Every year it's the same thing. We all get caught up in who's going to get into the NCAA tournament. This year I even got caught up in that too. (I went to Illinois.) But with that question now settled, we come to our annual Monday realization. You could take this particular 65-team field--one with Minnesota and UTEP in and Virginia Tech and Mississippi State out--and seed that field in any one of countless ways.
Indeed, so separate are these two processes--selection and seeding--that I've even begun to daydream about a bicameral selection committee. In my mind's eye you'd have one group of traditional selection committee types using traditional means to choose which 65 teams will play. Then they'd hand that list off to a small group of trustworthy, reputable, and disinterested hoops analysts using reality-based information (if only such persons could be found!) who would seed that field in a far more just manner in a matter of minutes.
Alas, I digress. My point is simple. Any tournament worthy of the name is a win-or-go-home situation. But, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, seeding determines which winners you play every step of the way. Seeding is everything.
Tomorrow we'll unveil our complete preview of the 65-team field. But before we get that far, I wanted to offer my first-blush look at the teams that already stand out in terms of their seed and/or their bracket. For the truth is, seeding creates winners and losers even before the first game gets underway.
Even though Cal and Baylor are much better than people realize, this bracket is still as sweet as everyone's saying. I know you've seen these already a million times this morning, but just for the sake of convenience here are your top four lines:
Midwest East South West
1. Kansas Kentucky Duke Syracuse
2. Ohio St. West Virginia Villanova Kansas St.
3. Georgetown New Mexico Baylor Pitt
4. Maryland Wisconsin Purdue Vanderbilt
Now, I can sense savvy Prospectus readers already thinking that the West looks almost as forgiving as the South. It is true that both Pitt and Vanderbilt showed up on my list of most fortunate teams. But consider what Duke is facing here. Their toughest game outside Indy could come in the second round against 8-seed Cal, assuming the Golden Bears make it past Louisville.
But if the Blue Devils make it to the Sweet 16 they'll face either hollowed-out Purdue, Texas A&M, Utah State, or Siena. Then an Elite Eight matchup against either Baylor or Villanova, two teams with great offenses and diffident defenses. Duke still has to play the games, of course, but if they're not in Indy in two weeks it won't be because they weren't given a golden opportunity.
Don't get me wrong. Vanderbilt is of course likely to beat the Racers in the first round. But, as I said in my chat the other day, MSU is the best team the Ohio Valley has sent to the tournament in a long time. And, relative to the odds that a 13-seed usually faces in the first round, Billy Kennedy's team has an outstanding chance to make it to the second round. The Commodores were unusually successful in close games this year and, while their offense is excellent, their defense was actually below-average in the SEC. A 13 couldn't ask for a better opportunity. (OK, OK, unless it's Siena getting to play Purdue without Robbie Hummel. Duly noted.)
The Mountain West plays a perfect round-robin schedule, and in conference play the Lobos were identical in per-possession terms to San Diego State. Both teams scored 1.09 points and allowed 0.98 on each trip. UNM is a three-seed and the Aztecs are an 11.
I know the conventional wisdom is that Kansas has the toughest bracket and I'll grant you that the Midwest is brutal. But the Jayhawks are, or should be, big boys. They got to the Sweet 16 last year, brought everyone back, and added Xavier Henry. Kentucky, on the other hand, is like Kansas last year. Just look at all those callow, albeit talented, youngsters. And look what they got. For starters a potential second-round game against a team (Texas) ranked number one in the nation earlier this season. Then a likely Sweet 16 collision with Wisconsin, which outscored the Big Ten by almost as much as Kansas outscored the Big 12. And then finally a regional final against West Virginia, winners of the Big East tournament. (Not to mention lurkers like Temple, Marquette, and Clemson.) John Calipari's players better grow up fast.
Texas A&M and Butler
A rare two-fer, but the Aggies and the Bulldogs just had the exact same thing happen to them, so they belong together. They're both five-seeds who have to play egregiously underseeded 12's. A&M will face Utah State and Butler will play UTEP. I don't want to leak any privileged information a day in advance, but don't be surprised when you come back tomorrow for our full tournament preview if one of those plucky little 12-seeds is actually a slight neutral-court favorite in their first round game. BONUS 5-12-type loser! Cornell, warts and all (meaning the loss at Penn), is the best team the Ivy has produced in years, and for their trouble they got Temple, woefully underseeded as a five.
The Runnin' Rebels were an excellent team this season on both sides of the ball, but could get little or no attention in a league with New Mexico's big win streak, Jimmer Fredette's big scoring totals, and San Diego State's thrilling conference tournament win. Now they're an 8-seed facing an unusually experienced and balanced 9 in Northern Iowa. And then even if they beat the Panthers, Lon Kruger's team gets Kansas in Oklahoma City. It's the paradox of every eight and nine seed. Given the recent history of one-seeds in the early rounds (40-0 the first weekend over the last five tournaments), you'd much rather your team be a 10-seed.
John also sings the praises of bicameralism on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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