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Every Play Counts (03/16)

March 16, 2009
From 344 to 65
Idle Thoughts

by Joe Sheehan

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Sixteen hours later, there's not much more to say. The selection of the Arizona Wildcats as one of the last teams into the 2009 NCAA tournament field stands out as the only questionable choice the committee made. While you can argue with some of the seeds, there are so many factors that go into seeding-especially in a year like this with some conferences occupying entire sections of the bracket-that I don't see it as an effective proxy for the S-curve.

Arizona looks no better in the morning light than it did last night. While I've been peppered with subjective arguments for them, specifically vis-à-vis Creighton, the fact is that selection to the tournament hasn't been and should not be a beauty contest. It has not been and should not be about how much raw basketball talent you have. Observational evidence and opinion have their place, but they stand aside the numbers, and the numbers overwhelmingly favor not only the Bluejays, but a number of other teams that had better seasons, better profiles, than did the Wildcats.

Arizona was terrible outside of the state, with road or neutral-court wins over RPIs 154, 180, 198 and 333. That's it; that's the list. They lost five of their last six, including a home loss to Cal and a neutral-court loss in a win-and-in game to Arizona State. They were 3-8 against the relevant teams in the Pac-10. A credible nonconference schedule was an asset, as they had good nonconference RPI and SOS numbers and went 8-12 against the RPI top 100. The failure to play well down the stretch or to succeed in conference or to win on the road, however, is a combination that would normally be fatal. On the heels of a 2008 selection in which so much of their schedule was excused as the result of injuries, you start to wonder exactly what Arizona will have to do to miss an NCAA tournament.

While I do think the choice of Arizona was in error, I can't go crazy defending any team that was left out of the bracket. As I've stressed a number of times, the teams left out of this field have no one to blame but themselves. Some played poorly, some scheduled poorly, some did both; none did so much that they can curse the committee. There's not a single team left out of the field that has a strong case for inclusion, even relative to Arizona. Better case? Sure, but nothing to pound the table over. St .Mary's has had its defenders since being left out, but they played just seven games against the top 50; it's unfortunate that Patrick Mills missed most or all of three of them, but can you really be a tournament team from the West Coast Conference without beating Gonzaga even once?

It's possible that St. Mary's fate was sealed when Mills broke his hand on January 29. I would consider another date, however, that being November 27. On that date, St. Mary's lost 75-62 to Texas El-Paso in a tournament in Anaheim, a game they were expected to win. Had they beaten the Miners, they would have gotten a crack at Wake Forest, then Baylor or Arizona State. Compare that to playing Cal State-Fullerton and Providence, and you see where the loss to UTEP, while not crippling in itself, was a devastating blow to the Gaels' profile.

On ESPN's coverage last night, Doug Gottlieb defended St. Mary's scheduling by pointing out that they'd played a number of teams that would normally be expected to be strong teams, such as Southern Illinois, Oregon and Kent State, and caught them in down seasons. Two of those games, the SIU and Oregon tilts, were return games, one for BracketBusters. The point, which I don't think Gottlieb articulated precisely, is that St. Mary's' numbers aren't good not because they didn't try to make them good, but because, well, stuff happens. St. Mary's had one gimme all year, a game at Cal State-Bakersfield. The rest of their nonconference schedule was designed to build up a resume, to play good teams and play on the road. Intent of schedule absolutely should be an issue in evaluation, which is why nonconference scheduling-elective scheduling-matters. Penn State failed to challenge themselves. St. Mary's didn't.

Opposing Gottlieb was Jay Bilas, insisting that there were better games that St. Mary's could have scheduled. It's always puzzling for me to watch Bilas, who is clearly a bright guy, express opinions that are so very wrong. There's a dissonance there that gives me a headache. Bilas has stated in a couple of fora now that mid-majors can get games, and he's just wrong about that. Gonzaga can get games. Davidson can get games. On the whole, though, teams in conferences below the top ten have to choose between playing quality teams and playing home games, and that circumstance is not sustainable. Outside of Gonzaga, West Coast Conference teams played four home games against BCS schools this year. The Valley played three. The Colonial played three. The WAC had five. Those teams all do what they can to play road games and exempt events, but those slots aren't easy to come by. Schools shouldn't have to play a schedule devoid of home games, and unable to dream of quality home games, just because 80 schools at the top of the food chain want to keep all the dates for themselves.

That's the system in place, however, which is why you can't just look at absolute wins and losses, or McDonald's All-Americans, or quality of wins, or even the blessed "eye test." Opportunity isn't just uneven; it's massively uneven, and until the NCAA does something to fix the problem-making the RPI innumerate didn't work-you have to consider performance in the context of opportunity. You have to consider whether a team does something on the road. You have to consider whether it stands out in its conference or is mediocre in it. These things are important, and the committee has done a better job of making them matter. Here's hoping that the choice of Arizona in 2009 is one mistake, and not a reversal of that trend.

In other news…

  • Remember Tampa? That's where Western Kentucky, San Diego, Siena and Villanova staged an uprising last year, as the four 12 and 13 seeds won all their first-round games. It could happen again; Portland hosts four 5/12 and 4/13 matchups, and at least a couple have upset potential. Western Kentucky is even in the mix, with a very winnable 5/12 game against an inconsistent Illinois squad.

    The highlight, though, is the Mississippi State/Washington game. Mississippi State is wildly underseeded at 13, coming off of an SEC championship at the end of a disappointing year. This isn't Georgia, which was a bad team that had a good weekend. These Bulldogs have talent, they went 9-7 in conference in the regular season and they crushed Western Kentucky back in January. Washington caught a bad draw. Inside the game, the Jon Brockman/Jarvis Varnado matchup may be the best individual challenge of the first round. CBS, of course, has elected to make this the last early game Thursday, so that only a small portion of the country will see it.

    Northern Iowa/Purdue and Gonzaga/Akron are less likely to produce upsets, but I would have said the same about the Western Kentucky/Drake and Villanova/Clemson games as well.

  • John Gasaway mentioned this, and I'll pile on: the West is loaded. It starts with a two-seed, Memphis, that has a case for being the best team in the country, and follows down through Big 11 champ Purdue as a five, Brigham Young as an eight, Utah State as an 11, and the aforementioned Mississippi State squad. That's a lot of good teams, and an early run at the bracket had me picking three lower seeds in the first round, as well as two to make the Sweet 16.
  • None of the 1/16 matchups look like upset candidates, as the committee didn't wildly underseed a 14 the way they did in each of the last two years, both in games involving Kansas. Chattanooga, physical inside, could give Connecticut a challenge, but that's about it. Among the 2/15 games, keep an eye on Oklahoma/Morgan State. Oklahoma hasn't been the same since Blake Griffin suffered a concussion, and Morgan State played up a bit this year, beating Maryland at home and winning at DePaul.
  • Xavier having to play Portland State in Boise is ill treatment for a protected seed. The Vikings can play a bit, and if any kind of crowd makes the drive, it's going to be a tough day for the Musketeers.
  • As much as I don't think they should be in the field, Arizona got a great draw in Utah, a team they can beat off the dribble and that will have trouble getting off shots again their defense. It's not like the Utes have been all that special away from home, and they won the conference tournament without having to play either of their co-champs or UNLV.
  • Siena got a nine-seed! Yay! Siena's reward is a virtual road game, playing Ohio State in Dayton! Not yay! I'm sure they would have preferred an 11-seed and a neutral-court game.

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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Every Play Counts (03/16)

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