Biggest Takeaways from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's Top 16 Reveal
If the 2020 men's NCAA tournament started today, the No. 1 seeds would be Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State.
That's not conjecture. It's what the tournament selection committee came up with after conferring from Tuesday to Thursday for its fourth annual practice run at Selection Sunday.
During CBS' half-hour broadcast Saturday afternoon, the committee's full Top 16 was revealed. In addition to those projected No. 1 seeds, the rest of the rankings, in order, were:
No. 2 seeds: Duke, Dayton, Louisville, West Virginia
No. 3 seeds: Maryland, Florida State, Seton Hall, Villanova
No. 4 seeds: Auburn, Oregon, Butler, Michigan State
Those teams will change significantly between now and March 15, but what won't change are the methods the committee used to come up with that list.
Perhaps the biggest reason bracketology is such an impossible art to master is because there are changes to the 10-person selection committee every season. (There are eight returning members and two new ones this year.) One year it'll feel like there's more emphasis placed on nonconference strength of schedule, but the next year Quadrant 1 wins, avoiding Quadrant 3-4 losses or road/neutral record might be most important.
Thus, the in-season Top 16 reveal is our opportunity to attempt to infer what is most (and least) important to this particular group of athletic directors and then apply those inferences to our bracket projections between now and Selection Sunday.
In no particular order, these are our biggest takeaways.
NET Reigns Supreme...Mostly
The NCAA Evaluation Tool (better known as NET) replaced RPI as the primary sorting tool prior to the start of the 2018-19 season. And as was to be expected, the committee sent a clear message that it is the most important metric it looks at.
The top four teams in the NET—San Diego State, Baylor, Gonzaga and Kansas—are also the four No. 1 seeds, albeit not in that exact order. Moreover, each of the top nine teams on the overall seed list can currently be found in the NET top 10. And all 16 of the committee's top teams have a NET ranking of 19th or better.
There was one noteworthy spot where the committee deviated from the NET, and that was its decision to omit No. 8 Arizona. But that was not terribly surprising considering the Wildcats are the only team in the NET top 20 with fewer than three Quadrant 1 wins (two) or fewer than three true road wins (two). In my bracket projection Tuesday, I had Arizona at No. 18 overall.
It was a similar story last year when Virginia Tech was No. 10 in the NET at the time of the Top 16 reveal but was omitted because of a combination of mediocre Quadrant 1 record and awful nonconference strength of schedule.
As a rule of thumb, though, NET is most important. The NCAA invested a lot of time and effort into this new metric, so it's good to see that axiom reinforced.
Gonzaga Is Still in the Driver's Seat for the West Region
Asked how the committee separated No. 3 Gonzaga from No. 4 San Diego State on the overall seed list, committee chair and Duke AD Kevin White said it was Gonzaga's two really good wins over Arizona and Oregon.
What's strange about that decision is Gonzaga and San Diego State have the same number of Quadrant 1 wins (four), the Aztecs have four Quadrant 2 wins to Gonzaga's three, SDSU is ranked No. 1 in the NET, the Aztecs have faced a considerably tougher overall strength of schedule and SDSU is undefeated.
All signs pointed toward the Aztecs holding the edge now but perhaps getting leapfrogged by Gonzaga if it runs the table and picks up several quality wins over BYU and Saint Mary's. Rather, Gonzaga is in the lead, and there's not much San Diego State can do except hope the Bulldogs lose a game to open the door.
It might not seem like a big deal. They're both No. 1 seeds, right? That's a huge achievement for "mid-majors" as a whole. But it would be a colossal disadvantage for San Diego State with the projected seedings.
Not only would the Aztecs not play close to home in the West Region (Los Angeles), but they'd have to go all the way across the country to New York City for their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games, culminating in a projected showdown with Duke playing at its home away from home.
If they finish this undefeated season and get that type of terrible draw, it would be just like when Wichita State went 34-0 and had to face an under-seeded Kentucky in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
You've Got to Win Away from Home
If there's one common thread that tied together the top 16 teams, it was a solid record in road/neutral games.
All 16 squads boast at least three true road wins. It's also noteworthy that they all have at least six combined road/neutral wins and at least a 54.5 winning percentage in those games.
Though these teams weren't explicitly called out during the broadcast for their away-from-home shortcomings, that's undoubtedly a big reason why Arizona (2-4 road; 5-5 road/neutral), Ohio State (3-4; 4-5), Iowa (3-4; 5-6) and Kentucky (3-2; 4-4) didn't appear in the Top 16.
This has always been a sticking point for the selection committee, and why not? With the exception of Gonzaga presumably playing in Spokane for the first two rounds of this year's NCAA tournament, nobody's going to play at home. Thus, the inability to succeed away from home will always be a red flag that costs a team a seed line or two and possibly a spot in the field altogether.
That's a big thing to remember when we get further down the seed list to teams such as Texas Tech and the middle tier of the Big Ten. (Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin and Minnesota entered play Saturday with a combined road/neutral record of 9-32.) Conversely, it's the type of thing that could make a team like USC (8-4 away from home) more attractive than its resume suggests.
Nonconference Strength of Schedule Can Be a Killer or a Savior
One curiosity of the Top 16 reveal is that three of the four No. 1 seeds played lamentable nonconference schedules. San Diego State's ranks 115th, Baylor's is No. 177 and Gonzaga's is a putrid No. 269—despite playing games away from home against Oregon, Michigan, Arizona, Washington and Texas A&M and hosting North Carolina.
However, those teams have so clearly cemented themselves in the top four over the past month that it didn't matter. It's certainly something to keep in mind if they encounter some turbulence over the course of these final five weeks, though. San Diego State should go undefeated, but it might be one loss from dropping to a No. 3 seed because of that noncoference strength of schedule.
Beyond the top line, there were five clear instances where nonconference strength of schedule played a role.
Some people were surprised with Duke as the top No. 2 seed; others were surprised West Virginia landed ahead of Maryland for the last No. 2 seed. But the Blue Devils have the seventh-best nonconference schedule, and the Mountaineers rank fifth.
A bit lower on the seed list, Oregon made the cut at No. 14 overall with a NET ranking of 19 and a nonconference strength of schedule of 16. The six Quadrant 1 wins also helped the Ducks' case immensely, but you've got to believe that tough noncon slate helped a lot.
On the flip side of that coin were Butler (No. 166) and Penn State (No. 334), checking in a bit lower than expected.
Butler entered the day with eight Quadrant 1 wins, more than every other team in the country except for Kansas. One of those wins came just this week against Villanova. But the Bulldogs barely made the cut at No. 15.
And not only did Penn State not show up in the Top 16, but the Nittany Lions weren't even one of the teams that was close to consideration. (White mentioned Iowa, Kentucky and LSU as three that were in the running.) The Nittany Lions have won five straight, including road wins over Michigan and Michigan State. If they beat Minnesota on Saturday, they'll almost certainly jump into the Associated Press Top 16 on Monday. But a spot on the top four seed lines eluded them.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.