Biggest Takeaways from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's Top-16 Reveal
Continuing an annual tradition that began in 2017, the selection committee for the men's NCAA tournament revealed what would be its top 16 teams if the tourney started Saturday morning.
To the surprise of no one, the No. 1 seeds in that peek behind the curtain were Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Ohio State, in that order.
Rounding out the rest of the top 16 were, in descending order of ranking within their seed line:
No. 2 seeds: Illinois, Villanova, Alabama, Houston
No. 3 seeds: Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma
No. 4 seeds: Iowa, Texas Tech, Texas, Missouri
That's five Big 12 teams, four Big Ten teams, three from the SEC, one each from the ACC, American, Big East and West Coast and, notably, zero from the Pac-12. (Though selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart did say that USC was among the few teams "bumping its head up against the top 16.")
The big question now is: What do we make of those rankings?
The order is liable to change drastically within the coming days and weeks, but what does this top-16 reveal tell us about what matters most to this particular selection committee?
Takeaway No. 1: What You See Is What You Get
Because of all the postponements and cancelations, there have been a lot of (until now) unanswered questions about how the selection committee is going to compare teams who have played 12 or 13 games with those who have played 19 or 20.
Barnhart addressed that semi-dilemma:
"It is not the committee's job to speculate, to sit here and say 'What if they played? What if they had more games on their resume?' We just have to evaluate the resumes as they lie."
So, similar to Ohio State sneaking into the College Football Playoff after playing just seven games, the committee isn't going to penalize teams that have played fewer games.
The clearest example of that was 13-1 Michigan ending up at No. 3 overall, as pretty much everyone was expecting. If the committee was worried about total games or focused on sheer volume of quality wins, we would have seen Ohio State at No. 3 with a 16-4 record and eight Quadrant 1 wins compared to Michigan's three.
However, it is fair to wonder if total games played will be a subconscious factor when evaluating bubble teams, where there is much less separation. For teams like Saint Louis (9-3), St. Bonaventure (10-3) and Connecticut (8-5), each game figures to hold extra weight since there are fewer of them to consider.
As long as teams have played the minimum of 13 by Selection Sunday, though, it doesn't sound like anyone will be docked for playing fewer games.
Takeaway No. 2: They Are Still Looking at Road/Neutral Records
By far the weirdest thing about this college basketball season has been the lack of—or drastically reduced quantity of—fans in the stands. Home-court advantage is nowhere near the factor it used to be.
But the selection committee is still looking at how well a team is able to play away from home.
The only team in the top 16 with a losing record in true road games was No. 12 Oklahoma, as the Sooners are 2-4 on the road. However, five of those six games were against teams in the NET Top 35, and they were at least competitive in their road losses to Kansas and Texas Tech. Considering the difficulty of that road schedule and their total of four wins against the NET Top 25, it makes sense that they would be the exception to the road-record rule.
It's a shame we only get to see the top 16 teams, though, because it would have been much more telling to find out where teams like Kansas (2-5 on the road), Minnesota (0-6), Purdue (3-6) and Saint Louis (0-2) stack up in the eyes of the committee.
However, the fact that Kansas—in spite of four Quadrant 1 wins, a NET ranking of 19th and no bad losses—did not appear in the top 16 shows that road record is still pretty important.
It always has been important in the selection/seeding process, but it wasn't obvious how they would factor in this year.
Takeaway No. 3: Your NET Ranking Matters a Ton...Within Reason
Every team who entered play Saturday ranked in the top 11 of the NET appeared in the top 13 of the reveal. The only team ranked worse than No. 21 in the NET to make the cut was the committee's No. 16 overall seed, Missouri (No. 35 in the NET).
The reason Missouri was that outlier is a 5-3 record in Quadrant 1 games, which includes victories over Illinois, Alabama and Tennessee. But the reason the 13-4 Tigers are ranked so poorly in the NET is because of their margins of victory. They have an overall average winning margin of 3.3 points per game, and in 10 games against Quadrants 1 and 2, they have been outscored by 16 points.
(In the now-defunct RPI, which does not account for margin of victory, Missouri is ranked No. 3.)
But what about the teams who rank well in the NET and didn't place in Saturday's top 16?
Two of them—No. 13 Loyola-Chicago and No. 14 Colgate—are major-conference teams with no great wins. No one expected to see the Ramblers or the Raiders in that mini-field.
For No. 12 Colorado and No. 16 USC, there have been some questionable losses and, frankly, playing in the Pac-12 isn't doing them any favors. For both teams, their second-best win of the season was probably a road game against Stanford, which might not make the NCAA tournament. But while they didn't appear in the top 16, most bracketologists have both of those teams in the Nos. 5-6 seed range because of their impressive NET rankings.
Same goes for NET No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 19 Kansas. If it had been a top-20 reveal instead of a top-16 reveal, you likely would have seen at least 18 teams ranked in the NET Top 21.
That's great news for teams like San Diego State (NET No. 23), Arkansas (No. 26), VCU (No. 34) and Louisville (No. 38), who rank well despite woefully lacking in quality wins.
Takeaway No. 4: Nonconference Strength of Schedule Might Still Matter? A Little?
Normally, we make a huge deal out of nonconference strength of schedule, because normally it is clear that it was a major talking point within the selection committee's war room.
But given how much of an impact COVID-19 had on a team's ability to schedule games, it doesn't seem like it would be fair to penalize teams for not playing enough quality nonconference foes.
No. 2 overall seed Baylor has a nonconference SOS rank of 249th. No. 6 Villanova is at 200th in that formula. No. 11 overall seed Tennessee and No. 13 overall seed Iowa check in at 262nd and 242nd, respectively. That seems to reinforce the notion that teams won't get dinged for that standalone data point.
However, it does still look like teams will be rewarded for tougher nonconference schedules.
West Virginia put together the sixth-toughest nonconference schedule and ended up with a seed (No. 10) a fair amount better than its NET ranking (No. 17). Same goes for Texas (10th-toughest NCSOS, NET No. 21, Seed No. 15) and Missouri 16th-toughest NCSOS, NET No. 35, Seed No. 16).
I don't want to suggest/speculate that this was the main reason Texas and Missouri were able to sneak in ahead of Wisconsin (No. 189 in NCSOS) and Florida State (No. 190), but we clearly can't ignore that data point.
If the committee focused on NCSOS, though, what doesn't make much sense is USC (NET No. 16, NCSOS No. 36) getting left out of the top 16. But Barnhart explicitly said the Trojans were right in the mix for the last spot, so it must have helped to some extent.
We'll see if a strong NCSOS pays dividends for teams like Boise State (No. 2 NCSOS), Maryland (No. 24), BYU (No. 37), San Diego State (No. 38) and—despite only playing two nonconference games—St. Bonaventure (No. 8).