College basketball is already underway, but the schedule gets really interesting this weekend. Minnesota and Indiana face off in a heavy weight clash in the Big Ten and North Carolina State looks to add a huge win and knock off #1 Duke. Several other games, such as Marquette-Pittsburgh, Colorado State-San Diego State, Illinois-Wisconsin, Missouri-Mississippi, and North Carolina-Florida State, will have a big impact on team’s fortunes at various levels in their chase for seeding or getting into the tournament.
With the start of conference season (for the most part) this week, we will begin our foray into projecting the NCAA Tournament field (the top 12 seeds, including all at-larges, to start). However, when I project the tournament field, I do not just look at wins to date, the current RPI and rankings, and then slot teams. For most of the teams who will eventually reach the NCAA Tournament from the ten best conferences, 75% or more of their key games are yet to come. What I like to do is also look forward and project the field, based on the future schedule and number of games that could influence the committee, and projecting an average outcome based on team strength and how those will likely be perceived.
Let’s take Pittsburgh for example, a team that is currently unranked in the national polls. I am projecting Pittsburgh as a #3 seed, likely higher than most current projections based on RPI (50th). Pittsburgh just destroyed Georgetown on the road for their first real quality win this year, and also has close losses to Michigan, Cincinnati, and Rutgers. Based on their current resumé, they would not be a high seed. They are also 6th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and 16th in Sagarin’s predictive ratings. They will have plenty of opportunities to add key wins, and a decent chance of adding them, against the other tournament level teams in the Big East. If Pittsburgh gets to 24 or 25 wins entering the Big East tournament, a winning record against NCAA and NIT tournament type teams, and some key wins, they will be a reasonably high seed in March.
So I looked at the future schedule and current wins for all teams with a reasonable chance at an at-large bid, and here are the first projections:
#1 seeds: Duke*, Indiana*, Kansas*, Michigan
Pretty clear cut at the top, and although many current bracket projections do not have Indiana as a #1 right now, I think they get there by winning the best conference in basketball. The interesting question will be the final one, whether it is second place in the Big Ten, or Kansas, Louisville, or Arizona. It could come down to who wins the conference tournaments on that one, and right now, I’m projecting Louisville to just miss.
Arizona’s loss last night takes them from the unbeatens, and should knock them off the #1 line for many current projections. The Big East should have two top seeds, while the Big Ten will add another high seed in Minnesota.
#3 seeds: Florida*, Gonzaga*, Pittsburgh, Creighton*
Florida has some tough losses on the road. I’m not sure they can get higher than this in the committee’s eyes merely because the bottom half of the SEC is so weak, and they do not have as many key win opportunities as teams in the Big Ten or Big East. I already talked about Pittsburgh. Creighton and Gonzaga should be able to secure high seeds here if they win their conferences as expected with very few losses to come.
#4 seeds: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Oregon, Butler*
Michigan State will get plenty of opportunities for wins against top teams, and the win over Iowa last night was a solid one. Butler already has key wins that should play well for the committee, while Oregon beat Arizona last night, and should be the second best team in the Pac-12. Getting to 24-25 wins in that conference should be good for a 4 seed, with an outside chance at a 3.
#5 seeds: Ohio State, Missouri, Miami, Cincinnati
Ohio State is ranked highly in polls, but not in the RPI. They do not have many key wins to date, but should add them in conference play. Missouri won’t have as many opportunities, while I am projecting Miami, and not NC State, to be the second highest seed from the ACC.
#6 seeds: Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, Illinois, Oklahoma State
Virginia Commonwealth is another team that is ranked higher in predictive rankings, and we know how dangerous they can be come March. The Rams only get Butler, Temple, and St. Louis once each in conference (all late), so they likely need to sweep those games, or win the conference regular season and tournament, to jump higher. Illinois is probably projected higher in most, but while I think they will still look good to the committee, they are a team where the record against tourney teams will likely regress in Big Ten play.
#7 seeds: Baylor, Kentucky, UCLA, NC State
Kentucky is young, and has been inconsistent. They would be a dangerous 7 seed if they mature throughout conference season. The problem for Kentucky is the conference strength, and that they are only 1-4 against tournament type teams with only four likely matchups remaining before the SEC tournament. They would likely have to win at least 3 of those games and the SEC tournament to shoot higher. NC State is ranked, and a darling of the RPI, but don’t really have any great wins yet, and are not rated highly in predictive systems. A win over Duke on Saturday would change this.
#8 seeds: Kansas State, San Diego State*, Virginia, UNLV
San Diego State and UNLV are the first of six Mountain West teams, all projected between an 8 and 11 seed, in the field. Will there really be six teams from the conference? Well, there are going to be a lot of tossup type games in the Mountain West. Whoever can win more of those will finish higher than this, but it’s wide open right now. Maybe one team loses well more than half of the key games and drops out, but I think five is very realistic, and the sixth will be a true bubble team.
#9 seeds: Wisconsin, Temple, New Mexico, Colorado
Temple has the key win over Syracuse but 4 losses. They’ll need to move past Butler and VCU to move up. Wisconsin has four losses to likely tournament teams, with their best wins over teams likely on the outside (California and Arkansas). That said, they will get plenty of opportunities. Their next eleven games are against either likely tournament or bubble teams, and will decide their fate. Colorado has a high enough RPI that they should make the field if they finish reasonably well in the Pac-12, and maybe the committee will remember that crazy road loss at Arizona.
#10 seeds: Wyoming, Ole Miss, St. Louis, Colorado State
Ole Miss is the fourth SEC team projected in. Wyoming and Colorado State are part of the Mountain West logjam right now.
#11 seeds: Boise State, Marquette, Maryland, Bucknell*
Bucknell looks like a NCAA tournament at-large caliber team if the committee employs the “eye test”. They didnt really win any key tournament type games (narrowly losing at Missouri, while Purdue is not going to be in the mix). They cannot afford too many losses in the Patriot league to stay there if they don’t win the tournament. Boise State is a young team that just had a big win over Wyoming and lost a close game at Michigan State on the road this year.
#12 seeds: Memphis*, Belmont*, North Carolina vs. St. Mary’s, Georgetown vs. Arizona State
The play-in games. Here I have Georgetown, who is currently ranked by the polls, but just got destroyed by Pitt, has three losses, and has started 0-2 in the Big East. They are outside the top fifty in both Sagarin and Ken Pom, as well as the RPI, and they are likely to be closer to .500 in conference play than solidly in the field by the time March rolls around. North Carolina is also barely in, but they have to add some notable wins, soon, or that will change. I guess I’m expecting them to show slightly better than they have so far, but I understand those that would have them just out.
First Eight Out: Florida State, Iowa, Iowa State, St. Joseph’s, Southern Miss, Tulane, BYU, Oklahoma
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]