The NCAA tournament selection committee attempted to dig deeper into the numbers in selecting the 68-team field. It abandoned using the top 50 of the Rating Percentage Index as its arbitrary cutoff line for quality victories and replaced it with a quadrant system.
But the message given by its selections on Sunday night was just as clear as in years past: High-end victories matter more than anything else.
It’s why Florida State easily made it into the field, and why other teams with poor nonconference schedules got slotted in 8-vs.-9 games. And it’s why Saint Mary’s, with its 28-5 record and one of the 10 or 15 best players in the country, is heading to the National Invitation Tournament.
Toss in Syracuse’s boost from both a few notable road victories and a strong nonconference schedule, and the committee further solidified the direction it has headed in for the three previous seasons. Hint: It’s one that helps high-major programs with lots of chances to make an impression.
SURPRISE: Florida State sails in. The Seminoles (20-11) looked increasingly dicey on paper as the week wore on. They lost to Louisville in their only ACC tournament game, and their nonconference schedule (No. 323 entering Sunday) was a dead weight.
But there were always those six Quadrant One victories, defined as triumphs at home against the RPI top 30, on neutral floors against the top 50 and on the road against the top 75. Notable victories more than counteracted the warts on Florida State’s resume, and it ended up safely in the field as a No. 9 seed.
SNUB: No sign of Saint Mary’s. The Gaels (28-5) matched the record for most victories on Selection Sunday by an eligible team that was left out of the tournament (along with Coastal Carolina in 2010 and 2011). The big problem, apparently, with Randy Bennett’s team was the absence of quality victories.
Saint Mary’s won at Gonzaga, beat New Mexico State and … had a regular-season sweep of Brigham Young. That’s not much to work with. It also had missteps at San Francisco and against Pac-12 bottom-feeder Washington State. Sheer quantity did not get the job done for the Gaels, who did boast a 12-4 record away from home.
SURPRISE: Syracuse noses into the field. Maybe not that much of a surprise. The Washington Post projection waffled on the Orange all week, finally making Syracuse the first team out when Davidson stole a bid by winning the Atlantic 10 on Sunday. The Orange (20-13) turned out to be the committee’s last team in the field.
Sometimes, not having much working against a team is a blessing. Syracuse was 4-8 against Quadrant One (not great, not terrible for that place in the bracket), had a couple dubious losses to answer for and beat both Miami and fellow borderline team Louisville on the road. There was also the No. 14 nonconference schedule going in Syracuse’s favor. It’s a team that could have gone either way.
NOT A SURPRISE: Duke shipped out of North Carolina (the state). The Blue Devils lost two of three to North Carolina (the team), which moved ahead of them this week, but that’s far from the only reason Duke will be playing in Pittsburgh this week rather than a few hours down Interstate 85 in Charlotte.
Duke was 6-5 in Quadrant One games, while North Carolina was 14-8. That’s a considerable difference, more than enough to make up for other factors. Considering the Blue Devils have taken some early losses in the Carolinas in recent years (vs. Lehigh in Greensboro, Mercer in Raleigh, South Carolina in Greenville), maybe getting sent further away — but still within the ACC’s nominal footprint — isn’t the worst thing.
SNUB: Whither Southern California? The second-place finisher in the Pac-12 (both in the regular season and the league tournament) was 4-6 against Quadrant One and a combined 9-10 against Quadrants One and Two. It had only one poor loss (at home against Princeton) and was 11-7 away from home. So why were the Trojans left out?
It probably came down to beating almost no one of substance. They knocked off New Mexico State on Christmas Day, but that was the only eventual tournament team they defeated. The thinking here was Southern Cal would slide in because it hadn’t done anything particularly offensive. That turned out to be incorrect.
SURPRISE: Nevada’s generous seeding. The news was not all glum for mid-majors out west. Not only did Nevada get in despite a stumble in the Mountain West tournament (which wasn’t really a surprise), it ended up as a No. 7 seed in the South Region and will face Texas in its opener.
The Wolf Pack owned a top-20 RPI and the No. 20 nonconference strength of schedule entering the day. It also defeated four eventual NCAA tournament teams, though not the strongest contingent of such foes (Davidson, Radford, Rhode Island and San Diego State). No one should question the selection, but the seeding seems high.
SNUB: UCLA’s date in Dayton. This one’s a puzzler. UCLA shouldn’t have been hurt by its nonconference schedule (No. 78), went 7-9 away from Pauley Pavilion and beat Arizona on the road and Kentucky on a neutral court. Its only two lamentable losses were at home against Colorado and at Oregon State.
Sometimes the bracket projection misses something. Sometimes the committee has its own misreads. This looks like it is one of the latter.
NOT A SURPRISE: The MEAC and SWAC winners will face each other. Ever since a play-in game was added in 2001 (and expanded to four play-in games in 2011), the winner of at least one of the two conferences composed of historically black colleges and universities has always been sent directly to the round of 64. This year, N.C. Central (MEAC) and Texas Southern (SWAC) will face each other.
There’s obviously a political element in play here, but many of the teams in those leagues enjoy the fewest resources in Division I. What was effectively an unwritten rule against pitting HBCUs in the play-in game provided some protection.
This year, though, Texas Southern is 15-19 and N.C. Central entered Sunday with an RPI of 279. Both teams belonged in the play-in game. But since they’re facing each other, not only will an HBCU make it to the first round, either the MEAC or the SWAC will secure the unit that comes with any NCAA tournament victory. A unit is worth more than $1.5 million over six years. That would take the sting out of play-in purgatory.
NOT A SURPRISE: Arizona State and Oklahoma survive late-season fades. Folks, the whole season counts, which is why Oklahoma (which lost eight of its last 10) and Arizona State (dropped five of its last six and 11 of its final 19) earned at-large bids.
It’s true that both teams did much of their best work before the winter solstice. And yes, neither team is especially trustworthy at this stage of the season. But if the games in November and December aren’t going to mean anything, why play them? On paper, both the Sun Devils and Sooners belong in the field, even if their showings of late suggest they won’t acquit themselves too well.
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In Kentucky, “We can’t get over that ’92 game, no matter what,” says Cameron Mills, a Lexington native who played hero on the Wildcats’ 1998 national championship team and now works as a radio host in his home town, mingling routinely with the fans.
He’s speaking about “The Shot,” Christian Laettner’s legendary buzzer-beater in the 1992 East Region final that sank Kentucky and propelled Duke to the national title. It’s just one of 15 unforgettable NCAA tournament defeats from across college basketball nation examined by Chuck Culpepper and Patrick Stevens.