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March 12, 2012
Two Cheers for the Committee
Year of the Mid-Major?

by John Gasaway

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Whether your metric of choice is commentators on ESPN, texts on my phone, chatter on Twitter, or the general tone of the Internet, I would rate last night as the most outrage-free Selection Sunday in recent memory.

To avoid triggering outrage is a condign competence, certainly, one sought assiduously though often without result by committees and husbands alike. Maybe it's all this selection-process transparency the NCAA is tossing around so suddenly and contentedly, or maybe this bracket really is better than some other recent examples. Maybe it's a little of both. Be that as it may, just because I'm short on outrage doesn't mean I'm lacking for helpful suggestions.

Introducing the Drexel Law
The first thing to be stated at the top of a bracket reaction piece this year is that reality was indeed cruel to Drexel in March of 2012. The Dragons did everything that any team could do, winning 19 consecutive games between January 2 and March 5. Their reward was to play VCU for the Colonial's automatic bid in the Rams' hometown. Bruiser Flint's team lost that game by three, and effectively the story ends right there.

I will continue to be frankly baffled by why we talk about teams in this situation like their strength of schedule is something to look at in addition to their RPI. Their RPI is their strength of schedule. That's what RPI is. I wish the RPI really were "just one tool," like the NCAA says and, of course, in the vast majority of cases it is. But in particularly thorny cases like that of Drexel and, on the flip side, with a team like Southern Miss that should have been a thorny case but wasn't, Jim Van Valkenburg's creation is not just one tool but rather the alpha and omega.

Last night men's committee chair Jeff Hathaway stated that teams "have to be aggressive in the [non-conference] scheduling." I love aggressive non-conference scheduling, and I'm the first to mock and lament major-conference teams who load up on home games against cupcakes in November and December. But there are two further points to be made. First, for a mid-major to be "aggressive" in their scheduling is an entirely different -- and, frankly, larger -- challenge than that faced by a major-conference program. Second, if this matter of having fun games to watch in November and December is truly so vital, could we at least move some of the enforcement away from the NCAA tournament's selection committee and onto the conferences? As with seeking to promote good sportsmanship through the solitary and clumsy mechanism of personal fouls, seeking to promote good scheduling through the solitary and clumsy mechanism of tournament bids is a clear case of seeking just though tertiary ends through means that can have unjust primary effects.

Southern Miss did their best. So should those of us who evaluate teams.
You'll note that while March was cruel to Drexel and the Dragons are a mid-major, it's notably difficult to work up any categorical indignation on behalf of wronged mid-majors everywhere. First there's the small matter of the "6" next to Murray State's name, or the "9" next to where Southern Miss resides.

The Racers, like Drexel, did all they could to earn their proper measure of esteem: they won their games. Now it is up to the rest of us to note they outscored the OVC by a slightly smaller margin than that by which No. 8 seed Memphis outscored the vastly stronger C-USA.

And as for the Golden Eagles, the totemic perceptual power that their non-conference activities held over a rapt, bewitched, and smitten RPI will forever be a subject of curiosity and study. Apparently if you want your team to look exceptionally good to the committee in March here's what you do in November and December: beat New Mexico State twice (home and neutral), win road games at Colorado State and Arizona State, and win home games against Ole Miss and South Florida. To humans that's a very nice but not particularly monument-worthy stretch of games for a C-USA program. For the RPI it was up there on the same bleachers as UCLA 1973.

Feast your eyes on all the mid-major at-larges
You can't throw a stick at this field without hitting a mid-major at-large. This bracket gives 11 of 37 at-large bids to programs outside the six major conferences, four more than what the Other 78 Percent received last year.

In an ordinary year, one with fewer mid-majors in the bracket, I'm on the lookout for instances of mid-on-mid fratricide, where the committee pits two such schools against each other in the round of 64. But when there's mid-major at-larges sprinkled so heavily between the 5 and 12 lines, it's pretty tough for them to avoid each other. For instance once the decision was made to slot VCU on the 12 line, the Rams had a 75 percent chance of playing a mid-major opponent in the round of 64, the only question being which one. If Shaka Smart's team wasn't paired up with Vanderbilt, then they were going to have to play the Shockers, New Mexico, or Temple. The paradox of getting more mid-majors into the field is that if you're a mid-major your opponent will very likely be a mid-major.

Besides, let's pay these small schools the compliment of looking at them seriously as individual teams and not fall prey to gauzy and undifferentiated mid-major praise. On paper a 5-12 collision between Wichita State and VCU is heartbreaking because the Shockers are rightly (and finally) understood to be quite possibly the best team in the country outside the major conferences, while after what happened in 2011 the Rams need no prior introduction. But on a different kind of Prospectus-brand paper Wichita State will be a heavy favorite -- precisely the kind of heavy favorite a 12 should expect to see but often does not. They outscored a significantly tougher league by a significantly larger margin than what we saw from Virginia Commonwealth. And Gregg Marshall's team will have to travel 1,273 fewer miles to get to the game in Portland.

Note that the fans entering the ESPN Bracket Challenge have already, on Monday morning, picked this game out as the most likely 5-12 upset. It's actually the least likely. (Hoops nation respects Wichita State but, despite my best efforts, hoops nation still doesn't truly understand how good the Shockers really are.) Meaning if Smart can pull this one off his stock should soar even higher.

The logjam in Columbus
Memphis being seeded as an 8 is an emphatic evaluative whiff, of course, but it's not entirely clear to me whether the damage here has been done more to the Tigers, Saint Louis (the 9 in that bracket), Michigan State (the 1), or done in equal parts to all of the above. I might be a little more leery of the Billikens than my laptop is, but SLU is an aberrantly robust 9, to say the very least. It's a pity that so much firepower is concentrated in just one grouping, and the fact that there can only be one Sweet 16 entrant produced by this group displeases the hoops gods severely.

I'm on the record already on Monday morning as thinking the Spartans will reach the Final Four, and I stand second to none in my esteem for Draymond Green. But the best player in this bracket is Will Barton. Alas, fate has decreed he will likely have just 40 or 80 minutes to display that fact.

Gonzaga wins the "Washington in 2011 Memorial Challenged by Geography" Award
Geography is much more important in the NCAA tournament than many people acknowledge, and before you fill out your bracket you should ask yourself two simple questions:

1. How far does Team X have to travel to get to this game?
2. How far does Team X's opponent have to travel to get to the same game?

Take Gonzaga. If they were seeded higher than a No. 7 the Zags would have been in contention to play in (relatively) nearby Portland, but instead Mark Few's team will cross 2,247 miles to get to Pittsburgh. Once ensconced in the Steel City the Bulldogs will play a West Virginia team that will have traversed just 75 miles. In a game that took place on a mythical neutral court precisely equidistant between the two schools (Detroit Lakes, Minnesota?), Gonzaga would be rated a slight favorite. When it takes place in the Mountaineers' backyard it could well be termed a coin-flip.

Missouri was dinged for the wrong reason -- but it netted out to an appropriate outcome
Last night committee chair Hathaway said Missouri was never seriously considered for the top line due to their weak non-conference strength of schedule. For reasons blurted out in detail above, I think that's an odd way to go about things, but the irony is on this one the committee was exactly right -- at least in the outcome achieved -- and the disbelieving chorus on Twitter and in the press was exactly wrong. In conference play this year the Tigers were below average, relative to the Big 12's 50th percentile, at defense, and by definition No. 1 seeds just aren't below average when it comes to either offense or defense. It has not occurred once in the past five years. Frank Haith's team outscored a very good league by a very good margin, but a team like Ohio State, to take one example, outscored an even better league by a much larger margin and everyone seems at peace with the Buckeyes' presence on the 2 line. We should be equally accepting of Missouri's spot there.

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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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