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Analysis | NCAA tournament bracketology: Nonconference schedules could be a real issue

Analysis | NCAA tournament bracketology: Nonconference schedules could be a real issue

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Pitt had a challenging task Friday night in the ACC tournament against North Carolina, a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels pulled away late for a 72-65 victory to send the Panthers out in the semifinals.

An arguably more arduous task awaits Sunday: somehow receiving clemency for an acutely poor nonconference schedule as a borderline tournament team.

It’s a tough spot for Pitt (22-11), which did a remarkable job of turning around its season after falling to 10-7 in mid-January. The Panthers won at Duke, when Blake Hinson memorably channeled the dreams of so many ACC players, past and present, by running over to the student section and taunting the Cameron Crazies after a victory, then picked off Virginia in Charlottesville and rolled up a 7-4 road record.

The Panthers are 4-6 in Quadrant 1 games, not elite but also not disqualifying. They’re 9-9 in games in the top two quadrants, and like pretty much everyone at the edge of the field, have one or two results that look questionable (a Nov. 28 loss at home to Missouri is especially glaring in retrospect).

Yet the number that sticks out the most on Pitt’s team sheet is 343 — its nonconference schedule strength out of 362 Division I teams.

Going back to 2007, there have been 28 power conference teams that reached Selection Sunday with a winning overall record, a .500 or better mark in league play and a nonconference strength of schedule in the 300s.

Just 11 of them made the NCAA tournament. Two earned automatic bids, and eight more landed a No. 9 seed or better. The lone outlier was 2019 Iowa, which was rated as the top No. 10 on that year’s seed list.

That list of teams will grow considerably tomorrow night. Nebraska (305th), Texas Tech (311th), Iowa State (324th), Texas Christian (328th) and Northwestern (330th) also meet the criteria — only those teams’ overall profiles are better for various reasons.

There is some hope for the Panthers, more than there would have been a few years back. In 2021, Drake became the first team from any league with a nonconference strength of schedule in the 300s to earn an at-large berth as a No. 11 seed since Air Force in 2006. That, though, could be chalked up to the vagaries of a season played during a pandemic and filled with greater scheduling demands than usual.

But the next year, the committee let in an Indiana team that finished 20-13 overall, went 9-11 in the Big Ten and played the No. 308 nonconference schedule. Even though the Hoosiers won a play-in game, it was still a massive outlier and not in line with how committees have treated such teams over more than 15 years.

There are two ways things could wind up going for Pitt: Either it might not be getting enough credit from analysts for the considerable amount of good work it has done, and consequently lands comfortably inside the field. Or it will be hosting an NIT game sometime next week.

Because for teams of the Panthers’ profile, there’s almost never an in-between.

Saturday’s games to watch

SEC semifinal (Nashville): No. 6 Florida vs. No. 7 Texas A&M, approx. 3:30 (ESPN)

Has Texas A&M (20-13) done enough — with its victories over Iowa State, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Florida and now twice over Kentucky — to overcome its five Quadrant 3 losses. The Aggies stand out in a bad way on that front; no other team in the top 70 of the NET has so many defeats outside the top two quads. Coach Buzz Williams’s team owns the most complicated résumé among realistic at-large contenders, and it is all but certain at this point to be a Selection Sunday lightning rod unless it wins the SEC tournament.

Bracket impact: Every win Texas A&M might add to its critical mass. The Aggies were 15-13 a few weeks back, and now they’re in the hunt. It’s almost the same as two years ago, when they won eight in a row before an SEC title game loss and still got sent to the NIT at 23-12.

American Athletic semifinal (Fort Worth): No. 2 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 11 Temple, approx. 5:30 (ESPN2)

The Owls (25-7) of Boca Raton eventually dispensed with North Texas in Friday’s quarterfinals, and they now face the Owls of Philadelphia, who are 15-19 but have won four in a row. That includes each of the past three days, the latest victory an upset of third-seeded Charlotte.

Bracket impact: Florida Atlantic remains the team every borderline team is rooting for. If it can win the American, it won’t need an at-large bid and it will open a spot in the field for someone else. That is and will remain the most compelling big-picture element of this tournament.

Mountain West final (Las Vegas): No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 6 New Mexico, 6 (CBS)

Listed in this section more out of caution than anything, the Mountain West title game features one team safely inside the field (San Diego State) and one that should be after beating Boise State and Colorado State the past two nights (New Mexico). The Lobos entered the week on the edge of inclusion; now, they’re 40 minutes away from locking up an automatic bid.

Bracket impact: San Diego State could realistically end up on the No. 5 line in the NCAA tournament with a victory, though a No. 6 would make sense as well. New Mexico arguably has played its way out of Dayton; could the Lobos wind up in an 8/9 game if they win the Mountain West? Possibly.

Big 12 final (Kansas City, Mo.): No. 1 Houston vs. No. 2 Iowa State, 6 (ESPN)

The top two seeds in this tournament are pretty much locked into No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, for the NCAA tournament. The two most efficient defenses in the country according to KenPom.com (Houston No. 1, Iowa State No. 2) split two regular season games, with the home team winning both. There’s a title at stake, but as good as the game should be, it won’t change how the NCAA bracket looks.

Big East final (New York): No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Marquette, 6:30 (Fox)

Connecticut (30-3) swept the season series from Marquette (25-8), and the Huskies pretty much locked up the No. 1 seed in the East region a week and a half ago. Marquette has ended Villanova’s NCAA tournament hopes and endangered Providence’s, and it will aim for its second consecutive Big East tournament title. The Golden Eagles appear to be on the No. 2 line, and a loss to U-Conn. shouldn’t damage their profile.

ACC final (Washington): No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 N.C. State, 8:30 (ESPN)

There will be keen interest in several parts of the country. Specifically, there will be plenty of folks rooting against N.C. State channeling its inner 2011 Connecticut and completing a five-games-in-five-days run in D.C. Making this even more ridiculous: The Wolfpack hasn’t won five in a row since the end of the 2020-21 regular season.

Bracket impact: North Carolina has probably already pinned down the last No. 1 seed. N.C. State is an unadulterated bid snatcher. Its only path to the tournament is winning Saturday night, and after beating Louisville, Syracuse, Duke and Virginia over the past four nights, the Wolfpack has earned its opportunity to emerge as a spoiler.

Pac-12 final (Las Vegas): No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 4 Oregon, 9 (Fox)

The Pac-12 gave us one final surprise with its late-night hoops product, as Oregon (22-11) surged past top-seeded Arizona and Colorado (24-9) won its eighth in a row to knock second-seeded Washington State from the field. This ensures at least a three-team contingent from the Pac-12, and Oregon might be able to make it four.

Bracket impact: Colorado began the week as a borderline team, but the Buffaloes have probably done enough to avoid too much Selection Sunday stress. That makes them the team for other edge-of-the-field teams to root for, because the Ducks are not a viable at-large contender. A bid could be thieved in the Pac-12 for the third time in the past five tournaments (2019 Oregon and 2021 Oregon State).

Last four included: Oklahoma, Virginia, Providence, Texas A&M

First four on the outside: Indiana State, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Pitt

Next four on the outside: Wake Forest, Ohio State, Villanova, Oregon

Moving in: Fairfield, Howard, Texas A&M, UC Davis, Western Kentucky

Moving out: Indiana State, Norfolk State, Quinnipiac, Sam Houston, UC Irvine

Conference call: Big 12 (9), SEC (8), Big Ten (6), Mountain West (6), ACC (4), Big East (4), Pac-12 (3), American Athletic (2), Atlantic 10 (2), West Coast (2)

Bracket projection: Midwest vs. West; East vs. South

(1) BIG TEN/Purdue vs. (16) SWAC/Grambling-BIG SKY/Montana State winner

(8) Colorado State vs. (9) Florida Atlantic

(5) Texas Tech vs. (12) Providence/Virginia winner

(4) Alabama vs. (13) COASTAL/College of Charleston

(3) Baylor vs. (14) OHIO VALLEY/Morehead State

(6) Florida vs. (11) SUN BELT/James Madison

(7) Washington State vs. (10) Northwestern

(2) Marquette vs. (15) CONFERENCE USA/Western Kentucky

Even with a loss in the Mountain West semifinals, Colorado State remains an excellent candidate to land in an 8/9 game next week. … What’s the argument for Virginia? It didn’t mess up. No bad losses, a .500 record away from Charlottesville and top-40 results-based metrics. The Cavaliers probably didn’t earn a bypass of Dayton, though. …

Baylor is tied with Houston for the most Quadrant 1 games played this season (at least until Houston plays Saturday night). The Bears went 10-9 in those games, and they look like a solid No. 3 seed. … If Pitt is indeed in trouble, Northwestern arguably should be as well. If there’s a team feeling really good about its chances that could be left out, the Wildcats are it.

(1) ACC/North Carolina vs. (16) MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC/Howard-NORTHEAST/Wagner

(8) Nevada vs. (9) Texas Christian

(5) Brigham Young vs. (12) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/South Florida

(4) SEC/Auburn vs. (13) SOUTHLAND/McNeese State

(3) Kansas vs. (14) HORIZON/Oakland

(6) Utah State vs. (11) MISSOURI VALLEY/Drake

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Michigan State

(2) Arizona vs. (15) METRO ATLANTIC/Fairfield

Howard goes for its second consecutive MEAC title after an upset-filled couple of days in Norfolk. The Bison beat top-seeded Norfolk State and will face sixth-seeded Delaware State, which beat the No. 2 and 3 seeds to reach Saturday’s final. … South Florida breezed into the American semifinals. The Bulls’ only viable path to the field of 68 is through winning the conference tournament. …

Utah State slips down a line after losing to San Diego State, effectively flip-flopping spots with the Aztecs. That group of Mountain West teams could easily end up bunched together between the No. 5 and No. 9 lines. … Can definitely make the case for Arizona as the last No. 1 seed even with its loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 semifinals. The Wildcats would also make sense as the No. 2 seed in the West rather than having to go out of their region.

(1) BIG EAST/Connecticut vs. (16) ATLANTIC SUN/Stetson

(8) Texas vs. (9) Nebraska

(5) WEST COAST/Saint Mary’s vs. (12) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

(4) Kentucky vs. (13) SOUTHERN/Samford

(3) Duke vs. (14) PATRIOT/Colgate

(6) Wisconsin vs. (11) IVY/Princeton

(7) South Carolina vs. (10) New Mexico

(2) Iowa State vs. (15) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

Nebraska ranks 37th or better in all five team sheet metrics and has no questionable losses. The Cornhuskers would be a fine fit in an 8/9 game. … It’s been a month since Kentucky last put together a defensive performance that can be described as stingy (Feb. 17 against Auburn). The Wildcats’ profile suggests a No. 4 seed; their recent play is cause for pause. …

Wisconsin has a chance to add a high-value victory in the Big Ten semifinals against Purdue. The Badgers project as the top No. 6 seed. … That South Carolina/New Mexico game would include two teams that could credibly state a case to be up at least a line. South Carolina has a pair of top-20 results-based metrics, a contrast to its NET of 52.

(1) BIG 12/Houston vs. (16) BIG WEST/UC Davis

(8) Gonzaga vs. (9) Mississippi State

(5) MOUNTAIN WEST/San Diego State vs. (12) ATLANTIC 10/Virginia Commonwealth

(4) Illinois vs. (13) AMERICA EAST/Vermont

(3) Creighton vs. (14) MID-AMERICAN/Akron

(6) Clemson vs. (11) Oklahoma/Texas A&M winner

(7) Boise State vs. (10) PAC-12/Colorado

(2) Tennessee vs. (15) BIG SOUTH/Longwood

UC Davis takes over the Big West’s automatic slot after top-seeded UC Irvine fell to Long Beach State on Friday night. … NET rankings of the four teams remaining in the Atlantic 10 tournament: 71 (VCU), 82 (St. Bonaventure), 85 (Saint Joseph’s) and 89 (Duquesne). Whoever wins two games in the next two days will be a No. 12 or No. 13 seed. …

Tomorrow’s research project: Figuring out how many teams have landed seven Quad 1 victories since the quadrant system was introduced that have been left out of the tournament. Texas A&M enters Saturday with seven of them. … Colorado assumes the Pac-12’s automatic bid, and the Buffaloes will probably end up as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed if they beat Oregon on Saturday night.

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