Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bracketology: Top Seeds and Bubble Breakdown

We are three weeks away from Selection Sunday and about two weeks away from the end of the regular season. If you've been following throughout the year you've heard me discuss in detail about the factors the Selection Committee takes into consideration, how the RPI has influenced the At-Large selection process in the past, and where teams stand in the race for At-Large bids. We've started to see Joe Lunardi's Last Four In/First Four Out graphic popping up on ESPN broadcasts. Lunardi is good at what he does and very dedicated, but his word is not gospel truth.

If the tournament were to start today, there shouldn't be any doubt that Indiana and Miami would be two of the number one seeds. However, there is some debate behind them about which teams deserve the other two spots on the top line.

Duke has the best computer profile in the nation (RPI 1, SOS 2, NCSOS 1) and the second most Top 50 wins (8, trailing only Kansas who has 10). All of Duke's losses came on the road, with two coming to teams in the top 25 of the RPI and one coming to Maryland whose RPI is hovering around 70. Duke's 13-3 record against the Top 100 is tied for the best in the nation with Kansas (also 13-3).

Based on that paragraph alone you would think that Kansas would be in the discussion for a top seed, but their loss to TCU (RPI 241) is a giant knock on their resume. In fact, Kansas is the only team in the Top 12 of the RPI with a loss outside the Top 100. Kansas has solid computer numbers (RPI 5, SOS 7, NCSOS 18), but their loss to TCU is keeping them out of the discussion for a top seed right now.

The Big East is a mess right now, with Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette tied atop the league with 10-3 records. Georgetown and Marquette both have losses outside the Top 100, which holds them out of the conversation for now. Louisville has the best resume of the group with 6 Top 50 wins, 10 Top 100 wins, and solid computer numbers (RPI 6, SOS 8, NCSOS 29). However, I have a hard time seeing Louisville being seeded above Syracuse if Syracuse wins the automatic bid from the conference. The Orange's profile is solid but not spectacular with 4 Top 50 wins, 11 Top 100 wins, a good RPI and SOS (10 and 24 respectively), but an underwhelming non-conference slate (NCSOS 90). At this point, Syracuse seems more in line to be on the bubble between a 2 and 3 seed, along with Kansas, Louisville and Arizona.

The Big Ten has clearly been the best conference in the nation this season, and I would be remiss in talking about candidates for the top line without mentioning two teams from Michigan. Michigan State holds a slight edge over Michigan right now in most key categories, but it's close. Michigan State has a 7-5 record against the Top 50 while Michigan is 6-4. Sparty's computer numbers (RPI 7, SOS 6, NCSOS 48) are also slightly better than the Wolverines (RPI 11, SOS 32, NCSOS 126). On top of all that, Michigan State has a win in the one head-to-head meeting between the two teams, a 23-point demolishing of Michigan in East Lansing.

Finally we come to the two other teams that are right on the verge of the top spot: Florida and Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have been impressive all season and their 26-2 record is the best in the nation. Their computer numbers (RPI 9, SOS 57, NCSOS 19) are dragged down a little by the lowered competition of the West Coast Conference, but they are still quality. The Zags are 5-2 against the Top 50 with their losses coming at home to Illinois and on a buzzer beater at Butler. Meanwhile Florida has had some troubles on the road in conference play, losing to Arkansas and Missouri in the last few weeks. Their computer numbers are still solid (RPI 4, SOS 22, NCSOS 6), along with their 5-3 record against the Top 50. However, the Gators 9-4 record against the Top 100 does not look as good when stacked side-by-side with Gonzaga's 11-2 mark.

When you put all of this side-by-side, Duke has the best profile, and should get one of the two remaining top seeds. Between the other teams, I would give Michigan State the slight edge right now given their 7 wins over Top 50 teams. Gonzaga would just miss the cut in my book, followed by Michigan, Florida and Syracuse as the other 2-seeds. Kansas and Arizona would get 3-seeds if I was bracketing right now.

The Bubble

To call the bubble a mess right now wouldn't even come close to describing it. By my best count, there are 24 teams currently in the discussion for the last 8 spots in the field. Trying to sort between 24 different resumes can be difficult, so the best thing to do is to start eliminating teams at the bottom. The first thing I look for in a team is quality wins, preferably multiple wins against quality opponents. So even though Joe Lunardi is somehow convinced that Southern Miss is in the "First Four Out" category right now (probably due to their RPI of 35), my first step is to eliminate most of the teams without a win in the Top 75. If you're going to be considered one of the 37 best At-Large teams, you should be able to beat someone in the Top 75. This immediately knocks out Southern Miss (2-5 vs Top 100, best win over #88 Denver) and BYU (3-7 vs Top 100, best win over #88 Tennessee St). Florida St is 0-7 against the Top 50 but has 2 wins over teams with RPIs in the 50s. However, their 4 losses against teams with 100+ RPIs is simply too much to overcome. St Mary's has been shooting up the list lately due to their emergence in the Top 50 of the RPI and their 4-3 record against the Top 100. However, the Gaels are winless against the Top 50, have 2 losses to teams with RPIs in the 130s, and played a dreadful non-conference schedule (NCSOS 211).

Texas A&M actually has a winning record (7-5) against the Top 100, but their 1-5 mark against teams ranked between 100 and 200 knocks them out of the field. Arkansas has been excellent at home this season with wins over Florida and Missouri, but their downright dreadful 1-6 road record and RPI in the high 70s knock the Razorbacks out of contention. Wyoming breezed through a terrible non-conference slate (NCSOS 234) but has struggled in conference play, going only 4-8. Seven of their eight losses have come against Top 100 teams, but their 3-7 record against the Top 100 just isn't enough to make their case.

The next set of teams is very similar in that their resumes don't have anything terrible but also nothing outstanding. Stanford has been mediocre all season and they haven't beaten a team in the Top 40 all year. The Cardinal currently don't have any losses to 100+ RPI teams, but they were swept by USC (RPI 99) and are just 5-11 against the Top 100. Charlotte has wins over Butler and La Salle but also losses to George Washington and Richmond. There is really nothing on the 49ers resume to get excited about. UMass is similarly mediocre in the A-10 with just 1 win against a team in the Top 70 (La Salle). The Minutemen do have 6 Top 100 wins but 5 of them came over teams ranked between 72 and 100.

The next group to eliminate is the polar opposite of the prior group - teams that have recorded numerous quality wins and taken some horrible losses. The three teams in this group (Arizona State, Virginia, Alabama) all have winning records against the Top 100 with each having 6 Top 100 victories. However, their bad losses currently preclude them from making the field. Arizona State has dropped 2 games outside the Top 100 to DePaul and Utah and played a terrible non-conference slate (NCSOS 299). Similarly Virginia's NCSOS of 306 is extremely prohibitive considering their 6 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs. Alabama has 4 losses to teams with 100+ RPIs and just 1 win over the Top 50, which came over a Kentucky team barely clinging to the top 50 designation.

Of the remaining teams, North Carolina has the best RPI of 26, and despite having just 1 Top 60 win, the Tar Heels have good computer numbers and only one bad loss (#129 Texas), which at this point should be enough to get them in. Iowa State just scored a big victory over fellow bubble team Baylor, and despite two bad losses, the Cyclones 7 Top 100 wins is more than any of the remaining teams, which should be enough to get them in.
Temple just picked up a resume-improving win over La Salle to bring their record against the Top 50 to an even 3-3, making them one of just 3 remaining teams with a winning record against the Top 50. Like Iowa State, Temple also has 7 Top 100 wins, which should be enough to put them in despite some bad losses on their slate. Ole Miss suffered their worst defeat of the season against South Carolina this week, but the Rebels 4-2 mark against the Top 100 and only 1 bad loss should be enough to barely get them in the field as of now.

All of the remaining teams have losing records against the Top 100, but three of them (Baylor, Villanova, St John's) lead the way with 6 Top 100 wins. Baylor played a Top 40 non-conference slate and dropped some games early in the year to bad teams, with their two worst losses coming out of conference. Villanova has been up and down all year, but have navigated the tough Big East and managed a winning record in conference play. The Wildcats also have the best "top two" wins of any team on the board with wins over Syracuse (RPI 10) and Louisville (RPI 6). These quality wins should be enough to get Villanova into the Dance. Fellow Big East team St John's played a poor out-of-conference schedule and dropped 3 games to teams with 100+ RPIs, including two to teams with RPIs over 150. Their 3-4 record against the Top 50 gives them the best winning percentage in that category amongst the remaining teams and should slide them into the field.

And now it comes down to the difficult decision: four teams remain looking at just one spot in the field. Kentucky, Boise State, Tennessee and Maryland all have problems with their resumes, so it comes down to a matter of comparison.
Looking at Tennessee and Maryland side-by-side, the Volunteers clearly have the advantage. While Maryland has better wins than Tennessee, the Vols have more Top 100 wins and a loss that isn't as bad as Maryland's worst loss. Additionally, Tennessee played a much tougher schedule out of conference, which is something the Committee likes to see.
This one is honestly a toss-up. Kentucky has no good wins and no bad losses (no losses outside the Top 75) while Boise has two losses to teams with RPIs in the 160s. Both teams are similarly bad away from home but have decent RPI and SOS numbers. Kentucky has a distinct advantage in it's non-conference schedule and this is where I give the Wildcats the slight edge over Boise.
Two SEC teams remain for the final spot in the bracket. While Tennessee has a better record against the Top 50, one of those wins was over Kentucky while Kentucky's win over Tennessee is only a Top 100 win because of Tennessee's lower RPI. Tennessee has two losses that are worse than Kentucky's worst defeat and have a worse record in conference play. The deciding factor here, since both teams are from the same conference, is that Kentucky has a better overall and conference record than Tennessee. Therefore, Kentucky (by the slimmest of margins) gets the last spot in the field.

Of course, these are all just my estimations and my logic based on the numbers as they stand today. Things will change over the next 3 weeks and hopefully some teams will separate themselves from the other bubble teams.  For those interested, you can see how my current bracket prediction looks here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mid-Major Conference Rundown

Yesterday I looked at the current standings in the Major Conferences that are likely to land multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Amongst the Mid-Major leagues, only a few have an outside chance of landing more than their conference champion in the Big Dance. I'll look at them first then briefly overview the conferences where only the conference champion will be dancing. Since every conference except the Ivy League has a tournament, most of  these teams are just playing for seeding in their conference tournaments at this point. However, since some tournaments award "Double Byes" to the top two seeds, conference positioning is very important heading down the stretch.

Conference Leader: Southern Miss, Memphis

Keep an Eye On: UCF, UTEP

Memphis and Southern Miss are both currently undefeated in conference play and have two games before a head-to-head showdown on February 9. Both the Tigers and Golden Eagles have RPIs around 40 but neither team has any Top 50 wins. Memphis has a slight edge in the bubble conversation right now with 3 wins over Top 100 teams, though none of them are ranked in the Top 75. Neither team has lost a game outside the Top 100, leaving both in Bubble purgatory with no good wins and no bad losses. UCF and UTEP are both within 2 games of the conference lead, but neither of them are a serious threat for an At-Large bid at this point.

Conference Leader: Akron, Ohio

MAC-tion took the nation by storm in football this season, after Ohio made a run to the Sweet 16 last March and almost knocked off top-seeded North Carolina. The Bobcats returned their top 9 scorers from last year's team but struggled in December, dropping 5 of 7 games. Akron has a marginally better computer profile, but neither team challenged themselves in non-conference play and both will have an uphill battle to get an At-Large bid. In all likelihood, these two teams will battle it out for the MAC crown and one will go Dancing while the other goes to the NIT. Their first of two showdowns is on Saturday.

Conference Leader: Belmont

Keep an Eye On: Murray St, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee St

Belmont has made the most of their first year in the Ohio Valley Conference, storming out to an 8-0 mark in conference play, holding a 2 game lead over Eastern Kentucky and Murray St. The Racers made headlines last season as the last remaining undefeated team and earned a 6-seed in the Tournament. Despite returning much of their team they have struggled with injuries this year and have virtually no chance at an At-Large bid at this point. Despite a non-conference slate in the 300s, Eastern Kentucky has an RPI that is hanging in the Top 75 and their only conference losses are to Belmont, which could make them a threat in the OVC Tournament. Tennessee St is on the list because despite their 6-3 conference record, forward Robert Covington, the best player in the conference, is scheduled to return from a knee injury this week. Covington was averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game before his injury and will give Tennessee St the firepower they need to make a run in the OVC tournament. For now, this is Belmont's conference to lose, but if they do they have the resume (RPI 14, SOS 32, NCSOS 3, 1-2 vs Top 50, 5-3 vs Top 100, only 1 loss to 100+) to make a case for an At-Large bid.

Conference Leader: Lehigh, Bucknell

If this sounds like deja vu, then you shouldn't be surprised. Bucknell and Lehigh are once again the cream of the crop in the Patriot League. The Bison, led by Mike Muscala's 19.4 PPG and 11.1 RPG, have the better computer profile (RPI 53, SOS 164, NCSOS 170) and a Top 30 win over La Salle. Lehigh has been without star guard CJ McCollum who was leading the nation in scoring when he broke his foot in early January. McCollum was scheduled to be out 8-10 weeks and it's unknown if he can make it back in time for the Patriot League Tournament in March. The Mountain Hawks have played well without him, including a victory over Bucknell that put them atop the conference (only to go out and drop their next game to Lafayette). Like Bucknell, Lehigh did not play a challenging non-conference schedule and their resume lacks any Top 50 wins and features two losses to teams outside the top 150. In all likelihood, only the conference champion will get a bid to the Tournament, but if Lehigh wins the tournament Bucknell could garner consideration as an At-Large team.

Conference Leader: Gonzaga

Keep an Eye On: St Mary's, BYU

Not only is Gonzaga the best team in the WCC, they might be the best team in the whole Pacific Time Zone. The Bulldogs have an incredible computer profile (RPI 8, SOS 17, NCSOS 12) and their only two losses were to Top-35 teams (Butler and Illinois). They also have 5 wins over Top 50 teams including a near sweep of the Big XII (Oklahoma, Kansas St, Oklahoma St, Baylor). St Mary's and BYU are hanging around the bubble but really don't have a chance at winning the conference. BYU is a bit of an enigma with decent computer numbers (RPI 47, SOS 69, NCSOS 57) yet they lack any good wins (their only Top 100 win is over #88 Santa Clara). The flip side for BYU is that they don't have any losses to teams outside the Top 60, making them 0-6 against the Top 60 but 15-0 against everyone else. This puts them in Bubble Purgatory with no good wins and no bad losses. St Mary's does not have as strong a computer profile (RPI 58, SOS 161, NCSOS 244) but they have two Top 100 wins, including a win over BYU. The Gaels downfall is their 3 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs.

Conference Leader: Stony Brook

Stony Brook has picked up where they left off last year, running out to a 7-1 conference record with their only loss to Vermont, who currently sits in second place. Vermont beat Stony Brook in the America East Championship Game last year after Stony Brook beat the Catamounts in the semi-finals the year before. The two are once again positioned to battle it out down the stretch and will meet for a rematch on February 15 that will likely decide the regular season conference title.

Conference Leader: Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer, Jacksonville, USC Upstate

Since Belmont departed for the Ohio Valley Conference, the Atlantic Sun has been wide open this year. Florida Gulf Coast, USC Upstate and Jacksonville are all 7-3 in conference play with Mercer a half game behind at 6-3. FGCU is probably the best of the bunch with an early-season win over Miami on their resume. Mercer has the stingiest defense of the group, giving up only 58 points per game, is 7-0 at home this season and will be hosting the Atlantic Sun Tournament. The Conference Tournament features only the Top 8 teams in the conference with no byes, so there won't be any advantages to the top teams.

Conference Leader: Montana

Montana is running away with the Big Sky for the second straight year coming off a 2-point win over Weber St last week. Montana and Weber St have clearly been the dominant teams in the conference over the last decade and the Grizzlies seem to have the inside track to the regular season title at this point with a 2 game lead on Weber St.

Conference Leader: Charleston Southern

If you want to pencil a team in for one of the play-in games, write "Big South Champion" on one of those lines. Currently, only 3 teams in the conference have winning records after only 1 team (Gardner-Webb) made it through their non-conference schedule with a winning record. Charleston Southern is leading the pack with a 7-1 record but defending champion UNC Asheville is keeping things interesting staying a game behind. The Big South does have some offensive firepower with 4 teams averaging over 70 points per game.

Conference Leader: Long Beach St

Much like the Big South, the Big West took a whipping in non-conference play. After a 5-8 start to the season, Long Beach St has turned things around with a 7-game winning streak that has propelled them to the top of the league standings. On the flip side, Cal State Northridge started the season 9-3 in non-conference play but has lost 8 of 10 in their conference slate and fallen to the bottom of the standings. The top 8 teams make the tournament and no one is even remotely close to At-Large consideration here. UC Riverside is ineligible for postseason play due to academic penalties, so one of the remaining 9 teams will not make the Big West Tournament.

Conference Leader: Northeastern

With the departure of VCU, the CAA has bottomed out this year. After being one of the top 15 conferences each of the last decade, the CAA currently ranks 25th. Northeastern has a 2-game lead after suffering their first conference loss to Georgia State this week. This will be a one-bid league, but there is value in winning the conference as the regular season champion will get a bye in the tournament which will only include 7 teams due to ineligibilities.

Conference Leader: Valparaiso

Much like the CAA without VCU, the Horizon League has taken a big hit without Butler. Valparaiso is currently leading the field, but there are 5 teams within two games of the Crusaders. With only 9 teams in the conference this year, the top two teams will get "double byes" in the conference tournament to the semi-finals and the 3rd place team will get a bye to the quarterfinals. At one point or another this season, Valpo, Detroit, Youngstown St, Illinois-Chicago and Wright St have all head at least a share of the conference lead. This is a wide open league down the stretch and the race for byes makes finishing in the top 3 all the more important.

Conference Leader: Harvard

Conference Leader: Niagara

Niagara beat Iona in overtime on Thursday night to secure their lead in the MAAC. With a 2 game lead on Iona and a 3-game lead over the rest of the league it would take a collapse by the Purple Eagles to not win the conference, particularly considering they will not face Iona again until the conference tournament. Iona has one of the best offenses in the country, averaging over 82 points a game but they have holes on the defensive end. Niagara is riding a 7-game winning streak and have 4 of their remaining 7 games at home where they haven't lost since November.

Conference Leader: Norfolk St

The MEAC might be one of the strangest Mid-Major conferences in the nation. The conference is rated among the 5 worst in the NCAA this year and has perennially received 15 and 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. However, of the six 15-seeds that have upset 2-seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the MEAC has produced 3 of them, including Norfolk St last season. The Spartans have run through the conference once again this year, streaking out to a 7-0 conference record holding a half game lead over 6-0 North Carolina Central. Strangely enough, the two teams don't face each other in the regular season which could set up an epic showdown in the conference tournament.

Conference Leader: Bryant

Bryant has been a streaky team all season, rattling off an 8-game winning streak from mid-December to mid-January when they turned around and dropped back-to-back games to Sacred Heart and Long Island. The Bulldogs lead in the conference is hardly secure, with 4 teams all sitting within a game of first place. Sacred Heart and Long Island already have wins over Bryant and Robert Morris and Wagner both face the Bulldogs again down the stretch. The bigger battle in the NEC will be at the bottom. Only the top 8 teams in the conference make the post-season tournament. Qunnipiac currently sits in 8th with a 4-5 conference record, with Mount St Mary's and Monmouth only a game behind.

Conference Leader: Davidson

Davidson returned the top 8 scorers from their team that won the conference title last year and has cruised to a 9-1 record in conference play. The Wildcats have a two game lead in the South Division of the SoCon with their only loss to Georgia Southern. Their 9 conference wins have come by an average of 18 points per game. Elon currently leads the North Division and the two will play in what could be a preview of the SoCon championship in late February. The Phoenix are riding a 6-game win streak during which they haven't given up over 67 points in any game. Davidson, Elon and Charleston are currently the only 3 SoCon teams with winning records.

Conference Leader: Stephen F Austin, Oral Roberts

Stephen F Austin has put together an impressive season so far with a 17-2 overall record. However, their computer numbers aren't nearly good enough to put them in the conversation for an at-large bid (RPI 71, SOS 302, NCSOS 157) so they will have to win the conference tournament if they want to make their second trip to the Dance. The Lumberjacks have one of the top defenses in the nation, allowing only 49 points per game. Oral Roberts has been successful in their first year in the Southland Conference and the only blemish on their conference record is a loss to Stephen F Austin. The top two teams in the conference get "double byes" to the Semi-Finals of the conference tournament, and it looks to be a 3-way fight between SFA, ORU and Northwestern St who has the 2nd best offense in the nation averaging 83.7 points per game.

Conference Leader: Southern

This year is more of the same from the SWAC, a conference whose champion has received a 16-seed each of the last 10 years. The SWAC has the lowest ranking of any conference in the NCAA again this season and appears to be heading for a 16-seed once again. Due to NCAA sanctions and violations, 3 of the 10 teams are ineligible for postseason play. Southern is currently leading the pack with an 8-1 conference record and is the only team in the conference with a winning record overall. Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern are currently tied for second but are ineligible for postseason play. The story of the year in the SWAC might be Grambling's winless season. The Tigers are currently 0-18 with the least efficient offense and defense in the nation.

Conference Leader: North Dakota St, Western Illinois, South Dakota St

The 3-way tie atop the Summit League might be one of the most exciting Mid-Major races down the stretch. Both North Dakota St and South Dakota St have RPIs in the 60s though neither has much of a chance for an at-large bid due to multiple losses to teams with RPIs well over 100. South Dakota St features the best player in the league in senior guard Nate Wolters who is averaging 21 points per game, good for 9th in the nation in scoring. While South Dakota St has won with offense, North Dakota St and Western Illinois have done it with defense, both allowing less than 56 points per game. SDSU and NDSU have already split their head-to-head games. Western Illinois beat NDSU at home and lost to SDSU. The Summit League should sort itself out around Valentine's Day when Western Illinois plays at North Dakota St and at South Dakota St on Thursday and Saturday.

Conference Leader: Middle Tennessee St

Of all the Mid-Major schools not named Belmont, Middle Tennessee St might have the best chance of getting an At-Large bid should they fail to win their conference tournament. The Blue Raiders have plowed through the Sun Belt to the tune of an 11-1 conference record with their only loss coming on the road in overtime against Arkansas St. That loss is the only real blemish on their record that features surprisingly good computer numbers (RPI 28, SOS 103, NCSOS 17), a win over Ole Miss, and a 3-3 mark against the Top 100. The problem for Middle Tennessee St will be that their remaining schedule features no teams in the Top 100 so any loss they would suffer would be brutal to their resume. If MTSU is going to get an At-Large bid, they will likely have to run the table the rest of the way in conference play and at least make the semi-finals in the Sun Belt Tournament.

Conference Leader: Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech has roared to a 9-0 record in WAC play and an 18-3 mark overall. However, their non-conference slate was downright awful (NCSOS 208) and their losses to McNeese St (RPI 243) and Northwestern St (RPI 106) could be the downfall of their hopes for an at-large bid should they fail to win the WAC. Unlike Middle Tennessee St, Louisiana Tech will have another opportunity to bolster their resume when they play at New Mexico St (RPI 74) in early March. The Bulldogs are currently 2-1 against the Top 100 with a win over Southern Miss (RPI 36) and their only loss coming to Texas A&M in the first game of the season. If Louisiana Tech runs the table in conference play and enters the WAC Tournament with an 18-0 conference record (and likely a top 40 RPI by that point) they will certainly be in the discussion for an At-Large bid should they falter in the tournament. However, even though their 2-game lead in the conference appears safe, should they lose to anyone other than New Mexico St, they can kiss their At-Large hopes goodbye.