College basketball has a new tradition now: grumbling about NCAA tournament seeding a month before the tournament field is set.
Last year, inspired by the smashing success of the College Football Playoff triggering regular controversies and speculations with its weekly unveiling of the selection committee’s current standings, the NCAA debuted its own month-out selection show, in which its tournament committee’s as-of-now top 16 seeds would be announced and grouped into quartets representing each region’s top four seeds. The practice’s limitations (there are still a lot of games left, and virtually all of these teams will lose at least one of them, thus reshuffling the deck) are as obvious as its motivations (the NCAA and broadcast partner CBS, which airs the not-quite-selection show before a Sunday matinee, milking their property for its every dime and ratings point), and most obvious of all is how the latter will always outweigh the former.
For those of us for whom Selection Sunday’s rampant unpredictability is an enjoyable feature, this is a bit of a bummer. And while treating the specific seeding as anything near sacrosanct would be a mistake (last season, only six of the 16 teams included ended up on the same seed line in the actual tournament) the process is not without its insights. For one, only one of last year’s top 16 February seeds fell out of that group in March’s overall 68-team seeding, and that was Virginia, which slipped all the way to... 17th. It’s also a glimpse into how the committee is reading each team’s developing résumé. There’s not much teams can do in response to that—just gotta win the games you got—but for those of us trying to make sense of a season as it approaches its climax, there are some things we can take away.
And so, having said that, below are five such takeaways. But first, just for reference, here are the top four seeds for each region as announced on Sunday, with the team’s overall placement among the top 16 in brackets.
South: (1) Virginia  ... (2) Cincinnati  ... (3) Michigan St.  ... (4) Tennessee 
East: (1) Villanova  ... (2) Duke  ... (3) Texas Tech  ... (4) Ohio State 
Midwest: (1) Xavier  ... (2) Auburn  ... (3) Clemson  ... (4) Oklahoma 
West: (1) Purdue  ... (2) Kansas  ... (3) North Carolina  ... (4) Arizona 
1. Welcome your new quadrant overlords
Because college basketball loves to introduce some new regulatory wrinkle and suddenly make it the biggest deal in the world (see: the annual officiating points of emphasis), this year’s tournament selection is all about quadrants. What that means is that instead of the committee measuring a team’s wins and losses by dividing its opponents into strictly Top 50, Top 100, Top 200, and 201-plus, the quality opponents are now measured based on the team itself as well as the location of the game. A Quadrant 1 game, for instance, is a home game against a team in the top 30, a neutral-site game against a team in the top 50, or an away game against a team in the top 75. Quadrant 2 is a home game against a team ranked 31–75, neutral-site game against a team ranked 51–100, or away game at a team ranked 76-135. And so on. Flawed as the RPI may be, it is certainly a more nuanced approach to evaluating teams’ schedules while using it.
The effect was easily seen in the unveiling of Sunday’s seeds. Many were surprised to see Oklahoma—6–6 in the Big 12, losers of six of eight, 28th in KenPom—receive a No. 4 seed. But the Sooners are 6–5 in Quadrant 1 (or Q1) games, a mark that few teams in the mix for their seeding can claim. (Among Oklahoma’s fellow No. 4 seeds, Arizona is 3–3 in Q1 games, Tennessee is 4–6, and Ohio State is 2–4). Rhode Island, another contender for Oklahoma’s spot on the seed line and the country’s fifth-ranked team by RPI, is just 1–3 vs. Q1. Gonzaga and its 5–3 Q1 mark, however, might be thinking this quadrant talk is a little overblown.
And perhaps most notably, the polls’ potential new No. 1 team, Michigan State, ended up with a No. 3 seed in part because it is just 3–2 in Q1 games. That’s not a bad mark by any stretch, but every team with a No. 1 or 2 seed had at least one more Q1 win.
2. Recency bias, shmecency bias
It’s not just Michigan State whose recent play and current perception was out of whack with its seeding. Purdue lost twice last week (including at Michigan State) but stayed a No. 1 seed. Duke has lost three of four, including at 12–13 St. John’s, but hung on to a No. 2. Texas Tech moved into first place in the country’s toughest conference and could not move higher than a No. 3.
Were this the actual tournament seeding, it would lead to some interesting forecasting and bracket-picking, with a number of teams appearing underseeded and some top ones appearing vulnerable or far from playing their best basketball. But for now take it as a sign that the committee is not putting too much stock into trying to sort similar teams according to how they are playing right now.
3. Keep an eye on those No. 3 seeds
The four teams that occupy the third seed line—Michigan State, Texas Tech, Clemson and North Carolina—are the ones with the most apparent upward mobility. While your mileage may vary, you could make a case that each of them deserved consideration for a No. 2 seed in the first place: Texas Tech leads the Big 12, is eighth on KenPom, and is 4–3 in Q1 games; Michigan State is 3–2 vs. Q1, sixth on KenPom and subjectively looks as good as anybody; Clemson is fourth in RPI with the same 4–4 Q1 record as Duke; North Carolina is sixth in RPI and 7–5 vs. Q1.
But the good news for these teams is that they could all easily play their way up a seed line, or even two. Five of Texas Tech’s six remaining regular season games are Q1 matchups; Clemson and North Carolina each have four; Michigan State will at least have the Big Ten tournament to serve as a résumé boost. The odds are good that at least two of these teams end up higher a month from now.
4. Some teams not included should feel pretty good
That’s because, should all this Q1 love end up being as emphasized as it seems, that would be a boon to several teams angling for seeding below the No. 4 line or looking to receive a bid at all. Consider Temple, which most projections have several spots deep into the bubble. The 15–10 Owls’ wins over Auburn, Clemson, Wichita State and SMU may be given more weight than expected, helping make up for losses to George Washington, Tulane and La Salle. Or Virginia Tech, which this weekend beat Virginia for its fourth Q1 win, after also beating North Carolina, Washington and Notre Dame. Or Kansas State, which has a 4–6 Q1 record of its own and is looking like a better at-large bet than a few days ago.
As for those who are likely already in and may be seeded better than expected, Gonzaga’s five Q1 wins give it an inside track on moving into that top 16, while Texas A&M and Florida’s five apiece mean the path is clear for a strong finish to their season to translate to easy seed-climbing.
On the other hand, this is bad news for teams with no Q1 wins on their résumé, among such as Boise State and Nebraska.
5. If this were the actual bracket, it would be an interesting one.
One region that jumped out to me right away is the Midwest, where none of the top three seeds—Xavier, Auburn and Clemson—have ever reached a Final Four, and the fourth, Oklahoma, has just twice in the last 30 years. That would make it for a pretty good bet that we get a fresh face in the Final Four. Elsewhere, No. 1 seeds Purdue and Virginia haven’t reached that round in more than three decades and neither has ever won the whole tournament. No. 2 seed Cincinnati hasn’t since 1992, and before that hadn’t since 1962. There’s an entirely realistic Final Four grouping (No. 1 Purdue, No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Texas Tech, and any of the top three Midwest teams) where none of the teams has been there since at least 1984 and none have won it all. TV executives don’t necessarily love those prospects, but it would make for some fanbases enjoying the rides of their lives.
Also on the table in this bracket: a Virginia-Cincinnati regional final between the country’s two stingiest defenses and two of its slowest teams that might end up looking like a football score. And what if we end up with a Crosstown Shootout on the final weekend between Xavier and Cincinnati? San Antonio might sell out of spaghetti and chili.
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As much as the February bracket reveal might give some shape to the unfolding season, the truth is that the way things are going this year, only a fool would expect March to much resemble February. Over the past week, three of the committee’s current No. 1 seeds lost: Virginia at home to Virginia Tech, Villanova at home to previously 0-11-in-the-Big-East St. John’s, and Purdue at home to Ohio State and on the road at Michigan State. In fact, the combined record of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds over the past seven days is just 9–7—and four of those losses are to teams outside the top 16 seeds.
So yes, after this of all weekends we should expect the top of the rankings to be particularly volatile over the weeks to come, as a lot of high seeds look particularly vulnerable. The most intriguing among them right now is Purdue, which won 19 in a row before losing a pair of one-possession games against top-15 opponents in the closing seconds. Neither is a bad loss by any stretch, given their toss-up closeness and quality of opposition, but these were also the Boilermakers’ two toughest games since beating a mid-crisis Arizona team in the Bahamas in November, and winning at least one of them would have solidified the status they had built over the last two-plus months. They should get at least one rematch in the Big Ten tournament, which will provide one more important barometer read entering the tourney.
1. St. John’s: How does an 11-game losing streak turn into following an upset of then-No. 4 Duke at home with a win at then-No. 1 Villanova? For one, Shamorie Ponds is having the most prolific two weeks anyone not named Trae Young has had this season (see below). And another, the Johnnies were never quite as bad as they seemed; eight of those 11 losses were by single digits. Now let’s see if they can keep looking this good.
2. Xavier: The Big East’s new first-place team moved into that position with a pair of nail-biter road wins over the two teams that had been right behind them in the standings, Butler and Creighton—and they did it while stars Trevon Bluiett (six points vs. Creighton) and J.P. Macura (six against Butler) alternated off nights. Kerem Kanter’s 36 points across the two wins were crucial.
3. Texas A&M: From nonconference darling to SEC basement-dwellers to a road win over the league’s first-place team and dominating Kentucky, the Aggies have had as rollercoaster a season as anyone, although roller coasters are usually more fun. Finally back at something approaching full strength after a spate of injuries and suspensions (just two players have played in all 25 of their games), the Aggies are looking like a No. 7-ish seed that could make noise.
4. Baylor: The Bears may have saved their season last week, winning at Oklahoma State and then knocking off Kansas by 16 to move to 5–7 in the Big 12 and 15–10 overall. Nothing’s easy the rest of the way, but a winning finish and a victory or two in the conference tournament could send them dancing yet.
5. Virginia Tech: The uptempo Hokies came down to Virginia’s plodding pace to winning effect in Saturday’s upset in Charlottesville—the Cavaliers’ first loss in the ACC or at home this season, and first loss at all in two months. That’s the kind of win that will help their résumé stand out from the pack a month from now. They’re trending off the bubble and up the seed line.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure guard
At home against Saint Louis on Wednesday, Adams could hardly miss, making a school-record 10 of 13 three-point attempts en route to 44 points on 18 shots from the floor. Three days later against Richmond, he scored 24 points and added seven assists.
Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard
His 46 points on 15-of-23 shooting against Notre Dame may have somehow not been enough to secure the win on Wednesday, but Robinson’s 29 points on Saturday helped key an upset of Miami.
Sophomore: Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s guard
There wasn’t much question about this one, as Ponds averaged 35.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists over the Red Storm’s two wins last week, following his 26 points at Villanova with a career-high 44 (on 16-for-23 shooting) against Marquette.
Freshman: Cameron Lard, Iowa State forward
After making 10 of 11 field goals in a road loss at Texas Tech, Lard put up 19 points and 17 rebounds—including nine on the offensive end—in the Cyclones’ home win over Oklahoma. He’s up to eighth in the country in offensive rebounding rate and first in the Big 12.
Social Media Post of the Week
As the scandal turns...
For a few weeks there the news cycle allowed this section to enter hibernation, only for this week to wake it back up with a shove out of nowhere. Perhaps Punxsutawney Phil is to blame.
First came news from CBS Sports that Auburn sophomores Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, who had been suspended since news of the FBI’s investigation broke, would enter the NBA draft pool this spring. Both were connected to payments from Auburn assistant Chuck Person, who was arrested in connection with the federal probe, and Wiley was already ruled ineligible for this season by the NCAA. Neither would be permanently ineligible until hiring an agent (and Wiley was already cleared for next season), but it is at least a sign they are contemplating the next step in their careers.
Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of one of the probe’s key undercover agents being investigated for misusing government funds on gambling, food and drinks during the investigation. According to the story, last year the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into the agent—a development that cannot bode well for the prosecution. More bad news came Friday, when Yahoo’s Pete Thamel brought to light a potential clerical error in one of the case’s wiretaps, which left blank the name for the “Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General” authorizing the action. The probe’s case for NCAA violations always looked stronger than its case for federal crimes; now the latter’s been cast in even more doubt.
Assigned Viewing: Villanova at Xavier, Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET on Fox
It’s hard to find a better mid-February game than a Saturday afternoon clash between two current No. 1 seeds battling for their conference’s regular-season title. When these two teams met on Jan. 10, the Wildcats ran the Musketeers out of Philadelphia, leading by 12 at halftime and winning by 24, as Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura combined to miss 15 of their 21 field goals and Villanova guard Phil Booth had his best game of the season, scoring 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. The Wildcats will enter the rematch without Booth, who broke his hand last month, but with that loss somewhat alleviated by the continued improvement of Donte DiVincenzo, who scored 30 against Butler on Saturday. Xavier has been winning by the skin of its teeth of late, following two overtime wins with a one-point victory, but expect the Musketeers to bring their A-game on their home floor in their biggest game to date.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• Will Michael Porter Jr.’s college career end up lasting more than two minutes? The buzz suggests that’s increasingly more likely, as the Missouri uber-recruit, who underwent back surgery in the fall, has said he wants to play again for the Tigers, preferably before the postseason. Porter has yet to be cleared for contact but has been working out with the strength and conditioning coach, and head coach Cuonzo Martin told the Kansas City Star he “wouldn’t be shocked if I saw him on the floor.” That would be quite a re-injury risk for Porter’s huge pro prospects, but with the Tigers looking like a middle-seed NCAA tourney team thanks in part to Porter’s brother Jontay stepping up in his absence, it’s hard to blame Michael for wanting to be a part of it all.
• Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner was accused of sexual assault in a counter-lawsuit to his defamation suit against former booster and friend Ronald Bell, whom Pastner claims tried to extort and blackmail him with information that would jeopardize his job. (Pastner has denied the claims as “disgusting, bogus allegations” with “zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero” truth to them.) Earlier this season, two Georgia Tech players were suspended for receiving impermissible benefits from Bell. In this new countersuit, Bell and his girlfriend, Jennifer Pendley, accuse Pastner of sexually assaulting and harassing Pendley repeatedly in 2016. Pastner’s lawyer released a statement claiming there are text messages that exonerate his client.
• A good story from SI’s Jeremy Fuchs on Caleb and Cody Martin, the twin transfers who have Nevada looking like a March sleeper.
• Strange situation unfolding at Colorado State, where coach Larry Eustachy was placed on administrative leave as the school investigated his treatment of players and staff, then interim coach Steve Barnes was suspended himself on Friday. A day earlier, the team’s players had boycotted practice due to the administration’s lack of disclosure about its ongoing assessment of Eustachy’s and the program’s future.
• Louisville’s Courier-Journal had a concerning report last week about suspended Kentucky forward Tai Wynyard, who, according to the paper, had been traveling to parties on campus with an armed student. The report cites a GroupMe message circulated among sorority and fraternity members in January warning students about approaching the student accompanying Wynyard. At a post-game press conference Kentucky coach John Calipari said Wynyard had been suspended for violating team rules but declined further comment.
• The entire thing is a delight, but Caity Weaver’s account of her absurd scavenger hunt at the Super Bowl begins with one of the best and most clear-eyed descriptions of football I’ve read, and I say that as someone who tunes in nearly every Sunday.