I'm on the record as thinking there's much to be learned from how well teams perform on a per-possession basis. Ideally the results that a given team achieves over a thousand-plus possessions will yield some very good indicators for their NCAA tournament prospects.
The only problem is that NCAA tournament games aren't played in an ideal realm. (There is no ideal realm.) Those games are, in fact, played in places like Boise. They pit fatigued teams against fresh teams, or players who have flown across the country against players who merely hopped on a bus for a few dozen miles.
Most importantly, these games often pit very good teams against other very good teams earlier than they "should" see each other. This is of course a product of seeding, a huge power that the selection committee holds in its hands.
My favorite example along these lines is still UCLA in 2007. The Bruins that year were given a two-seed when they lost to an inferior team in the Pac-10 tournament. (Gosh, sounds familiar!) So Ben Howland's team proceeded through their bracket to the Elite Eight, where they beat an outstanding one-seed, Kansas, in a game that triggered all kinds of know-nothing rants regarding Bill Self's coaching prowess. (He's 0-4 in the Elite Eight! He can't win the big one!) I suppose Self has his off days, as do all coaches. On this particular day, however, his main problem was that his one-seed was, in effect, facing a fellow one-seed in the Elite Eight.
This kind of thing happens every year. It happened this year. Your under-seeded teams for 2009 are as follows.
1. BYU (eight-seed, West). My shorthand for much of this season has been that the Mountain West is more or less equivalent to the SEC. For a team that went 12-4 in the MWC while outscoring the rest of the league by 0.14 points per trip (the same margin Louisville posted in Big East play) to receive an eight-seed is a slight, albeit a foreseeable one. Note, for example, that Utah was given a five-seed, and in a league with a true home-and-away round-robin we can make sweeping statements like this: the Cougars are better than the Utes. Should BYU beat Texas A&M and face Connecticut in the second round, the Huskies will, of course, deserve to be a decided favorite. Nevertheless, Jim Calhoun's team was done no favors by this bracket, with BYU being the most dangerous opponent that any 8-9 game can produce this year. (Which is to say slightly more dangerous than Tennessee, Oklahoma State or Ohio State. Note, as well, that Jay Bilas is usually spot-on with analysis, but his fretting about the Cougars' defense during ESPN's bracket show last night surprised me. Dave Rose's team is solid on both sides of the ball, with a defense that was actually a hair better than the offense in MWC play.)
2. UCLA (six-seed, East). This is an injustice, yes, but one that the Bruins certainly helped along, losing to USC--a team that UCLA swept during conference play--by ten in the Pac-10 tournament semis. So here is Ben Howland's team, a six-seed with possibly the best offense in the country, one rivaled only by Pitt and North Carolina. They've been put into a Philadelphia pod and will play on the tournament's first night. Should they survive VCU, they'll likely play hometown favorite Villanova. I guess you could see this glass as half-full and say it's an excellent opportunity to prove you really were under-seeded. It won't be easy, though.
3. West Virginia (six-seed, Midwest). The committee plainly sees a much bigger difference between the Mountaineers and three-seed Syracuse than I do.
Now the anti-BYUs, if you will: This bracket's most over-seeded teams.
1. Boston College (seven-seed, Midwest). Before the brackets came out, I was wondering whether the Eagles would merit my "most over-seeded" label if they were slotted on the 10 line, which is where I was seeing them in some mock brackets. As a seven-seed, however, BC has blown away all comers for this title. Yes, Boston College has an excellent offense fueled by tenacious offensive rebounding, but they also possess the most permissive defense of any major-conference team in the field. Now the full disclosure: Oregon in 2007 had a similar profile and those Ducks made it to the Elite Eight. (My obvious and tendentious spin: They were over-seeded, too!) You really do never know. That being said, seeds shouldn't be based on an expectation of impending wackiness. The seven-line is way too high for BC, which would be a sizeable tempo-free underdog against 10-seed USC on a neutral floor. At first blush, Minneapolis on Friday night seems pretty neutral to me, assuming the game is played indoors for the benefit of the snow-averse Trojans.
BC aside, I thought the committee actually did a pretty good job avoiding over-seeds this year. (It kind of gives me hope for future years.) If forced to choose a couple more examples, however, I'll go with these:
2. Illinois (five-seed, South). Yes, it pains me to say this about my alma mater. (Sorry, Dad!) Be that as it may, a five-seed feels a little generous for a group that, along with Minnesota, has more trouble scoring than any other major-conference offense in the brackets. Then again I lived through 2008 with this team. I'm just happy they're dancing. Ecstatic, actually.
3. Florida State (five-seed). See "Illinois," above, but at least the Seminoles beat a Final Four-level team in their conference tournament. (Albeit a banged-up Final Four-level team.) Like the Illini, Leonard Hamilton's team does what it does with outstanding defense. Toney Douglas is huge on offense (particularly in the frequency with which he gets to the line), but he could use some help.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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