Blind Resumes: Which Bubble Teams Most Deserve 2018 NCAA Tournament Berths?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 10, 2018

Jim Boeheim
Jim BoeheimGerry Broome/Associated Press

Championship Week would be incomplete without a few "blind resume" comparisons to help determine whether teams like Louisville, Syracuse and USC actually belong in the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament.

The purpose of the exercise is to strip away the team names and the proverbial eye test to focus solely upon what the computer numbers have to say.

Oftentimes, blind resumes intentionally give you just a portion of the picture in order to trick you into thinking a certain team is in much better or worse shape than it actually is. But no tricks or games here. These are all teams that are squarely on the bubble and whom the committee might be comparing head-to-head at this moment.

No one is going to lament the plight of the poor bracketologist, but let me just tell you that this is easily the toughest bubble I have ever encountered. In most seasons, we're debating between maybe five teams for the final two spots in the 68-team field. But this year, the difference between the top-projected No. 10 seed and the fifth team out is razor-thin.

It doesn't help matters that we've got this new quadrants system instead of the tried-and-true RPI top-50 and RPI top-100 buckets of yore. The only evidence we have of how the committee is using this newly structured information is the top-16 reveal from February, where Q1 wins seemed to be gold and Q3/Q4 losses were landmines.

For the uninitiated, these are the quadrants:

  • Q1: home vs. RPI top 30, neutral vs. RPI top 50, road vs. RPI top 75
  • Q2: home vs. RPI 31-75, neutral vs. RPI 51-100, road vs. RPI 76-135
  • Q3: home vs. RPI 76-160, neutral vs. RPI 101-200, road vs. RPI 136-240
  • Q4: home vs. RPI 161-351, neutral vs. RPI 201-351, road vs. RPI 241-351

With that information, let's dive into the bubble!

        

Comparison No. 1

Team A: 23-7, RPI: 32, KenPom: 49, SOS: 87, NCSOS: 8, Q1 record: 3-3, Q3/Q4 record: 18-3

Team B: 28-5, RPI: 40, KenPom: 28, SOS: 168, NCSOS: 183, Q1 record: 2-1, Q3/Q4 record: 24-2

In case it isn't blatantly obvious from the high win totals and the high number of Q3/Q4 games, we're looking at a pair of mid-major teams. And from that information alone, if you've been paying any attention to the bubble for the past few days, you probably know who we're talking about. But play along anyway!

We're not necessarily saying the selection committee only has room for one of these teams. They could both get in. The more likely scenario is that they both get left out. But because it's mathematically challenging to compare minor-conference resumes to major-conference ones, this is a crucial pecking order to make in case the committee decides to invite just one "little guy."

The part of this comparison that really jumps off the page is the nonconference strength of schedule. Team A clearly made a committed effort to challenge itself with quality competition while Team B sat at home and got fat on cream puffs.

For all their trouble, Team A only got one Quadrant 1 win and one Quadrant 2 win, but that's a heck of a lot better than Team B, which acquired a Quadrant 2 win and a Quadrant 3 loss.

But there's one big feather in Team B's cap. One of its Quadrant 1 wins came on the road against a team projected for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. All three of Team A's Quadrant 1 wins were on the road, but not one of them came against a legitimate at-large candidate.

        

The Reveal

L.E. Baskow/Associated Press

Team A is Middle Tennessee, and Team B is Saint Mary's.

That outstanding road win for the Gaels was the 74-71 comeback victory at Gonzaga. And for MTSU, the wins were at Murray State, at Western Kentucky and at Old Dominion.

A lot of folks have been going to bat for Saint Mary's by arguing about the eye test and the fact that the Gaels have strong ranks on the advanced metrics like KenPom.com, but here's a nugget for you: Middle Tennessee lost neutral-court games to USC and Miami and a road game against Auburn by a combined margin of 14 points. The Blue Raiders were right there away from home against quality opponents.

"Almost" doesn't count, but will that many almosts matter to the selection committee? And will it matter that MTSU's two worst losses of the season came in its two most recent games?

        

Comparison No. 2

Team C: 22-10, RPI: 33, KenPom: 42, SOS: 50, NCSOS: 60, Q1 record: 4-5, Q3/Q4 record: 13-1

Team D: 19-14, RPI: 87, KenPom: 54, SOS: 48, NCSOS: 291, Q1 record: 5-12, Q3/Q4 record: 10-0

At a passing glance, this one is a no-brainer. It's Team C every day and twice on (Selection) Sunday. But if you dig into the minutiae as much as we're led to believe the selection committee does, it's a much closer call.

Let's start with the Q1 record. How many of those games were actually impressive?

Team C only played two games against KenPom's top 40 teams, losing by 16 to No. 30 and losing by 14 to No. 25.

Team D played 19 such games, including a season sweep of No. 12, a road win over No. 13 and a home win over No. 11.

It's quite possible Team C will end up without a single win over an NCAA tournament team, while Team D had seven wins over likely single-digit seeds and a pair of wins over a potential No. 1 seed. But because Team D played four RPI/SOS landmine games at home against No. 317 Pepperdine, No. 326 Charlotte, No. 345 Houston Baptist and No. 349 Mississippi Valley State, we're supposed to believe these teams played comparable schedules.

What a joke.

And that Q3/Q4 loss for Team C? It was a home game against the RPI's No. 226 team, Princeton. Team C lost five games against teams with an RPI rank of 65th or worse. Team D had no such losses.

Have you figured out who's who? And have you been thoroughly convinced that Team D is in better shape?

       

The Reveal

Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

Team C is USC (prior to Friday's win over Oregon), and Team D is Oklahoma State.

Obviously, the Cowboys benefited from playing in a tougher conference. Aside from the two games against Iowa State, basically everything in the Big 12 was a marquee opportunity. Meanwhile, USC only got four chances against quality opponents in Pac-12 play and went 0-4 against Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA (twice).

But let's talk about the nonconference strength of schedule a little bit because something about the math is seriously broken if these teams are separated by more than 230 spots in that ranking.

Yes, Oklahoma State played four terrible opponents, but it also played games away from home against Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida State as well as a home game against Wichita State and a sneaky not-too-shabby home game against Tulsa (RPI: 75).

Is it a murderer's row? No. Not really. But how in the world is it ranked one spot behind North Carolina Central's nonconference schedule, which featured a grand total of one game against an RPI top-150 team (No. 97 Marshall)?

From a "five toughest opponents" perspective, Oklahoma State is right there with USC, which played Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and SMU.

We'll find out if the committee looks that intently at these resumes or simply discards Oklahoma State because of its RPI and NCSOS ranks. But if USC is somewhat comfortably in the field, you can't tell me the Cowboys don't belong in the tournament.

        

Comparison No. 3

Team F: 20-13, RPI: 38, KenPom: 33, SOS: 13, NCSOS: 83, Q1 record: 3-11, Q3/Q4 record: 15-0

Team G: 20-13, RPI: 43, KenPom: 53, SOS: 15, NCSOS: 16, Q1 record: 3-8, Q3/Q4 record: 15-2

Team H: 17-14, RPI: 64, KenPom: 34, SOS: 18, NCSOS: 114, Q1 record: 4-12, Q3/Q4 record: 10-1

Let's kick things up a notch with a triple dip, because these may well be the three teams that the selection committee is debating for the final spot in the field.

This is the epitome of what's wrong with the selection process. Instead of including both Saint Mary's and Middle Tennessee and kicking these mediocre major-conference teams to the curb, we're left to decide whether one (or more) of these teams deserves to make it despite only winning around 25 percent of its games against Quadrant 1.

If all of those games were against teams in the top half of Quadrant 1, maybe we'd be singing a different tune. But Team F went 0-11 against the RPI top 50, getting its Q1 wins on the road against No. 54, No. 61 and No. 68. Yet, most bracketologists have Team F ahead of both Team G and H, probably because it didn't suffer a single loss to a team outside the RPI top 65.

Team G did have a pair of bad road losses to teams just outside the RPI top 150, but at least it had four RPI top-50 wins, including a head-to-head road win over Team F, if you're into that type of information. Team G also at least had the foresight to put together a solid nonconference schedule.

And then there's Team H, which has six RPI top-50 wins, although half of them are against No. 49 and 50. Team H had two really impressive, RPI top-25 home wins in conference play. But its nonconference schedule was a joke, producing a 1-2 Quadrant 1 record, seven Quadrant 4 wins and a non-Division I victory.

Major warts on all of these profiles, but if you had to pick just one, who would it be?

       

The Reveal

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Team F is Louisville, Team G is Syracuse, and Team H is Baylor.

Prior to this exercise, Louisville was the first team out of my projected field. However, that 0-11 record against the RPI top 50 has my rethinking whether the Cardinals belong anywhere close to the field. If we were still using the same grouping method as last year, seeing that 0-11 record in the first column would just about kill any hope of an at-large bid, even with the 6-2 record versus RPI teams ranked No. 51 through 100.

Syracuse is a more enticing profile, in spite of bad losses to Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The Orange scored a home win over Clemson and road wins over Miami and Louisville. They also had a home win over Buffalo (RPI: 31) that is oh-so-close to becoming a Quadrant 1 win. Syracuse probably will not get in, but it's a little bit closer than I originally thought.

Baylor is kind of the best of both worlds, though. Its lone Q3/Q4 loss was a road game against Iowa State (RPI: 139), but any committee member can tell you that losing at Hilton Coliseum isn't that bad. Aside from that slip-up, the Bears are undefeated against teams outside the RPI top 55, and they have excellent wins over Kansas and Texas Tech. Will their nonconference schedule be their undoing, though?

All three of these teams should probably miss the tournament, but it wouldn't be one bit surprising if one of them sneaks into the Big Dance.

                      

Statistics courtesy of WarrenNolan.com and KenPom.com and are current through the start of play on Friday.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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