Customarily when March arrives a proposal will surface to expand the NCAA tournament to include every team in Division I. I’m not opposed to the idea, I just think that in effect it’s what we already have. The blank-slate pathway to the field of 68 that’s made available to (nearly) every team is the best thing about the first half of the calendar’s best month.
Now that NJIT is safely ensconced in an auto-bid conference, the tournament-eligible population is once again synonymous with the non-banned and non-self-imposed-ban portion of D-I itself. Every eligible team in the nation save eight (sorry, Ivy — but what you have is kind of cool too) gets a court, a ball and 40 minutes in the form of a bid in their conference tournament. Win enough games and you’re dancing.
It may seem self-evident to observe that most teams don’t win their conference tournaments, but every March I’m struck by Twitter’s hard-wired zeal to proclaim that every single losing team beyond only the most obvious blue-chippers has seen their bubble burst. Losing in a conference tournament does indeed decrease your chances of getting into the field of 68, and Twitter understands this point well. Too well, in fact. Thus the Law of March Twitter:
Fandom hath no hurry like the rush to declare every conference tournament loser “out” of the NCAA tournament.
What my feed loses sight of annually, however, is that there’s a countervailing force being exerted on the losers’ behalf in the form of a fixed number of at-large berths. This ratio — 36 at-large bids versus 300-some-odd losing teams in conference tournaments — stays the same every year as one “weakest bubble ever” follows another like clockwork.
When you hear Twitter saying last rites for your team, grieve not. Rather find strength in what remains behind, namely the fact that the committee has to get to 68 somehow.
Welcome to Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 55 mid-majors are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.
Major-conference Truths are at ESPN Insider.
It’s unclear how many of the A-10’s clear top three will go dancing
Through games of February 29, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM 1. VCU 13-3 70.1 1.13 0.96 +0.17 2. Saint Joseph's 13-3 70.3 1.12 0.97 +0.15 3. Dayton 12-4 67.7 1.06 0.94 +0.12 4. George Washington 10-6 66.5 1.09 1.02 +0.07 5. St. Bonaventure 12-4 68.9 1.13 1.06 +0.07 6. Rhode Island 8-8 64.9 1.06 1.01 +0.05 7. Davidson 9-7 70.1 1.13 1.11 +0.02 8. Richmond 7-9 67.5 1.10 1.09 +0.01 9. Duquesne 5-11 74.0 1.03 1.08 -0.05 10. UMass 5-11 70.8 0.98 1.07 -0.09 11. Fordham 6-10 67.0 0.99 1.08 -0.09 12. George Mason 4-12 69.4 0.99 1.10 -0.11 13. Saint Louis 5-11 70.1 0.92 1.05 -0.13 14. La Salle 3-13 65.5 0.93 1.13 -0.20 AVG. 68.8 1.05 KenPom rank: 8 % of games played: 89
Ordinarily I’m hesitant to make too literal a translation between per-possession performance and declarations on A-10 team worth. After all, this particular 14-team league with an 18-game schedule has a membership that spans Nos. 35 to 285 or thereabouts in KenPom. In that kind of setting, a near-RPI-level obsession with schedule over, you know, actual basketball performance is almost understandable. (Related: I love the Big 12, Big East, Colonial, Missouri Valley, and West Coast. Never change, any of you.)
Then again 2015-16 has proven to be a little less than ordinary in the league, and VCU, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the conference. The Hawks and the Flyers are showing up in the mocks around the 7-line even though the latter team has had to battle through unspeakable adversity. Specifically my colleague Eamonn Brennan gave UD the analytic equivalent of “I know it was you, Fredo,” by proclaiming Archie Miller’s team a lock. Naturally Dayton then went out and dropped three of their next four, and if Eamonn’s smart he’ll turn this uncanny ability of his into a lucrative side gig. (“Nice little run you have going here, Kevin Stallings. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it. By the way, my editor’s asking about my next ‘lock’….”)
As for VCU, the loss last week to George “He’s spinning the ball on his finger! Just take it!” Mason was ill timed. Nevertheless there are two reasons for Joe and Jane Average Fan with no dog in this hunt to fondly wish that the Rams make the field of 68. First, Will Wade’s group could turn out to be the league’s best team in a perfect Euclidean realm where the A-10 played a 50-fold round-robin on one neutral floor. Second, the 33-year-old Wade appears to be a feisty chap who may turn out to be the proverbial bull who carries his own china shop with him. A couple weeks ago he had a near-Mike-Gundy-esque “I’m a man!” moment, to wit:
Everybody needs to back the hell off of [Jordan Burgess] and some of our other guys, JeQuan [Lewis] and some of those other guys, and put the blame where it belongs. That’s on me, not on them. They’re student-athletes, you know? They go to school here. The blame’s on me….So put the bullets on me. Tweet at me. Do all that crap at me. Nobody else in our program.
I’ll take questions.
No questions. I answered everything.
Note additionally that while the regular season has produced a top three, St. Bonaventure can ramp up its own at-large chatter with a win tomorrow night against Saint Joe’s. The game will be played not at the Bonnies’ home arena but 100 miles away at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena. SBU has played nine games there this century. This may be the biggest one yet.
CAA: This could be the nation’s best one-bid tournament
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM 1. James Madison 11-7 67.5 1.06 0.98 +0.08 2. Hofstra 14-4 68.9 1.10 1.02 +0.08 3. UNC Wilmington 14-4 68.7 1.09 1.03 +0.06 4. William & Mary 11-7 68.2 1.13 1.08 +0.05 5. Coll. of Charleston 8-10 62.0 0.96 0.94 +0.02 6. Towson 11-7 66.1 1.06 1.04 +0.02 7. Northeastern 9-9 64.7 1.04 1.05 -0.01 8. Elon 7-11 69.9 1.04 1.07 -0.03 9. Drexel 3-15 64.8 0.96 1.09 -0.13 10. Delaware 2-16 67.6 0.98 1.15 -0.17 AVG. 66.9 1.04 KenPom rank: 9 % of games played: 100
I’ll keep this brief because I’ve been banging this drum now for weeks, but the Colonial arguably combines intra-league parity with overall strength better than any other one-bid league in D-I. Barring a major earthquake of the Drexel/Delaware variety the winner of the conference tournament will be seeded around the 14-line in the NCAA bracket, and that team will have a realistic albeit uphill shot at beating a No. 3 seed. Be wary, Oregon, West Virginia, Utah, Maryland, or whomever. We’ve seen the 14-3 magic before.
BONUS hoops metaphysics note. Wins are really fickle. You will rarely see three teams more closely matched in performance terms than James Madison, Hofstra and UNC Wilmington. With the analytic blessing of the CAA’s round-robin we’re afforded the simple luxury of pointing. All three teams played between 1,250 and 1,300 possessions against identical schedules, and as seen here the result was pretty close to a Truths photo finish. Yet two of those teams went 14-4, while the other one finished three games back. This is why college basketball coaches tend to be nervous sorts.
Valley: Why I’m leery of the Shockers (continued)
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM 1. Wichita State 16-2 66.5 1.14 0.86 +0.28 2. Northern Iowa 11-7 61.8 1.05 0.96 +0.09 3. Evansville 12-6 68.4 1.02 0.94 +0.08 4. Illinois State 12-6 65.9 1.04 0.97 +0.07 5. Southern Illinois 11-7 68.7 1.02 1.02 0.00 6. Loyola 7-11 64.6 0.96 0.99 -0.03 7. Indiana State 8-10 69.7 0.97 1.01 -0.04 8. Missouri State 8-10 68.6 0.96 1.04 -0.08 9. Drake 2-16 65.9 0.95 1.10 -0.15 10. Bradley 3-15 66.7 0.82 1.04 -0.22 AVG. 66.7 0.99 KenPom rank: 12 % of games played: 100
Last week I offered up the irresistible click-bait that is an Excel screen cap in order to illustrate how Wichita State has built a beautiful per-possession scoring margin through an unusually large number of blowouts. This week I wish to adorn this same kind of salacious gimme-hits content with an SEO headline:
You Won’t Believe What These Celebrities Did Next After Seeing This Excel Screen Cap!
Just to close the loop here with the final numbers:
That’s this year’s team on the left, and the undefeated No. 1-seeded Shockers of 2014 on the right. Blowouts are in green, and losses are in red. This year’s team has actually recorded a superior scoring margin compared to what we saw two years ago, because this 2016 group blew Valley opponents out 61 percent of the time. My laptop sees a scoring margin like that and gets pretty enthusiastic, so when the brackets come out in a couple weeks it’s conceivable that there’ll be an abundance of knowing chatter on the subject of a No. 1 seed getting a “terrible” draw because they’re facing Gregg Marshall’s team in the round of 32.
I’ll wait to see the bracket before declaring either way, but I’ll plead guilty here and now to one count of categorical hesitation. Teams that record beautiful scoring margins by losing a few games but winning the ones they win by 28 instead of 18 make me fretful. This whole setup reminds me a little too much of Florida 2013, which lost four of 18 SEC games, outscored its conference by a ridiculous margin (+0.28), and entered the NCAA tournament as the nation’s No. 2 team at KenPom. That year the Gators gladly accepted the bracket gods’ gift of Florida Gulf Coast as a Sweet 16 opponent only to lose by 20 to Michigan in the Elite Eight.
Mountain West: SDSU may need the auto-bid to go dancing
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM 1. San Diego State 14-2 65.0 1.04 0.91 +0.13 2. Boise State 10-6 70.3 1.08 1.01 +0.07 3. New Mexico 9-7 71.9 1.07 1.02 +0.05 4. UNLV 8-9 74.2 1.02 0.99 +0.03 5. Fresno State 11-5 68.6 1.03 1.01 +0.02 6. Nevada 10-6 72.7 0.99 0.97 +0.02 7. Colorado State 7-9 68.9 1.08 1.10 -0.02 8. Utah State 6-10 68.0 1.06 1.09 -0.03 9. Wyoming 6-11 65.9 1.04 1.08 -0.04 10. San Jose State 3-13 68.8 0.95 1.05 -0.10 11. Air Force 5-11 67.5 0.93 1.07 -0.14 AVG. 69.3 1.03 KenPom rank: 10 % of games played: 90
In a down year for the MWC, San Diego State was hoping to run the table (“win with separation,” in Steve Fisher’s phrasing) in order to make the best case for an at-large bid. That’s not going to happen, however. In addition to a loss at Fresno State in early February, the Aztecs suffered a “meltdown” on Sunday and lost at home to Boise State 66-63 despite leading the Broncos by nine with just over a minute remaining. So much for The Streak, SDSU’s run of 164 consecutive victories when leading with five minutes to go.
Right now San Diego State’s being shown in the mocks as a No. 12 seed, but that’s assuming an automatic bid. Should the Aztecs fall in an MWC tournament that’s being played on UNLV’s home floor, it’s possible the program could miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Allow me to take this opportunity, then, to salute Fisher either way. What he has done is remarkable, and what he is doing with a co-featured senior scorer who shoots 39 percent on 2s and 23 percent on 3s is to my eyes simply incredible.
WCC: The Zags haven’t missed an NCAA tournament since 1998
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM 1. Gonzaga 15-3 67.8 1.20 0.98 +0.22 2. Saint Mary's 15-3 62.4 1.16 0.99 +0.17 3. BYU 13-5 73.5 1.14 0.97 +0.17 4. Pepperdine 10-8 67.5 1.07 1.06 +0.01 5. San Francisco 8-10 72.4 1.08 1.13 -0.05 6. Portland 6-12 72.0 1.09 1.14 -0.05 7. Pacific 6-12 67.0 1.00 1.07 -0.07 8. Loyola Marymount 6-12 67.7 1.02 1.13 -0.11 9. Santa Clara 7-11 66.7 1.03 1.15 -0.12 10. San Diego 4-14 67.2 0.91 1.08 -0.17 AVG. 68.4 1.07 KenPom rank: 11 % of games played: 100
Patton Oswalt has said that if he had a time machine he would go back to 1994 and kill George Lucas with a shovel to keep the director from making the prequels. Perhaps if I got to borrow the apparatus next I would set the dial to 1998 and tell the locals in Spokane that Gonzaga was/is about to play in 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments. To put it mildly, nothing in the post-Bill-Russell history of the West Coast Conference could have possibly foretold such an outcome. Mark Few (and, yes, Dan Monson), I salute you.
The streak is now in serious jeopardy, however. The mocks have reached a rough consensus that the Zags now sit just on the wrong side of the cut line, and the insidious thing about this year’s WCC tournament for Bulldog fans (today’s introductory ode to such events notwithstanding) is that a potential win over BYU in the semifinals isn’t going to get the job done for Few’s guys. Gonzaga will instead be approaching the conference tournament in Vegas with the attitude that they need to win the whole thing, because that is in fact likely the case.
Meanwhile Saint Mary’s is one of the feel-good stories of the college basketball season, a fact that could count for precious little if the Gaels don’t at least make the WCC championship game. Randy Bennett’s team is being shown on the 11-line in the mocks, close enough to the dreaded precipice for bid thieves from other conferences to be a real concern. The strongest opponent on SMC’s half of the bracket is Pepperdine, but Bennett’s men would be well advised to remove all doubt and guard against any contingencies by simply grabbing the automatic bid.