The field of 68 is set, and few should be surprised by who is actually included in the NCAA tournament.
Well, few who don’t have a fondness for orange Kool-Aid, anyway.
There were a few seeding quirks, and the selection committee extended its streak of casting a dubious eye toward one-bid leagues to three years, but for the most part things played out in expected fashion. Among the noteworthy things worth diving into:
SURPRISE: Louisville as a No. 2 seed. The Cardinals were slotted as the best of the No. 4 seeds in the final Washington Post bracket projection, so seeing them on the No. 3 line wouldn’t have been out of place. But Rick Pitino’s bunch jumped up to a No. 2 seed despite winning only one game away from home against a team in the field (Wichita State).
Louisville took the No. 2 seed that was projected to go to Oregon. The Ducks were a bit of a wild card after big man Chris Boucher’s season-ending injury. It just seemed like there were better arguments — UCLA, which won at Arizona and Kentucky among them — to move up to the No. 2 line if Oregon was facing a seeding adjustment.
SNUB: The seedings of Middle Tennessee and Wichita State. The committee’s lack of faith in one-bid conference champions continues. Wichita State is an advanced metrics darling with few high-end victories to its credit. (Okay, only the two it snagged against NIT-bound Illinois State.) It checked in at No. 31 in the Rating Percentage Index and ended up on the No. 10 line.
The good news is it gets a winnable game against suddenly struggling Dayton and then could draw Kentucky in a fascinating 2-10 game. The Shockers did escape having to face a No. 1 seed in the round of 32, though dealing with Kentucky in Indianapolis won’t be a picnic.
As for 30-4 Middle Tennessee, let’s just say the Blue Raiders should be grateful they didn’t lose in the Conference USA tournament. They’ll have another shot at upsetting a Big Ten team this year (Minnesota) after knocking off Michigan State a year ago, but they’re better than a No. 12 seed. The committee, though, didn’t agree.
SURPRISE: South Carolina as a No. 7 seed. The Gamecocks didn’t win a game away from home against a team in the tournament field, and while it owned a modest RPI (No. 43, per CBSSports.com), its advanced metrics pegged it right around the No. 8 line. So maybe this isn’t too out-of-whack.
Nonetheless, Frank Martin’s team really sputtered down the stretch, and there is some credit to be given for not allowing recency bias to play too large a role. Yet in terms of overall profile, the Gamecocks belonged at least a couple lines lower. Not only did they land a 7, but they get to play just up Interstate 26 (and then I-385) in Greenville. No one got a better break than South Carolina.
SNUB: Wisconsin as a No. 8 seed. This isn’t a vintage Wisconsin team, but is it really three lines lower than Minnesota and two lines lower than Maryland? If there’s something that clearly could have worked against the Badgers, it was a poor nonconference schedule (No. 276).
NOT-A-SURPRISE: Duke is a No. 2 seed. There was a big push, it seemed, for Duke to land a No. 1 seed. And yes, the Blue Devils were impressive while winning the ACC tournament in Brooklyn.
But the committee is evaluating the entire body of work, and while Duke had some extenuating circumstances (injuries, suspension, Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery), it also had all of its pieces in place when it dropped three of its last four regular season games.
No one should shed too many tears for the Blue Devils. They open play in Greenville, S.C., they’re in the East Region and they’ll have a chance to get to the Final Four by going through their home away from home, Madison Square Garden. Facing Villanova in the Elite Eight is hardly a gimme, but this is an appropriate placement for Duke.
SURPRISE: Seton Hall on the No. 9 line. Maybe a hair high for the Pirates, but there was a measure of unpredictability to the Big East’s entrants on the bottom half of the draw. Neither advanced metrics (No. 50 Sagarin, No. 53 KenPom) nor the RPI (No. 44) hinted that Kevin Willard’s team would rise this high.
Of course, this might not be much of a break for the Hall. It could have been a feisty No. 11 seed with the right matchup. Now, it will have to deal with North Carolina in the round of 32 if it navigates Arkansas. That won’t be much fun, even with a fabulous junior class of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez.
SNUB: No love for Illinois State. This does not come as a surprise, considering the Redbirds won one of three against Wichita State but otherwise had little going for them at the top of their resume. But they dominated the Missouri Valley alongside Wichita, and generally played well while going 27-6 (though an opening night loss to Murray State didn’t help).
The tournament is more fun with teams like Illinois State in it than relatively unaccomplished power conference schools, but this was not an unanticipated verdict from the selection committee. This is what should be expected of any team with a gaudy record but few high-end triumphs that has the audacity to lose in its conference tournament.
NOT A SURPRISE: Syracuse left out. You’d think Orange fans would have figured out last year that winning on the road matters. Syracuse was an edge-of-the-field team in 2016, but it won at Duke and beat Connecticut and Texas A&M on a neutral court. It got in as a No. 10 seed, bypassing a play-in game before proceeding to make an unexpected Final Four run.
This year, the Orange beat a bunch of good teams, all at home. It went 2-11 away from the Carrier Dome, taking seven of those losses by double figures. The lone road victories were against Clemson and N.C. State. Syracuse lost at Boston College on New Year’s Day, a setback to a team outside the top 200 in the RPI. Kansas State and Southern California didn’t have one of those (though Providence, admittedly, also lost at Boston College, and DePaul, too).
Never mind the RPI in the 80s. The Orange was a horrible team outside its own building, and there was little reason to think it would advance in a tournament played in any setting other than a dome in central New York. Fortunately for Syracuse, it will have the chance to do just that … in the NIT.
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