And down the stretch we come.
There are now fewer than three weeks to go until Selection Sunday. For better or worse—and there will be plenty of both—we are about to be inundated with wall-to-wall chatter about bubbles, seeds and the implications all this will have on western civilization.
I welcome it all. It is not always easy for college basketball to garner the attention of the public, but the annual run-up to Selection Sunday is tailor made for our talk show-addled society. Still, if we’re going to debate what the NCAA men's basketball committee should decide three weeks hence, we should speak accurately about how it arrives at those decisions. The NCAA has done an excellent job the last several years of educating the public by holding a mock selection exercise for members of the media. Alas, too many myths persist. Here are seven that need to be dispelled forthwith:
1. The RPI matters.
It does, but probably not the way you think.
The RPI is a metric calculated on the following formula: 25 percent a team’s record, 50 percent a team’s opponents’ record, and 25 percent a team’s opponents’ opponents’ record. It is a helpful but imperfect way of leveling the landscape so the committee can make comparisons between teams at different levels and from leagues.
Yet, most of the times when the RPI is cited, it is presented as a team’s general ranking, as in “their RPI [rank] is 52.” It is more relevant to use the RPI to break down a team’s schedule the way the committee does it, which is to organize how a team did against the top 50 of the RPI, the top 100, the bottom 100, etcetera. When the committee discusses a team's profile, its RPI rank is barely noticeable and hardly discussed.
The RPI discussion is just a starting point, not an endgame. The committee members watch a lot of games. They rely very heavily on what they see. You can debate their expertise all you want, but at the end of the day, this ain’t rocket science. They watch the games, they see all the numbers, and they render their verdicts.
2. There is such a thing as the S curve.
I don’t even know how this term got started, but it is woefully misleading. According to this myth, when it comes to placing teams in the bracket, the committee pairs the top No. 2 seed (the overall No. 5) with the bottom No. 1 seed (overall No. 4) in the same region. The next-best 2-seed gets paired with the third-best 1-seed, and right on down the line.
Sorry. Not true.
In reality, the main factor that dictates all this is geography. The committee assigns teams to be as close to their natural regions as possible. So if, for example, Gonzaga is awarded the No. 4 overall seed and Arizona is slated at No. 8, then there is a good chance that they would be assigned the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the West region. The committee has the option of switching things up to achieve a competitive balance, but that is a secondary concern.
3. Conference affiliation is important.
Many conversations you will hear over the next three weeks will center on the strength of respective leagues. “Well, the Big 12 is better than the SEC, so it should get more teams.” That is a sideshow. As someone who has sat in several mock selection exercises, often times you don’t even think about how many teams each league has placed into the bracket until you’re done.
A team’s conference is only as relevant as the competition it provides. For example, Wisconsin has an advantage over Gonzaga in the race for a No. 1 seed because the Big Ten has eight teams that are ranked in the top 60 of the RPI, while the West Coast Conference has just three. But this is harder to apply as you go down the seed list, especially in this era of the megaconference and unbalanced scheduling. The Big 12 is the only member of the Power Five that still plays a double round robin, so not only does the committee have a hard time comparing teams from separate conferences, it is harder to compare teams from the same conference. So what do they do? They ignore the conference affiliations and compare overall résumés—as well they should.
4. Late season games count more.
I hear this all the time. “Yeah, that was a big win, but it was back in November!” As if that means it didn’t count.
Balderdash. The committee has been very clear that a win is a win is a win, no matter when it happened. This is a smart philosophy for two reasons. First of all, if you look at game results over the years, you will find no correlation between how a team plays late in the regular season and how it performs in the tournament. Just last season, UConn ended its regular season with a 31-point loss at Louisville. Four weeks later, the Huskies were cutting down the nets in North Texas.
Second, the committee’s emphasis on overall performance and nonconference schedules has made November and December much more exciting for the sport. The last thing these folks want to do is give coaches any excuse to back out of challenging nonconference games. It used to be that on a team’s “sheet”—the spreadsheet that contains a team’s results arranged according to RPI rank of their opponents—there was a separate category for the last 10 games. That was later increased to the last 12. Now it doesn’t even exist. It’s not on the sheets, and it should not be part of the discussion.
5. The committee tries to create intriguing matchups.
Whenever I ask fellow media colleagues to name their biggest takeaways from the mock selection exercise, this is the one that comes up most. Not only does the committee not create matchups, it’s almost impossible to do so even if they wanted.
Here’s how it works. The committee starts working on Tuesday, holds countless votes, decides the final at-large bids, assembles a seed list 1 through 68, and then “scrubs” that list over and over and over until they get it where they want it. This usually gets finalized by Saturday night. You can imagine how bleary-eyed they feel by that point.
Once the committee starts putting teams into the actual bracket, it is bound bound by a lengthy list of bracketing principles. For example, two teams from the same conference can’t meet before the regional final unless there are five teams from that league in the top 16. The committee won’t send teams to an arena where they have played three or more games during the season. It also tries to avoid rematches in the first round, although that is not the hard-and-fast rule it has been in the past. All this is being conducted via a software program that projects the field onto a big screen. The teams are listed 1 through 16 in each region, so the committee doesn’t see the actual bracket until it is completed and printed out—which typically happens late on Sunday afternoon.
After going through all this work, the last thing the committee wants to do is waste time setting up a match-up between two coaches who hate each other, or between a head coach and his former assistant, or try to make sure the best two freshmen in the country meet in the Sweet 16. That could cause too many problems with respect to geography, competitive balance and the bracketing principles. Conspiracy theorists love to imagine that this is how it all goes down, but it just ain’t so.
6. The committee makes decisions based solely on the data.
The numbers can only accomplish so much. Even the eye test has its limits. The reality is, once you get to those last six to eight at-large spots, there is no discernible difference between the two dozen teams that are still under consideration.
That’s when a little social engineering comes into play. Of course the committee has a bias. It’s inhabited by human beings, right? These people are very cognizant that they can influence behavior. So they do two things: They punish high-major teams with weak nonconference schedules (such as SMU last year), and they go out of their way to find a mid- to low-major team that doesn’t have as many “quality wins” and throw them a bone (such as Middle Tennessee two years ago). If that gives us better early-season basketball and encourages more of the elite programs to play the so-called little guys, then I’m all for it.
7. The results of the tournament validate or invalidate the committee’s decisions.
This narrative begins as soon as the games tip off. If a highly seeded team (read: Gonzaga or Wichita State) gets knocked off during the first weekend, that is used as evidence that that team did not deserve that seed. This is ridiculous. The committee always stresses that it does not try to predict results when putting together the bracket. It is simply reflecting what happened during the regular season.
The committee is not above playing this silly game, too. In 2008, when all of the No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first (and last) time, that year’s chairman, George Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor, was a little too eager to take credit for his committee getting the bracket “right.” The whole charm of this tournament is that the best team doesn’t always win. If that were the goal, we should just pick 16 teams, junk the current format, and let everyone slog it out in a best-of-seven series. Right or wrong, the debate over selection and seeding ends when the bracket is revealed. After that, it’s time to play ball.
So there you go. Consider the myths dispelled. Now start yapping!
• Don’t look now, but Northwestern is on a three-game win streak, its first in the Big Ten in three years. The Wildcats drubbed Penn State on Saturday thanks to a season-high 17 points and 11 rebounds from 6’7” freshman forward Vic Law. The team’s second-leading scorer, and arguably its best player, is another freshman, 6’3” guard Bryant McIntosh. As I’ve been saying for a while, by the time these guys are through, they will have this program in its first-ever NCAA tournament.
• I don’t usually pay too much attention to these things, but it is downright silly that Murray State’s Cameron Payne was not included among the 17 finalists for the Bob Cousy award, which is given to the nation’s top point guard. The 6’2” sophomore is ranked first in the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring at 19.7 ppg, assists (5.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1), and he’s second in steals (2.0). Oh, and his team just won its 22nd straight game. There aren’t 10 point guards in America who are better than Payne, much less 17.
• What a disaster this Chris Jones situation is for Louisville. At the very least, it’s over. The Cards will miss his on-ball pressure, but they won’t miss his 3-for-12 shooting nights, and they certainly won’t miss the distraction.
• Start preparing yourself for the probability that no one from Kentucky will be named first team All-America. Just the nature of this particular beast.
• Tell you what, it has been a long time since Villanova has had a bad shooting night. The Wildcats were 11-for-21 from three in their win at Marquette on Saturday. That’s the ninth time in their last 13 games they have shot at least 42% from behind the arc.
• Butler can’t get Andrew Chrabascz fast enough. The 6’7” sophomore forward is out another week with a broken hand. Without him, the Bulldogs barely squeaked by at Creighton, which is tied for last in the Big East, and on Saturday they got throttled by 17 points at Xavier.
• Is there any doubt that Kansas State guard Marcus Foster has been this season’s most disappointing player? He came into the season getting preseason all-Big 12 hype. Bruce Weber benched him earlier in the season, and he responded well for a while. Then Weber suspended Foster earlier this month for three games, and in his last two outings Foster has totaled 13 points on a combined 4-for-17 shooting as the Wildcats are fading from the NCAA tournament picture.
• I was flipping through the channels and caught the last hour of Hoosiers on Friday night. “I’ll make it.” Gets me every time.
• So strange to see the way Bill Self is handling Cliff Alexander, the Jayhawks’ much-ballyhooed 6’8” freshman forward. Two weeks ago, Self moved Alexander into the starting lineup for the first time since very early in the season, but Alexander played just six minutes in last week’s loss at West Virginia and 11 in Saturday’s win at home over TCU. The kid must feel like he’s on an emotional roller coaster.
• On the flip side, it was unbelievably cool of Self to give a minute of playing time to one of his student managers at the end of Kansas’ win over TCU. The manager’s name is Chris Huey, and he transferred to Kansas after he had to stop playing for his NAIA school because he had suffered a collapsed lung three times. Huey has been helping the team out by playing for the scout team in practice, and Self wanted to reward him for his hard work. That’s college sports.
• You know what else is college sports? Senior Day. You’re going to see a lot of those over the next two weeks. Pay attention, and keep a hanky nearby.
• Did you hear the VCU fans tricked the refs who were working their game Saturday against UMass into calling an early shot clock violation? Precious.
• Texas A&M is 10-4 in the SEC and 33rd in the RPI, but two of those losses (at Alabama and in overtime at home to Kentucky) were played without the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, 6’7” junior Jalen Jones, who was sidelined by a sprained ankle. Since Jones returned, the Aggies have won 10 of their last 12. The SEC has taken its fair share of grief this season (including plenty from me), but give the league its due. It looks like it could send six teams to the NCAA tournament.
• Time to start talking about Northern Iowa senior forward Seth Tuttle as a first team All-America. The Panthers are ranked 11th in the AP poll, and Tuttle leads them in points, rebounds and assists. He’s also shooting 62.7% from the field and 48.6% from three-point range.
• The NCAA is not going to officially go back to calling the round of 64 the “first” round, the round of 32 the “second” round, etc., until next year, but I’m just gonna go ahead and start doing that right now. You’re welcome.
• On Jan. 13, Miami point guard Angel Rodriguez shot 8-for-15 and scored 24 points in a 16-point win at Duke. In the 11 games since then, he has averaged 8.2 points and made 21.6% of his shots. Just making sure you knew.
• When Thad Matta suspended his sophomore forward Marc Loving indefinitely earlier this month, Loving was leading the Big Ten in three-point shooting. After sitting out for three games, Loving has played shot a combined 0-for-4 in 22 minutes in two games. Ohio State lost both. That is not a coincidence.
• Sorry, I’m not a fan of LSU forward Jarell Martin’s Zach LaVine imitation. Martin, a 6’10” sophomore forward, had a breakaway in the first half against Florida, so he decided to put the ball between his legs and dunk. This was an important game for the Tigers, and the score was tied. What if he had missed and LSU lost by two? It did nothing but strengthen the argument of the many critics—and I’m not one of them, by the way—who say that Johnny Jones’ team lacks discipline on the court.
• I love that Roy Williams opened North Carolina’s game against Georgia Tech by running a four-corners set in homage to Dean Smith. The Heels looked good running it, too, as Marcus Paige fed Brice Johnson for a backdoor layup. But I thought it was odd that Williams criticized the fans afterward for not responding loudly enough. It was the start of the game, and they may not have quite noticed what was going on. The best part was when Williams said, “That’s not intended as a criticism, but it is a criticism.” Got that?
• Also odd: Miami coach Jim Larranaga said that during halftime of the Hurricanes’ loss at Louisville, he was told that his center, Tonye Jekiri, had sustained a concussion when Louisville forward “accidentally” hit him in the face with the ball. That diagnosis was changed and Jekiri finished the game, but Larranaga was ticked about the play afterward. Sounds more like a coach who was frustrated that his team failed to close out a golden opportunity to bolster its bubble résumé.
• I’m telling you, not enough people are talking about Villanova as a potential 1-seed.
• Speaking of which, this is a big stretch for Wisconsin in its hunt to get on the top line. The Badgers have six wins against the top 50 of the RPI (Duke, by contrast, has 10, including that win in Madison), but the one thing it doesn’t have is a road win against a top 50 team. In the next two weeks, Wisconsin will hit the road to play two top-50 teams, Maryland and Ohio State. I think the Badgers might have to run the table between now and Selection Sunday to earn a No. 1 seed.
• By the time the tournament starts, everyone is going to have SMU as his sleeper, so I’m trying to get ahead of the curve. This team has settled into a nice rotation since 6’4” sophomore guard Keith Frazier left school for academic reasons in mid-January. There are not many teams who can bring big, athletic forwards the caliber of Markus Kennedy and Cannen Cunningham off the bench. And Larry Brown has this team defending with real purpose.
• It was great to see San Diego State senior forward Dwayne Polee get his first action on Saturday night since he collapsed in a game against Cal State-Bakersfield on Dec. 22. It was Polee’s second such episode (the same thing happened in a practice last year), which was the result of cardiac arrhythmia, but he was cleared to play against San Jose State. Polee played 13 minutes and scored two points in the 74-56 win. Apart from the joy of seeing a player battling a health issue return to action, the Aztecs could really use Polee during the stretch run. This team is, shall we say, offensively challenged, and Polee is the Aztecs’ best finisher on the break.
• People can say whatever they want about Gonzaga. They were down by 17 points at their biggest rival, Saint Mary’s, on Saturday night, yet they came back to win by 10. It takes a lot of mental toughness to do something like that.
• I was disappointed to see Sean Miller go back to the tie for Arizona’s game against UCLA on Saturday night. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend.
• You guys know I’m a huge foul-up-three guy, but it did backfire against Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger on Saturday. Kruger instructed his players to foul Texas Tech’s Toddrick Gotcher with the Sooners up three with seven seconds to play. Gotcher missed the first free throw, then missed the second on purpose. His teammate, Isaiah Manderson, got the offensive rebound and threw it back out to Gotcher, who drained a three that send the game into overtime, where Oklahoma held onto win 79-75. The sequence does not alter my belief that this is the way to go. No strategy is perfect, but of the many games that I watch, there have been many more situations where a team gets burned by not fouling. You may have noticed that Mike Krzyzewski is a recent convert.
• Keep your eye on Davidson. The Wildcats lost two games while their second-leading scorer, 5’11” sophomore point guard Jack Gibbs, was sidelined with a torn meniscus. Gibbs missed seven games but returned last week to score 11 and 17 points, respectively, in wins over George Washington and Fordham. If this team can win its last four regular season games, it will be back in the bubble conversation.
• I’ve never met Idaho coach Don Verlin, but he has some serious 'splaining to do after his egregious actions during the Vandals’ loss at Northern Arizona on Thursday. At one point, Verlin was yelling at his assistant, Chris Helbling, so vehemently that he grabbed a clipboard from Helbling’s hands, tossed it behind the bench and sent Helbling to the locker room. Verlin owes his assistant and his program an apology, and the school should suspend him for at least one game. I also hope some other head coach hires Helbling away. Check out the video and see if you don’t feel the same way.
• Finally, it has been a little over a week since the passing of Dean Smith, and Andrew Carter has the sad news out of Chapel Hill that Smith’s longtime assistant and successor at North Carolina, Bill Guthridge, is also in failing health. His story is worth a read.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
* Does not include weekend games
Kansas at Kansas State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Kansas has had nearly as much success in Bramlage Coliseum as it has in Allen Fieldhouse. Given the internal problems the Wildcats have been having lately with Marcus Foster, it’s hard to imagine them bucking that history.
Kansas 72, Kansas State 60
Xavier at St. John’s, Monday, 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Xavier had a really good week last week with wins over Cincinnati and Butler. St. John’s has strengthened its tourney standing by winning four times in its last five games, but the Johnnies cannot afford to backtrack. They’re a desperate hometeam, and it’s almost March.
St. John’s 71, Xavier 67
Wisconsin at Maryland, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
It’s a shame that this is the teams’ only meeting of the season. I love the way Bronson Koenig has settled into the role of running the Badgers since their starting point guard, Traevon Jackson, got hurt. I’ll be surprised if Maryland gets blown out, but I’ll also be surprised if they win.
Wisconsin 68, Maryland 64
Texas at West Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Longhorns are trending in the wrong direction, and Morgantown is not the place to reverse that. Not to mention that the Mountaineers lost by 27 points in Austin last month. I’m guessing that will come up in Bob Huggins’ pregame talk.
West Virginia 79, Texas 67
Kentucky at Mississippi State, Wednesday, 7 p.m., SEC Network
At this point of the season, anytime the Wildcats take the court. it’s appointment viewing. They are not above struggling against league opponents on the road, but they know they are chasing history, and I believe they are thriving on it.
Kentucky 85, Mississippi State 65
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Wisconsin (2)
3. Duke (3)
4. Virginia (4)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Villanova (6)
7. Kansas (8)
8. Notre Dame (8)
9. Arizona (9)
10. Oklahoma (10)
11. Iowa State (11)
12. Northern Iowa (14)
13. Wichita State (15)
14. Utah (12)
15. Baylor (16)
16. Louisville (13)
17. North Carolina (18)
18. SMU (20)
19. Arkansas (21)
20. West Virginia (NR)
21. San Diego State (23)
22. Murray State (22)
23. VCU (NR)
24. Butler (17)
25. Valparaiso (25)
Dropped out: Ohio State (19), Oklahoma State (24)
Since there was so little movement this week, I figured this would be a good time to explain my overarching philosophy when it comes to filling out my ballot. It’s timely considering all the flak I’ve been getting from Maryland fans (especially my ESPN buddy Scott Van Pelt, a Maryland grad) for being the only AP voter not to include the Terrapins on my ballot.
Those taking exception to my exception pin their arguments on Maryland’s overall résumé. From that standpoint, the Terps are a no-brainer. They have beaten five top-50 teams and are ranked 11th overall in the RPI. They could very well end up with a 4-seed or better.
This, however, is not relevant when making a poll ballot. Though no one lays out a criteria voters must follow, I’ve always looked at the polls as a reflection of where teams stand at the moment the ballot is filled out. This is determined by how the team has performed over the last three or four weeks, not the last three or four months. Other voters may put greater weight on overall résumé than recent performance, and that is their prerogative. But that is not my way.
It’s no surprise, then, I tend to be an outlier when it comes to voting. I don’t do this to draw attention. I do it because that’s how I feel it should be done. The same fans who have been lighting me up on Twitter have forgotten that during the early part of the season, I was voting Maryland higher than most voters. Specifically, I repeatedly pointed out the fallacy in voting Maryland behind Iowa State, even though the Terps had defeated the Cyclones in Kansas City. As you might imagine, this pretty much killed my candidacy for the mayor of Ames. But it was how I felt at the time, and the way Maryland played in the ensuing weeks validated my faith.
Thus, I try to react without overreacting. When Maryland lost at Illinois right after the Illini had lost their leading scorer to an injury, I didn’t bat an eye. The Terps had been cruising, and it’s hard to win on the road in the league. They looked great in dominating Michigan State at home, so it again didn’t bother me that they got blown out by 19 at Indiana on Jan. 22. Instead, I rewarded Indiana for beating a good team by ranking the Hoosiers 13th, which led a lot of people to say that I was overrating Indiana.
When Maryland followed that up by coming back from 11 points down in the final four minutes to edge Northwestern at home by one, I still rewarded them for the comeback rather than punishing them for barely beating the league’s worst team. I still had Maryland ranked No. 14.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s three mulligans. And yet, I still didn’t punish the Terps too badly when they got drilled—again—by 24 points on the road by an Ohio State team that I regarded as good but not great. I only dropped them to 18th. The next week, however, Maryland ran out of mulligans. The Terps looked pretty mediocre in beating Penn State at home by six, and then they got drilled at Iowa by 16. So that’s three really bad losses in five games, with two wins at home by the worst two teams in the Big Ten by a combined seven points. That, to me, did not look like one of the top 25 teams in the country. So I dropped Maryland off my ballot.
Funny how nobody said boo, save for a couple of the usual messages from the Sunday night trolls. I might have considered voting Maryland back onto my ballot, but last week the Terps beat Indiana (which is also unranked) by just two points at home, and they only beat Penn State by three. I watched most of the second half of that game. The Terps were very fortunate to win.
Maryland played just one game last week. It beat Nebraska at home by four points. So where is this slam-dunk argument that Maryland is absolutely, positively one of the top 25 teams in the country?
Look, maybe they are, and I can tell you it’s not always fun being this far out on a limb. But based on how this team has played the last month, I think it is at least up for debate. Maryland could certainly end that debate when it hosts Wisconsin on Tuesday night. If the Terps win, I will absolutely rank them next week. If they play Wisconsin close and lose, I might rank them anyway. The point is, I’m going to base my decision on how they are play right now, not on what their overall résumé looks like. I’ll leave that to the tournament selection committee.
One final note. You’ll notice that I have Murray State and Valparaiso on my ballot. Am I reaching into the mid-major ranks to give some love to schools that otherwise have a hard time getting respect in this sport? Absolutely. I am acutely aware that my ballot decides absolutely nothing. I’m trying to make a point. What do you think Mark Turgeon would do if Murray State coach Steve Prohm called and asked to schedule a home-and-home series? After Turgeon stopped laughing (it would take a while), he would politely decline. He’s not dumb. And if you look at the NCAA tournament results over the years, you see a plethora of examples of smaller schools with scant “overall résumés” more than holding their own with the big boys. Do these teams come out of nowhere? Or were they were good all along? I believe it’s the latter, and my weekly rankings reflect that. For those who feel differently, I say you are welcome to get your own ballot.