March Madness Perspectives: Feb 25

This past weekend we were gifted a taste of the craze that is to come with this year's NCAA Tournament. Indeed, if the Big Dance is anything like the regular season has been, it is sure to be one of the two or three wildest and most unpredictable tournaments since the turn of the millennium.

Here is a recap of some of the notable results from the past few days, and what their implications are.

  • Previously undefeated San Diego St. suffered its first loss of the season at the hands of the now 15-14 UNLV Runnin' Rebels. What is especially bad about the loss is that it was in San Diego, so it goes down as a Quad 3 loss for the Aztecs and looks much worse than a Q2 loss.
    • For those not familiar with the Quadrant system, it is part of the recently instituted NET rankings system that the Tournament Selection Committee began using last year. It is widely praised and by all accounts, an elephantine upgrade from the previously prioritized RPI metric.
    • This loss, thanks to other results that I am about to highlight, may not come back to haunt SDSU and may even be good for them psychologically. However, it undoubtedly puts their No. 1 seed in jeopardy with the top echelons of the ACC and Big Ten knocking on the door to move up to the top line. 
    • As for the Mountain West standings, the Aztecs are in no danger of losing their grip on the steering wheel. They are a full four games ahead of Utah State and Nevada.
    • San Diego St. still has to play host to a pretty good Colorado State team Tuesday night and travel to Reno to play a pretty good Nevada team to close the season. A loss in either of those games drops SDSU to a 2 seed beyond the shadow of a doubt.
      • SDSU could fall to a 2 as is with the right combination of results. At any rate, the Aztecs must win out and win the Mountain West tournament to have hopes of retaining a 1 seed.
  • Kansas got the better of Baylor in Waco, holding on to defeat the Bears 63-60. The Jayhawks subsequently leapfrogged Baylor and Gonzaga in this week's AP Poll and sit atop the rest of the country with games at Kansas St (snore), vs. TCU (snore) and at Texas Tech (important!) to close the season.
    • Kansas is in the driver's seat to get the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. 
      • This means Kansas will get the most favorable region based on geography (Midwest) and will get to play in Indianapolis, assuming that it advances to the second weekend of the tournament.
    • It would take an earth-shattering combination of events for Kansas to fall off the 1 line. If I'm a Jayhawks fan, I'm smiling right now.
  • BYU defeated Gonzaga handily (91-78) in Provo. This BYU team is damn good, with a 23-7 record and 12-3 in what is looking more and more every day like a three-bid West Coast Conference (St. Mary's, Gonzaga), and that 23-7 record isn't a great reflection of this team, who was without its best player, Yoeli Childs, at the beginning of the season because he received a 9-game suspension for incorrectly filing some paperwork (yes, really). The Cougars started 6-4 and have gone 17-3 since.
    • ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects BYU as a 6 seed as of today, and I am leaning toward agreeing with him on this one, but I could see even a 5 seed for the Cougs, depending on what other teams do. 
      • Unfortunately, BYU's final game is at Pepperdine, and while that game is not necessarily an open-and-shut case, a win will not be enough to bump BYU up another line to a 5 seed, so the other results really are what loom crucial here. 
        • A loss at Pepperdine means BYU is probably a 7.
    • Gonzaga is now 27-2 overall and 13-1 in WCC play. The Bulldogs close with a pair of home games against San Diego (USD, not SDSU) and tournament-bound St. Mary's. Should Gonzaga win those two games, they are sure to hang on to their 1 seed barring an unlikely early exit from the WCC tournament.
      • If anything, the loss at BYU is more about the rest of the country seeing that the most consistent team of the last half-decade is beatable, as if that fiery belief needed fueling - most NCAAM fans east of the Mountain Time Zone already didn't believe in Gonzaga because of their shortcomings in past NCAA tournaments. Still, let's not overreact. This was Gonzaga's first regular-season conference defeat in 41 (!) games.
        • Gonzaga is probably going to be a 1 seed or at the very worst a high 2, and will be a near sure-thing to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
  • Maryland lost in Columbus on Sunday. There's no real harm in that. It's a Q1 loss. It's a great win for Ohio St, who are now securely on the 6 line. (I still think the Buckeyes could be a popular first-round upset pick. Remember, 6-11 is the new 5-12.) 
    • The significance of the Maryland loss is that the Terps almost certainly would have moved up to the 1 line, since three (!) of the four current projected 1 seeds (KU, Zaga, SDSU) lost on Saturday. Maryland, along with ACC powers Duke and Florida State, is still in the running for a 1 seed, largely dependent on the regular season Big Ten (or ACC for the latter two) title and the Big Ten tournament.
  • Duke was trounced by NC State in Raleigh, and now the Wolfpack's NCAA hopes are alive and well as they continue to hover around Last Four In/First Four Out in most projections. NC State has four games remaining, including a rematch against Duke. If they take care of business against Pitt, UNC and Wake Forest and later have an at-least-okay showing in the ACC tournament, the Wolfpack can afford a split with Duke. I see them losing in the First Four or in the Round of 64, but I like their odds to get a bid, and if they get a bid obviously anything can happen. If they're team number 69 (nice) again, they have nothing. But they will probably be team number 66 or 67.
    • Duke, like Maryland, could have moved up to the 1 line with a win at NC State, but they remain a 2 seed for now. They could still move up with a strong finish and will almost certainly move up if that strong finish includes the ACC tournament title, and they are unlikely to fall to the 3 line unless they lose two more.
  • Bubble Watch: As of now, the fringe is set to give us lots of exciting season finishes. If you're a big mid-major guy or gal, watch out for Wichita St, Utah St, Memphis, Richmond and Liberty (more on the Flames later).
    • East Tennessee St appears safe for now barring a collapse, and will do many bubble teams a favor if they double dip and win the SoCon tournament. ETSU's win against LSU in Baton Rouge continues to be the Buccaneers' brightest spot on the resume, and it does shine quite bright (Q1 Road W).
    • I would project a 10 seed for WSU, but the Shockers could use a strong showing in the AAC Tournament to feel safe. They're a far cry from a lock and none of their four last games will be easy (vs. Temple, at SMU, at Memphis, vs. Tulsa). 
    • Utah State controls its own destiny. They need wins vs. San Jose St. (easy money) and at UNM (tough) to close the regular season and I would say making it at least to the MW semifinal. The only way Utah St is an at-large lock is to meet, and defeat, SDSU in the MW tournament, and if that's in the final, then obviously they would be in with a W anyway as the MW Automatic Qualifier.
    • What a tumultuous journey for the Memphis Tigers! They make me nervous. They've been on the Bubble for three months, for those who follow the bracket projection all season long. They have a chance for a Q1 W in their last game of the season at Houston, and a Q2 W in their penultimate game vs. Wichita State. Win those and they're surely in, unless they get bounced in Round 1 or 2 of the American tournament.
    • Perhaps my favorite Bubble team to track, the Richmond Spiders sit at 20-7 (10-4 in A-10) with a win over Wisconsin on a neutral floor being the brightest spot on the resume. Since VCU has fallen off severely, the Spiders really are Richmond's hope for this March unless VCU wins the Atlantic 10 tournament. Richmond is (probably) the third-best team in the A-10 (Dayton, Rhode Island) and what they could really use is another game against one (or both) of those two teams to prove themselves. The scheduling gods weren't with them this year though, so they won't get one until the conference tournament. Richmond has an important final slate of games (at GWU, vs. UMass, vs. Davidson, at Duquesne). They really need to win all four, certainly at least three, to stay in the 65-72 range. Go Spiders!
    • Liberty, the shining star of the Atlantic Sun, has a chance to double dip.
      • Explained: The 32 teams that win their conference tournaments are awarded automatic bids to the Big Dance. The remaining 36 teams are chosen by the committee based on merit (we think) and awarded at-large bids. When a team who would have definitely been awarded an at-large bid wins its conference tournament, it's called double dipping. Double dipping is good for bubble teams as it keeps as many spots as possible free. 
        • Let's say that Florida State or Duke wins the ACC tournament. They will double dip. They would have gotten an at-large bid regardless. But, let's say that Boston College goes on an amazing tear through the ACC tournament and wins it (zero chance), then BC will steal a bid by preventing a double dip scenario. That would be very bad for bubble teams.
          • It is rare for bid stealing to take place in a Power 5 conference. They usually double dip. A much more likely bid stealing scenario would be for a team like New Mexico or Nevada to win the MW tournament and steal a bid from a bubble team since San Diego St. is definitely going to get an at-large bid anyway, or for Duquesne or GMU (unlikely) to win the A-10 tournament since Dayton will definitely get an at-large bid. In both of those scenarios, the unlikely conference tournament winner could be knocking a team from its conference out of the field, as both Utah State (more so) and Rhode Island (less so) are on or near the fringe.
            • As you can see, it is best for bubble teams if the best teams win their conference tournaments.
      • With all of that being said, Liberty is in the running for an at-large bid and very well may get one depending on how they close the season, so it all adds a lot of intrigue to the A-Sun Tournament because it will be a prime opportunity for a bid stealer if Liberty is still in the field.  I think Liberty needs to win at Lipscomb and at Kennesaw State to stay in the field.
  • Conference tournaments begin next week! Here's what to look for.
    • March 3
      • Atlantic Sun - best team: Liberty
      • Big South (1-bid league) - best team: Radford
        • 1-bid league means that if the top team loses in the conference tournament, then that's just too bad and they won't be in the Big Dance. These conferences will only have one representative.
      • Horizon League (1-bid league) - best team: Wright St
      • Patriot League (1-bid league) - best team: Colgate
    • March 4
      • Mountain West (!) - The MW is a very exciting conference and it is a cut above the rest of these early tournament conferences. It will also have potential bid stealers in action from the get-go. Make no mistake about it - there will be at least one bid stealer this year somewhere, and maybe two.
      • Northeast Conference - best team: St. Francis (PA)
      • Ohio Valley Conference - 3-way tie: Murray St, Belmont, Austin Peay
    • March 5
      • Missouri Valley - best team: Northern Iowa
        • Northern Iowa is another bubble team who, like Liberty, needs to win its conference tournament to be safe. The Panthers have fallen off of late, losing at Loyola-Chicago (no huge deal) and Indiana State (bad).
      • West Coast Conference (!) - best team: Gonzaga
        • It's a great year to be the commissioner of the WCC! It's a 3-bid league (barring a St. Mary's collapse) and that's a beautiful thing! Pacific Time basketball is relevant outside the Pac-12.

Stay tuned for more of my perspectives on March Madness this year.

--Alex Yandell


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