Bracketology 2019: Answering the Biggest Questions on the NCAA Tournament Field

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 14, 2019

Bracketology 2019: Answering the Biggest Questions on the NCAA Tournament Field

0 of 6

    NC State's Braxton Beverly
    NC State's Braxton BeverlyBen McKeown/Associated Press

    With Selection Sunday just a few days away, men's college basketball fans have way more questions than answers.

    I'm going to try to answer them anyway.

    Earlier this week, I tweeted a request for the biggest bracketology and bubble questions lurking during this glorious conference tournament season, and there were quite a few good responses.

    There's a lot of bubble discussion surrounding the Big Ten, ACC and the overarching mid-major bubble, but we'll also get into some deep sleepers, Nevada's resume and a metric that might be worth placing in front of the selection committee in future years.

    So come find out if your question made the cut and see if you learn a little something along the way.

Looking for Locks in Conference Tournament Second-Round Games

1 of 6

    Ohio State's C.J. Jackson
    Ohio State's C.J. JacksonJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    Our first question comes from Jonathon Warriner (@Bracketologist3), and it concerns four teams at the epicenter of this year's bubble debate:

    "Two questions: Is the winner of Indiana/Ohio State a lock? Is the loser of Clemson/NC State a lock for the NIT?"

    The cop-out (but true) answer is that it's too early to say.

    Wofford took care of its business, but Gonzaga already let Saint Mary's in. If Buffalo loses in the Mid-American tournament or if someone other than Nevada or Utah State wins the Mountain West tournament, the bubble shrinks further. Same goes for the multi-bid conferences (most likely the Big East) if some team not in the at-large conversation gets hot and steals an automatic bid.

    Given that grain of salt, the winner of the Big Ten game should be in the tournament and the loser is going to be sweating bullets until Sundayespecially if it's Ohio State, which has lost 12 of its last 18 and hasn't done much of anything since winning the season opener at Cincinnati. At least Indiana has six Quadrant 1 wins and no bad losses supporting its case.

    For the ACC, I sincerely hope it was an elimination game.

    All due respect to fans of the Tigers and the Wolfpack, but these teams are everything that is wrong with the NCAA tournament selection process. Prior to Wednesday, Clemson had 10 chances at Q1 wins and went 1-9 with a close home win over a short-handed Virginia Tech, and NC State played the weakest nonconference schedule in the nation. Take out those eight home wins over teams outside the NET top 275 and NC State was 13-10 with an average scoring margin of 1.7 points and only one particularly good win (vs. Auburn).

    But both of those teams entered the ACC tournament ranked in the NET top 35, so NC State is in decent shape for a bid, while Clemson will begrudgingly remain in the at-large conversation until the bitter end.

2 Bids for the Southern Conference?

2 of 6

    UNC Greensboro's Isaiah Miller
    UNC Greensboro's Isaiah MillerJames Crisp/Associated Press

    Let's shift from the major-conference bubble to a topical minor-conference squad. Question No. 2 comes from Layuplines (@Layingitup):

    "Why do many people think UNC-G is close when they haven't beaten a tourney team, have 17 Q4 wins, and lost to Wofford by a combined 59 in their two regular-season games? I'll hang up and listen."

    The case against UNC Greensboro is obvious: No great wins and less than stellar metrics in terms of NET, KenPom and NCSOS. From that perspective, it's the exact type of resume that gets disregarded by the selection committee year after year.

    But the Spartans are 28-1 against teams outside the NET top 15, and in three of their five losses against those elite teamsat LSU, at Kentucky and the SoCon championship against Woffordthey gave the favorites one heck of a fight. LSU only won by six, Kentucky was trailing with nine minutes remaining, and the Spartans were ahead of Wofford for the vast majority of the first 35 minutes before going ice cold.

    So, yes, they got blown out in two of those games, but they held their own in 60 percent of chances against Final Four contenders and almost went undefeated in their other 29 games.

    In a year where we're entertaining the idea of at-large bids for teams that are barely .500 overall or a team like Arizona State that has eight losses to teams not expected to make the tournament, UNC Greensboro at least deserves a second and third look from the committee.

    If the Spartans were the only legitimate mid-major at-large candidate, I believe they would get in. However, with Furman, Belmont, Lipscomb and Toledo (unless it wins the MAC tournament) all in similar situations, I fear the committee is going to overlook all of those teams and just default to a bunch of eighth-place major-conference teams.

Conference Tournament Cinderellas

3 of 6

    Xavier's Quentin Goodin
    Xavier's Quentin GoodinJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    There were quite a few questions about teams nowhere near the bubble who might be able to play their way into the conversation. @DrewMarshall717 asked about Arkansas, @Donnie_Menke wanted to know about Xavier, and @TheShoeMan8 was curious about Dayton's at-large potential.

    Every year there are around 8-10 teams who fall into this bucket. They didn't do quite enough during the regular season, but another quality win or two in the conference tournament could vastly improve their resumes.

    I would also add Nebraska and Penn State from the Big Ten, Oregon and Colorado from the Pac-12, Memphis from the AAC, South Carolina from the SEC, and pretty much the entire bottom half of the Big East to this year's list of teams who might surge onto the bubble. If any of those teams gets to its conference championship game, we'll need to have a serious debate about its at-large candidacy.

    In most cases, though, I don't believe the selection committee will give them a second thought unless they steal an automatic bid. We all obsess over those unexpected runs and re-evaluate teams accordingly. But by the time they have won their semifinals games on Friday or Saturday, the committee will have already just about finished selecting the field and will be primarily concerned with scrubbing and seeding.

    Maybe they would consider one of the Big East teams that already has a bunch of quality wins to its credit. However, it's likely auto bid or bust for squads like Arkansas, Dayton, Memphis and Colorado that have a respectable NET ranking but a short supply of quality wins.

Do Selection Sunday Games Matter?

4 of 6

    Kentucky coach John Calipari
    Kentucky coach John CalipariRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    That's enough bubble talk for a few minutes. Time to shift gears to a potential No. 1 seed debate from Mason (@mlquiram):

    "Will the SEC championship game actually be a factor in seeding this year? Seems like past couple of years the result has been a non-factor."

    This question also applies to the Big Ten, which plays its championship game on Selection Sunday. And unless either of those games involves a potential bid thief or unless there is a major injury, it's probably not going to matter.

    Fair or not, that's just the way it has always been. The selection committee doesn't have time to re-evaluate resumes based on one final game between two tournament teams. The committee will say it has X number of brackets pre-made pending the results of Sunday's five games, but the SEC and Big Ten title games never seem to make a difference.

    In 2016, Kentucky and Texas A&M had virtually indistinguishable resumes heading into the SEC championship. Many bracketologists (myself included) used that game as a de facto tiebreaker, reserving a No. 3 seed for the winner and a No. 4 seed for the loser. But despite winning in overtime, Kentucky got the No. 4 and Texas A&M got the No. 3 seed.

    There was a similar conundrum in the 2017 Big Ten tournament, when Michigan had the magical run that started with its plane nearly crashing. The Wolverines ran into Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship in what seemed to be a battle for a No. 6 seed. Instead, the committee treated the Sunday afternoon game as if it didn't happen, giving Michigan a No. 7 and Wisconsin a No. 8.

    And last year, Kentucky beat Tennessee in the SEC championship, Michigan beat Purdue in the Big Ten championship, and the winners were still seeded behind the losers when the bracket came out.

    So, unless there is an earth-shattering development, I will be completely ignoring those two games for bracketing purposes. At this point, I'm surprised the coaches aren't resting starters to avoid injury/fatigue. They can say that getting that conference championship banner matters, but ask Cincinnati fans if they would've accepted an early L in the 2000 C-USA tournament to have Kenyon Martin for the Big Dance.

Where Does Nevada Belong?

5 of 6

    Jordan Caroline and the Martin twins
    Jordan Caroline and the Martin twinsTom R. Smedes/Associated Press

    Up next, a question from The Wardog (@IAmTheWardog) that I have been struggling with all season:

    "Where do you see Nevada being seeded? Also, isn't it inherently unfair to those that match up with the Wolf Pack, knowing their talent far outshines their resume."

    In recent years, this has been a Wichita State problem.

    In 2015, the Shockers entered Selection Sunday at No. 11 in the KenPom rankings with a 28-4 record, but they were given a No. 7 seedand subsequently upset Kansas in the second round. The following year, they were No. 12 on KenPom with a 24-8 record and were placed into the First Four (No. 11 seed) before winning two games. And then it happened again in 2017 with Wichita State (30-4 and ranked fifth on KenPom) getting a No. 10 seed and almost upsetting Kentucky in the second round.

    In all three years, it was unfair to the Shockers and perhaps even more unfair to their second-round opponents, who earned No. 2 or No. 3 seeds only to draw an Elite Eight-caliber opponent in the round of 32.

    The good news for Nevada is that its NET ranking (currently No. 18) is much better than the RPI that Wichita State was bringing to the table in two of those three years. As great as the Shockers looked on KenPom, RPI was the primary sorting metric at the time, and the committee had a hard time properly evaluating a team outside the top 30 with (at best) one great win.

    The bad news is Nevada has two not-great losses (New Mexico and San Diego State) and only one Quadrant 1 winand that home game against Utah State may well drop to Quadrant 2 if the Aggies lose to anyone other than Nevada in the MWC tournament.

    The Wolf Pack have top-10 talent, top-25 metrics and a borderline top-40 resume. Barring a terrible loss in the MWC tournament, I can't imagine they would drop lower than a No. 7 seed (given how lackluster the No. 8 and No. 9 seed resumes are this year). But if they win the conference tournament, it's possible they could climb as high as a No. 4 seed.

Adding Metrics to Team Sheets?

6 of 6

    Minnesota's Jordan Murphy
    Minnesota's Jordan MurphyNati Harnik/Associated Press

    Lastly, a question to consider for future seasons, courtesy of Mitchell Wood (@steelguy26):

    "What is your opinion on adding a metric like wins above bubble to team sheets? Seems like a good way to compare team performance against their own schedule."

    For those unfamiliar with Wins Above Bubble (WAB)which describes probably 99.9 percent of the population—the idea is similar to wins above replacement in baseball, where the goal is to calculate how many more (or less) games a team won because it had a specific player instead of a replacement-level player. Instead of a player, though, WAB aims to calculate how many wins an average bubble team should get against each schedule and then compares it to what each team actually accomplished.

    For example, a bubble team playing on the road against a projected No. 1 seed would be expected to win maybe 8.5 percent of the time, which registers as 0.085 wins. So if a team wins that game, its WAB score goes up 0.915, whereas a loss would dock 0.085 points. Sum up a team's WAB score from each game on the schedule, and you've got a rough idea of whether it belongs in the NCAA tournament.

    In theory, it's an awesome idea. We already sort of try to do this in a non-mathematical way. We praise teams for big wins, scold them for bad losses and use overall strength of schedule as a means of deciding whether a 16-win team is actually better than a 24-win team.

    In practice, however, there's no such thing as an average bubble team. Furman forces a ton of turnovers, shoots a lot of threes and has one of the highest two-point percentages in the nation. Minnesota rarely gets steals, sparingly attempts three-pointers and often can't shoot to save its life. Those teams are going to have extremely different likelihoods of winning any given game, even though they both epitomize this year's bubble.

    But I do like the idea of factoring that in. Any metric trying to rate 353 teams is going to have outliers—some of them drastic. But if you average a few different metrics, things should normalize, giving us a better idea of which teams truly deserve to dance.


    Advanced stats courtesy of NET rankings and quadrant data courtesy of

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