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March 15, 2008
From 341 to 65
Through March 15, 7:30 p.m. ET

by Joe Sheehan

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The process of figuring how many spots will be available gets a bit simpler, and as of tonight, there should be no more moving parts among the teams. We’ll be dealing with complete information, or as complete as it gets in picking a field.

I got a great question today:

Are you trying to replicate what the committee will do or make your own independent argument for who should be there? Your process-oriented, method seems to line-up with an approach that is trying to replicate the tourney, but I suspect that is not what you are doing particularly in light of your deviation of opinions from more traditional (and successful) bracket pickers.

--Noah Hunter

I am trying to pick the field. If this were the Joe Sheehan Invitational, there would be a pretty nasty treatment of teams that don’t schedule well or don’t go on the road. I would also have a .500-in-league requirement for consideration, and I think I’d consider schedule imbalances within a conference more important than the committee does.

Until I am Master of College Basketball, however, I will try to ape the committee. Noah raises a good point: I’m not doing a very good job of it this year, if the consensus elsewhere is to believed, and my ordering of teams is a good proxy for my eventual field. I’ve been doing this for six years, and I cannot remember a year in which I’m this far from the top bracketologists when it comes to the last at-large teams.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is the way so many teams tanked in their conference tournaments. Looking at the bubble from this morning, I’m pretty sure that Miami (Fla.), South Alabama, Villanova, Baylor, Arizona, VCU, Virginia Tech and Ohio State would be just about in had they won their last game. You can make cases for Massachusetts, Arizona State, Syracuse and Mississippi by that standard as well. With so many teams leaving it up to the analysts, it’s a crowded, unimpressive pool. Related to this is the way some of these teams, such as the Arizona schools and Baylor, played down the stretch.

There’s a structural reason as well. Following what I perceived to be the committee’s lead, I have teams that had strong conference seasons higher than others. Illinois State and South Alabama will be in for me, and Temple and VCU are pretty high on my board. This is as opposed to the middle of the Pac-10, or the last teams in the Big 12, Big 11 or ACC. It’s not just pro-mid-level bias; it seems to me that this is what the committee has been doing of late.

Beyond real reasons, it’s just a strange, strange year. There are teams whose plusses and minuses are so disparate that it’s hard to compare them to others. How do you compare Arizona State and Temple, except to note that both was 1-0 against Xavier? How to measure Arizona against Illinois State, or VCU against Villanova? It’s a scrambled season, and I have to say that I certainly wish this wasn’t the year I was taking the work public. It’s one thing to have your friends laugh at you; it’s quite another to be chased back to baseball with my tail between my legs.

Nevertheless, I want to take another look at all these teams. At Noah’s suggestion, I’m also adding Oregon back to my bubble, and comparing them to the remaining teams as well. I’ve gotten a ton of e-mail about my handling of Arizona, which is expected; they’re going to be a controversial team no matter what happens tomorrow. (In addition to some of the issues mentioned earlier, they would be just the second team to get an at-large bid with 14 losses.)

Here’s an update through about 7 p.m. on Saturday night:

On the Board (20): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Marquette, West Virginia, Purdue, Indiana, Washington State, Southern California, Duke, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Kentucky, Miami (Fla.), South Alabama.

Miami (Fla.) is a new team. A look at their profile shows them to be clearly in at this point, without a single bad mark, the lowest RPI of the bubble teams, and a win over VCU among the bubblers. South Alabama comes off the bubble as well, for similar reasons. The win over Mississippi State is huge in their case.

In (15): North Carolina, Clemson, Kansas, Texas, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Kent State, Brigham Young, UNLV, UCLA, Stanford, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas.

Those 15 teams represent eight conferences, which means that group has to take seven at-large bids at minimum. Because five of these teams must take auto bids in the Big East, Pac-10, Big 12, Mountain West and ACC (all survivors in those leagues are listed above) there’s a maximum of 10 at-large bids here. Bubble teams are rooting hard against Akron, Illinois and Georgia. The Big 11 will force the committee to plan for a contingency should Illinois force Wisconsin into an at-large slot. With Ohio State not in the field—making it the easiest team to replace—this could be complicated.

Automatic Bids (17): Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Cornell (Ivy League), Drake (Missouri Valley), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Siena (MAAC), George Mason (Colonial), Davidson (Southern), San Diego (WCC), Oral Roberts (Summit), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Butler (Horizon), Mount St. Mary’s (Northeast), Portland State (Big Sky), American (Patriot), Memphis (Conference USA), Maryland-Baltimore County (America East). Remaining certain one-bid leagues include the Big West, MEAC, SWAC, Southland and WAC.

Bubble (17): In very rough order: St. Joseph’s, Illinois State, Kansas State, Villanova, Baylor, Arizona, Temple, Virginia Tech, VCU, Massachusetts, UAB, Arizona State, Oregon, Dayton, Syracuse, New Mexico, Mississippi.

Ohio State is removed. In this crowd, a 2-10 mark against the RPI Top 50 and 5-10 away from Columbus are too much to overcome.

There are between four and seven at-large bids in play for these teams. We’ll go through a final pass in the morning.

--

The story of the day was the weather in Atlanta and how it affected the SEC tournament. Alabama and Mississippi State waited out an hour-long delay during overtime, and the Georgia/Kentucky game was postponed until today and relocated to Georgia Tech’s campus. A tornado passing by during a major sporting event could have had worse circumstances, so all in all, while an inconvenience for the players and fans, this wasn’t the worst-case scenario.

Elsewhere, we finally had teams playing their way into, rather than out of, the tournament. Oklahoma, Nevada-Las Vegas, Arkansas and Texas A&M have moved off of the bubble and onto the “In” list, and St. Joseph’s is in good shape as well, regardless of whether they beat Temple for the Atlantic 14 crown. By not losing, South Alabama and Illinois State have improved their positions, and even VCU can at least sit down in front of the TV tomorrow with some hope. The committee considers regular-season performance in your league, and all three of those have strong points in that area.

The biggest controversies this year are likely to come from the desert. Virtually every e-mail I got yesterday was about Arizona, which seems to be in the tournament on most of your boards. For one, the majority of you grade them out as a 16-6 team—their record at full health—rather than 18-14, their overall mark. I understand the principle of giving a break based on injuries; however, I’m unsure about hand-waving away a third of a team’s schedule. Arizona has a strong strength of schedule, to be sure; however, they also finished seventh in the Pac-10 at 8-10, and lost in the conference quarters (let’s comfortably ignore the free win they got for finishing seventh). They closed 4-8, and in the last six weeks they’ve beaten one tournament team. They had Wise for their last four games—they beat Oregon State twice and lost to the real teams they played.

The entire package—the SOS and the seventh-place, sub-.500 finish; the injury allowance and the 4-8 finish—might get them in the tournament. It certainly does not do so easily, and if it does, would be notable for doing so despite that 4-8, mark, 18-14 record, and combination of seventh-place finish and quarterfinals exit. I’m certain no team has ever pulled off the latter and made the tournament.

Arizona State is an even more peculiar case. Their RPI, 83 as of Saturday morning, would the lowest ever for an at-large selection by nine spots. They closed the year 5-10, finished at 9-9 in a good Pac-10 and also exited in the conference quarterfinals. Yet all I heard or read yesterday is about how they should be in. Yes, they had good wins; however, there are a whole bunch of teams that might get good wins if BCS schools came to their gym a dozen times a year. The RPI isn’t a mirage; it reflects four road wins all year, it reflects a lousy nonconference schedule, it reflects 9-9 in the Pac-10.

It feels like—and we get this on the baseball side a lot—that the people who are a bit scared of numbers have latched on to Arizona State, coached by a veteran good guy in Herb Sendek, as this year’s “the numbers don’t matter, you have to watch them play” team. They could have chosen better; Arizona State is going to be very good a year from now, especially if Jeff Pendergraph—the only rotation player who isn’t a freshman or sophomore—stays for his senior year. Right now, though, they tend to get out of sorts offensively and neither shoot from the perimeter well nor defend it well—freshmen guards. They’re a 19-12 team that is hanging its hat on one win three months ago. They’d be off the bubble if not for all the buzz around them.

Here’s how the spreadsheet looks as of 11 a.m. Saturday morning:

On the Board (13): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Marquette, West Virginia, Purdue, Indiana, Washington State, Southern California.

Remember, these are teams that I have as locks for the field, who cannot take an automatic bid.

In (21): North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Memphis, Kent State, Brigham Young, UNLV, UCLA, Stanford, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas.

Those 21 teams represent nine conferences, which means that group has to take 12 at-large bids at minimum. Because four of these teams must take auto bids in the Big East, Pac-10, Big 12 and Mountain West (all survivors in those leagues are listed above) there’s a maximum of 17 at-large bids here. Bubble teams are rooting hard against Tulsa, Akron, Georgia and Virginia Tech. One quirk has popped up in the Big 11, which is guaranteed to have a bid-stealing team reach the conference championship game. That will force the committee to plan for a contingency should Minnesota or Illinois force Wisconsin or Michigan State into an at-large slot. With Ohio State not in the field—making it the easiest team to replace—this could be complicated.

Automatic Bids (15): Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Cornell (Ivy League), Drake (Missouri Valley), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Siena (MAAC), George Mason (Colonial), Davidson (Southern), San Diego (WCC), Oral Roberts (Summit), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Butler (Horizon), Mount St. Mary’s (Northeast), Portland State (Big Sky), American (Patriot). Remaining certain one-bid leagues include the America East, Big West, MEAC, SWAC, Southland and WAC.

Bubble (19): In order: St. Joseph’s, Miami (Fla.), South Alabama, Illinois State, Kansas State, Villanova, Baylor, Arizona, Temple, VCU, Virginia Tech, UAB, Massachusetts, Dayton, Ohio State, Arizona State, Syracuse, New Mexico, Mississippi.

Somewhere between four and nine at-large bids remain for this crowd, so you could argue that St. Joseph’s, Miami, South Alabama and Illinois State are in, while Mississippi, New Mexico and Syracuse are done. For our purposes, we’ll leave them in the mix. As I’ve mentioned before: you’re not in until you’re definitely in, or out until you’re definitely out.

Virginia Tech can reach the field by beating North Carolina today. In the A14, if Temple wins, St. Joseph’s will still probably go. If St. Joseph’s wins, you’ll have to take a very, very long look at Temple. I have Arizona ahead of them above, but I’m not comfortable with that assessment. Whatever side of the line you fall on, you have to concede that evaluating the Wildcats is a complicated thing.

Back later today as events warrant.

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

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