If you want to find a team that is likely to be under-seeded by the Selection Committee and provide good value based on lack of name, I present to you the Wofford Terriers. For the first time ever, Wofford is appearing in the Top 25 (at #24) coming off a road win at Furman. But we know the committee won’t seed them anywhere near that ranking.
That ranking, by the way, is entirely reasonable. Wofford is now 24-4, and the only losses are to North Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma, with the last three on the road. They have won 15 straight and could push it to 20 if they win out through the Southern Conference tournament.
Wofford is a great offensive team who will provide a challenge in the tournament. They have four players averaging over 39% from three-point range while attempting at least three a game. The Terriers are 3rd in the nation in three-point shooting, and seventh overall in effective field goal percentage. They rank 11th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. They are running through the Southern Conference, which is actually power-rated as the tenth-toughest conference this year and has three other teams in the Top 100 (Furman, East Tennessee State, and UNC-Greensboro).
Forward Cameron Jackson and guard Fletcher Magee are both Southern Conference Player of the Year candidates. Magee is the sharp-shooting guard who shoots over 90% from the line, averages over 10 three-point attempts per game, and is the leading scorer at 20.2 points per game. Jackson is the all-around key as a post player, leading the team in rebounding, steals, blocks, and second in assists and points. He will be key in matching up to the big boys in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, they likely won’t be seeded anywhere near where the NET rankings, Pomeroy, or honestly any other ranking system has them. That’s because the Selection Committee has an unreasonable bias toward “big wins” and, well, who have they beaten? As I pointed out last year, that mentality is actually contrary to picking which teams actually surprise and provide the biggest moments in March. We can now add Loyola-Chicago, Florida State, and Kansas State to the mix, and do you know the record of the 11 teams since 2008 who advanced to an Elite Eight or further as an 8 seed or worse was, against the RPI Top 12 in the regular season?
That’s right, one total “big win” (Florida State over UNC last year) for all the lower seeds that have advanced to the Elite Eight in over a decade. This, despite most of the bubble teams being big conference teams with very flawed resumés but who get in precisely because they got a few big wins with several opportunities (see, Arizona State, Oklahoma, Providence last year). Teams with a big win but who are still on the bubble have issues and the big win tended to be a fluke rather than a sign of greatness. Maybe, just maybe, body of work should mean more than “yeah I know they’ve lost more than half of their conference games, but they did have that big win back in November.” Maybe it should mean body of work, and going 24-4 is damn impressive.
By the way, you know what all teams ranked between 15 and 75 in the NET rankings are playing the same opponent/venues as Wofford did against those other teams?
Teams in that range, the range we might consider solid tournament teams or bubble types, are collectively 3-15 at Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi State and home against North Carolina. Yet we hold that against Wofford.
Here are the teams most similar to Wofford since 2008, by looking at resumé and rankings. (Buffalo also applies here). All these teams were in the Top 40 in the RPI, Top 50 in Ken Pom, had 6 or fewer total losses, and had 2 or fewer Top 50 wins and 6 or fewer total games against the Top 50.
2008 Davidson (25-6, RPI 35, KP 18): Steph Curry’s squad went 0-3 against top tournament teams (UNC, UCLA, and Duke) and had six non-conference losses, but won 22 straight entering the NCAA Tournament and got a 10 seed. From there, they advanced all the way to the Elite Eight before losing a close game to eventual champs Kansas.
2014 Gonzaga (27-6, RPI 20, KP 24)
Gonzaga went 0-3 against NCAA Tournament teams in the non-conference, but won the WCC regular season and conference title and got an 8 seed. They beat Oklahoma State in the first round before losing to #1 seed Arizona.
2013 St. Mary’s (26-6, RPI 29, KP 21)
St. Mary’s did not have any big non-conference wins and went 0-3 against Gonzaga while putting together a great record against everyone else. They had to go to Dayton for a play-in game as an 11 seed, beat Middle Tennessee, then lost to Memphis by 2 points.
2018 Loyola-Chicago (27-5, RPI 22, KP 41)
We all know about Loyola’s Cinderella run. They beat Florida in the non-conference, and after an 11-4 start won 17 of 18 games to close the season. They then knocked off Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, and Kansas State on the way to the Final Four.
2008 Western Kentucky (25-6, RPI 40, KP 45)
Western Kentucky went 0-4 against the RPI Top 50, and 0-2 against tournament teams Gonzaga and Tennessee. They closed by winning 17 of the last 18 games and got the auto bid and were a 12-seed. From there, they beat Drake and San Diego to reach the Sweet Sixteen, before losing to #1 UCLA with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook.
2009 Butler (25-5, RPI 24, KP 38)
This was the year before the consecutive championship game appearances, in Brad Stevens’ second season. Butler lost to Ohio State, the only at-large they faced in the non-conference. They won the Horizon but lost to Cleveland State in the semis. Butler got a #9 seed and lost to LSU in the opening game.
2017 St. Mary’s (28-4, RPI 17, KP 15)
St. Mary’s won at Dayton, but lost all three games to Gonzaga, otherwise rolling through their schedule. The Gaels handled VCU in the opener before losing to Arizona in the second round.
2015 Wichita State (27-4, RPI 17, KP 13)
Wichita State lost to Utah and beat no other at-large teams in the non-conference. They split with Northern Iowa, but then were upset before a rematch in a Missouri Valley semifinal. They got seeded down at a #7 and beat Indiana before handling in-state powerhouse Kansas to reach the Sweet 16.
In total, four of the eight, despite being 7 seeds or lower, reached a Sweet Sixteen. Two reached an Elite Eight. Seven of the eight won a tournament game and six of them reached the second round. All were seeded lower than where all metrics had them because of the “big wins” factor, and expect Wofford (and Buffalo) to be this year’s entrants to this club.