgers’ best two wins are at Minnesota on Jan. 21 and on a neutral court against Tennessee on Nov. 21. Plus, their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked No. 181 in the country. And all this was before they lost at home on Sunday to a Northwestern team that was missing its leading scorer and had itself lost to Illinois in its previous outing.

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That said, there is zero chance that Wisconsin misses out on this tournament. This team has lost four games all season, and every one has been to teams ranked in the top 35 of the RPI. This is a tough time of year for teams like Wisconsin. The Badgers know they are going to be in the tournament, but that is still four weeks away, which feels like a lifetime. Meanwhile, for many of the teams they’re playing, a win over a team of this stature is a huge plus on the résumé. Even when Wisconsin is sharp, it is not the kind of team that tends to run away from its opponents. So my advice to Badgers fans is to stay patient, don’t panic, and remain optimistic about their chance to advance deep into the NCAA tournament.

Grant Halverson/Getty

Is a No. 1 seed still a possibility for Duke? — Josh (@Josh12_25_80)

Duke remains one of the more intriguing teams for the committee to evaluate. The Blue Devils have played 25 games heading into their date at Virginia Wednesday night, and yet between injuries, the Grayson Allen suspension and Coach K’s absence following back surgery, they have been whole for just six of them. Actually, the number is three if you account for 6’ 10” sophomore forward Chase Jeter, who had a procedure to alleviate a herniated disc in his back but hasn’t played the last seven games, though he is technically available to play.

On the other hand, Duke’s win over North Carolina, and its ability to survive at home against Clemson despite being emotionally spent, has many folks chattering that the Blue Devils are ready to résumé their preseason perch as the consensus No. 1 team. While it is not the committee’s job to

project into the future, it is the members’ job to take personnel issues, including head coach absences, into consideration. So the main variable will be how Duke now plays with its roster essentially intact.

If this team goes on a strong run the next few weeks and wins the ACC tournament, the committee will give those late games extra weight. I don’t believe a team with five losses, including one at home to North Carolina State, can get to the No. 1 seed line, but the Blue Devils are in position to rise faster and farther than any other team in the field. 

What’s better for a bubble team, a road win vs. a top-100 team or a home win vs. a top-50 team? — Dave (@OrangeDave44) 

The answer, as always, is: It depends. But if past is prologue then the most critical criteria is the number of wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. In my experience, a bubble team needs at least three of those to get into the tournament. Four top-50 wins basically locks in a bid. Obviously road wins (as well as neutral court wins) are better than home wins, but I’ll take the win over a really good team over a road win over a mediocre team any day of the week.

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Incidentally, the reverse is true for teams at the top of the seed lines. Every team in consideration for a No. 1 seed has lots of top-50 wins. The ones that don’t quite get to the top line are the teams that have one or two losses to opponents ranked outside the top 100 of the RPI. 

Who are the top three “mid-major” coaches who should make jump to the Power 5 after this year? — The Grand Poobah (@postcard4273)

Lists, lists, I love lists!

1. Kevin Keatts, UNC Wilmington. Keatts isn’t quite as young as he looks (he’s 44), but he is only in his third year as a Division I head coach. Last year, he took the Seahawks to the NCAA tournament, where they gave Duke a good fight before losing by eight. They are now in first place in the CAA and ranked No. 56 on kenpom.com. Keatts is also a former assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino, who has always been a staunch advocate for his guys when the coaching carousel starts spinning.

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2. Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast. Dooley did not have an easy assignment in taking over for Andy Enfield right after the Eagles made their miracle run to the Sweet 16. He brought the team back to the NCAA tournament last year and they are tied for first place in the Sun Belt. Dooley has previous head coaching experience (East Carolina, from 1995–99) and was an assistant for Bill Self at Kansas for 10 years.

3. Dan Muller, Illinois State. The Redbirds are not in the NCAA tournament yet, but if they get there, then Muller will get a lot of looks from prospective employers. It will not be easy to pry him away considering he played for Illinois State, but he also spent 12 years as an assistant to Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, so he knows how a big-time program operates.

Aside from Kentucky and Florida, why is the SEC so terrible in basketball? — Speaker of the Hows (@The_Larso)

I wish I had a good answer for this, because it seems like every fall we are told that this is going to be a terrific year for SEC basketball, only to have more of the same old mediocrity and lack of depth. We have seen some pretty good coaches like Frank Martin, Rick Barnes, Ben Howland, Bruce Pearl and Avery Johnson come into the league in recent years. So far, alas, that has not translated into a lot of high-level basketball. The SEC has 14 teams, but right now only three are locks to make the NCAA tournament. There may not be a fourth.

At the end of the day, this is about culture, plain and simple. In the SEC, football is and always will be king. The schools are not committed to basketball in nearly the same way. The reverse is true in the ACC. It’s just the way it is, and it’s hard to see any momentum that indicates things are going to change anytime soon. 

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Does the committee get too caught up in the metrics instead of using the eye test, in your opinion? — Jamie Wilson (@JWilson_1)

I actually had an interesting conversation about this topic with the committee chair, Mark Hollis, as well as CBS’s RPI and bracket guru Jerry Palm. I know from many years dealing with members of the selection committee that they watch a ton of games. However, you could make the case—as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi often has—that the so-called “eye test” should not be a factor at all in the committee’s decisions. Lunardi’s belief is that teams earn their way into the field by achieving results, and that it shouldn’t matter what they look like or how they get there. This is goes hand in hand with the argument that we need more “basketball people” on the committee instead a bunch of athletic directors and conference commissioners.

I was surprised when Mark told me that he basically shares Lunardi’s point of view. I asked him, then, what’s the point of watching so many games? The answer is that the committee believes that the more information they have to make their decisions, the better those decisions will be. But yes, the metrics and results matter far more than the eye test. In the end, all this does is point up just how subjective this process really is. We can’t even agree on what the criteria should be, much less what results the process should yield. That’s also what makes it such fun.

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