Following the lead of college football, which hosts a weekly rankings reveal to build anticipation for the Playoff, basketball’s NCAA Tournament selection committee took to unveiling a Sweet 16 preview in early February a few seasons ago.
The 2018 edition of this exercise, as unnecessary as it might be, confirms much of what we already know.
1. College basketball lacks a truly dominant team this season.
Coming into the week, I would have touted Virginia, Villanova and Purdue as the three best teams in the nation. The selection committee evidently agrees, positioning all three among the four No. 1 seeds, along with Xavier. But then, this week produced four losses among that threesome, including two for Purdue, a team I thought was playing the best basketball in the nation.
All that spared the entire quartet of No. 1 seeds from suffering defeat this week was a questionable foul call at the buzzer in Xavier’s defeat of Creighton (though, to be fair, the Blue Jays benefited from a shaky whistle on the other end just one second earlier).
Upsets seemingly come in waves during the college basketball, thus so many of the top teams going down in defeat the same week isn’t necessarily different from other campaigns, nor foreshadowing for March. However, how many of these teams lost provides some context.
Virginia rallied to force overtime Saturday against rival Virginia Tech, took control in the extra frame briefly, but then suffered a series of breakdowns both on defense and on the glass that the Hokies exploited.
Virginia Tech appeared quicker and more spry down the stretch, providing the kind of energy and athleticism that has denied Virginia a Final Four appearance in the Tony Bennett era.
Purdue dropped two games to very good teams in conference play. While there’s no shame in going down fighting against a pair of squads that made the selection committee’s initial 16, it’s indicative of the larger issue that has vexed Purdue routinely over the years. The Boilers just cannot get over the hump against elite competition come March, and this week’s results suggest a similar fate might be ahead for this year’s team.
Villanova fell to St. John’s, marking the Red Storm’s first win in Big East play. The Johnnies were also fresh off an 11-game losing streak, which only ended after they beat Duke — the current No. 2 in Villanova’s East Region.
Dropping to an opponent with losses against the likes of Depaul and does not reflect well for two teams in Villanova and Duke that have had issues with first-weekend competition in recent NCAA Tournaments. Both bowed out in either the First or Second Rounds as higher seeded teams a combined six times since 2012, with each doing so last year.
Each have also won national championships in that stretch, of course, and have the pieces to do so again this year. But especially in Duke’s case, there’s a consistency issue that makes it appear as though an early exit is as likely as a Final Four run.
Duke might be the most talented team in the nation, but needs to flip a switch. The same is true for Arizona, which played perhaps its best game of the season Saturday in a win over USC, but that came just 48 hours after laying an egg in the Wildcats’ worst performance on American soil this year in a loss to UCLA.
2. The selection committee really hates mid-major conferences.
The top 16 revealed Sunday features four teams from the ACC, three out of the Big Ten and Big 12, two from the SEC and Big East, and one a piece from the Pac-12 and American. Nary is there a mid-major to be found.
One could argue that the American qualifies as mid-major, since it’s a Group of Five member in football, but one would be wrong. Cincinnati individually is most certainly not a mid-major program — but then again, I would have assumed Gonzaga is not, either.
The selection committee evidently feels otherwise.
Gonzaga’s been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999, and last year came within a few plays of winning the national championship. The Zags would have been the first program from a non-power conference to claim the title since UNLV in 1990.
Despite the Zags’ impressive pedigree, standing at No. 12 in the AP Poll (and sure to climb amid this week’s chaos, along with a blowout win over Saint Mary’s) and a KenPom ranking of No. 7, the stigma of the West Coast Conference may hold Gonzaga back in a manner similar to Wichita State the previous two Tournaments.
And while the argument vis a vis Gonzaga’s KenPom rating might be that the selection committee values RPI, that immediately goes out the window when one considers Atlantic 10-leading Rhode Island boasts an RPI of five. Yes, FIVE.
Somehow, that’s not good enough for the Rams to appear in the Top 16. The committee does, however, have room for Oklahoma.
The last of the four seeds garnered such position despite losing to Iowa State, last-place in the Big 12. That juxtaposes interestingly on the same day as Gonzaga blasting a Top 12-ranked Saint Mary’s, and one day after URI won its 15th straight.
3. Region factors heavily into seeding.
The NCAA’s made a concerted effort over the past decade-plus to keep teams closer to home, starting with the move to pods for opening weekend matchups in the mid-2000s, and now including the positioning of the top four by region.
Sunday’s Top 16 unveiling demonstrates the difficulty the committee faces in both keeping Regional brackets local, and crafting a bracket that gives higher seeds an advantage.
To wit, the West lacks a clear contender. Arizona is the only team west of the Rio Grande in the Top 16, and the Wildcats barely make that cut. However, they check in at No. 4 in the West Regional. A hypothetical Sweet 16 pairing with No. 1 seed Purdue gives the advantage more to Arizona.
In fact, of the four No. 4 seeds, three would play closer to home than their brackets’ top seed: Tennessee in Atlanta; Arizona in Los Angeles; and Oklahoma in Omaha.