Another week of games gone by and we now sit less than a month from Selection Sunday, 27 days in fact. This week we add a team into the lock column, while the teams hovering near the bubble are starting to have that “every game is a must-win game” feeling.
***Author’s note: Starting this year the NCAA has “eliminated” the RPI and is now using an efficiency based rating system referred to as NET. Much has been written about the NET’s faults, most notably that it uses raw efficiency instead of adjusting for the relative strength of the opponent. Nonetheless, it’s still an improvement from the RPI and will be the primary tool used by the NCAA selection committee, and it’s the only metric that will be used to determine the win quadrants for each team.
While NET is the primary tool, additional data points will be listed on the team sheets presented to selection committee members during their deliberations. This includes, but is not limited to, KenPom rankings and a team’s SOS as determined by the old school RPI (now you see why I put eliminated in quotation marks...). Accordingly, in parentheses next to each team I have included their current NET rank, KenPom rank, and SOS rank, in that order. Also, within each tier teams are listed in descending order of their latest NET rank.
Locks: Duke (NET: 1; KP: 1; RPI SOS: 2), Virginia (3; 2; 30), North Carolina (9; 8; 11), Louisville (17; 14; 4)
The Louisville Cardinals narrowly avoided a third consecutive second half collapse against Clemson, holding on 56-55, and moved into lock status with the win. At 18-8 (and with our notorious high standards for lock status), I know some might be questioning whether UL really is a lock? But here’s the deal: Louisville has 6 more games guaranteed and likely none will be against an opponent that would represent a truly bad loss. In the unlikely scenario they lose all 6, they’d have an 18-14 record, which admittedly isn’t ideal. However, the Cardinals would still have road wins against UNC and Virginia Tech, non-con wins over Michigan State, Seton Hall (on the road), and possible at-large bid Lipscomb team. On top of that, there’d be that top 10 strength of schedule. In a year where the 13-12 Indiana Hoosiers are currently among the first four out, UL has done enough to seal up a bid.
In other news from the locks, Duke seems like they have sealed up a 1 seed even if they lost 3-4 more games and UVA is still in strong contention for a 1 seed as well. UNC could start to join the 1 seed conversation with a win (or two) over Duke, but for now the Tar Heels are straddling the 2/3. Duke and UNC will play their first game of the season this Wednesday in Durham.
In darn good shape: Virginia Tech (14; 12; 89), Florida State (22; 20; 40)
So why is 18-8 Louisville a lock, but VT and FSU—a pair of 20-5 teams—still down here? Good question, and the truth is these things are often more art than science. But if you want to start with a good reason, take a gander at the third number after each of those teams.
Virginia Tech went 2-0 last week, which is good—even if those wins were against cellar-dweller’s Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. But the Hokies are still without starting point guard Justin Robinson and their performance in those two wins actually brought their KenPom rank down a few spots. Even more relevant to their extended stay at the Should-Be Inn, their strength of schedule is...well it stands out for a bad reason. Having the 89th best SOS isn’t awful on the surface, but when you consider that the Hokies play two-thirds of their games against ACC competition, that non-con SOS is gonna be a red-flag indeed. Add in the uncertainty of the Robinson injury and you have a situation where I’d like to see one more win from the Hokies before moving them up a tier. Of course, should that win come tonight (Monday the 18th) against arch-rival UVA, the Hokies could be moving up a lot further than just into lock status.
Like their neighbor at the Should-Be Inn, Florida State is extremely likely to make the tournament. You know it, I know it, and the college basketball world knows it. But in a hypothetical world where FSU dropped its final seven games, would a 20-12 Seminole team dance? Probably. Again, Indiana has lost 10 of their last 11 games and they are still right on the cut line. But that pesky strength of schedule, while not VT bad, certainly isn’t UL good. And though the ‘Noles do own wins over Purdue, LSU, Louisville, Clemson, and Syracuse (on the road), FSU also has a loss at Boston College that hovers around the bad loss category. Plus, were the Seminoles to lose all their remaining games, that would mean adding a dreadful loss against Wake Forest. The key is in the door and my hand is ready to turn. All FSU needs is one more win, any win, and they move up to lock status. Their first chance comes tomorrow in Littlejohn.
More likely than not to make it, but lots of work left: Syracuse (48; 43; 31)
The Syracuse Orange only played one game since our last installment, a loss at NC State. No harm in that. It’s a bit funny to see ‘Cuse in this tier with a 48 NET rank, while two teams with NET ranks in the 30s and low 40s sit a tier lower. And I’ll admit that I gave thought to dropping the Orange down a rung. But here’s the thing: Syracuse beat Duke in Durham. Regardless of Tre Jones’ health for that game, that is the single best win for any team in the country. Add in a road win over Ohio State and a win over Clemson and you have a pretty good start to a resume. That said...it’s still just a start. FSU found out in 2007 that a road win over Duke doesn’t assure you entry into the March Madness club, so Syracuse absolutely still has work left to do. The good news is, there’s only one chance left at a bad loss (something Syracuse already owns 2 or 3 of depending on what you think of UConn. The bad news is, it’s quite possible to see ‘Cuse lose every game other than their trip to Wake. The fighting Tyus Battle’s close the season with Louisville, Duke, @UNC, @Wake, UVA, @Clemson. Yowzers. At least that SOS will be going up!
Squarely on the bubble: North Carolina State (32; 35; 150), Clemson (42; 30; 41)
NC State is the Bizarro-World Louisville. Like the Cardinals, the Wolfpack sit at 18-8 with six guaranteed games left. Yet, UL is a lock and NCSU is squarely on the bubble. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: strength of schedule matters. NC State played one of the worst non-conference schedules I’ve ever seen and whether it’s a reduced seed or an outright snub, they are going to pay a price for it. NCSU did beat Syracuse at home since our last installment, giving them their 6th quadrant two win. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack are a pedestrian 1-7 in Quad 1 games, with their lone win coming against at home against an Auburn team that very well might end up outside the range of Q1. Even worse, NC State has the opposite problem as Syracuse, with a finishing stretch of BC, Wake, @FSU, GT, @BC. Not only will their SOS not move up much with that slate, there’s literally only one more chance to impress the committee and FSU doesn’t exactly lose much in Tallahassee. On top of that, ANY loss to a non-FSU team out of that bunch means another mark on a resume that’s already drawing attention for the wrong reasons. And Ky Bowman is a Raleigh native and notoriously gets up for games against the Tobacco Road programs that passed him over. Crazy to say, but NCSU might have to go 5-0 just to feel a little breathing room heading into the ACC Tournament.
Oh Clemson. For the third time this season (and second time last week), Clemson lost an ACC game on a buzzer-beater. Win any of those games and they would be at least one tier higher. Alas, the Tigers likely need to go no worse than 4-2 over their final six games and then win at least another game in the ACC Tournament. Their schedule is a good mix of winnable, but good opportunities, so it’s not an impossible task. But they’ll certainly have to find a way to better close-out games. This will be a desperate team playing FSU tomorrow night.
Minor miracle needed: Notre Dame (93; 79; 60)
Notre Dame actually improved their computer numbers a good deal over the last week, going from the mid-90s on KenPom all the way up to 79. They didn’t beat UVA, but they played pretty darn well, losing only by six. At 13-12, it’s desperation time for the Fighting Irish. The good news is, Wake and VT both seem like winnable games at home, especially if Justin Robinson is still out. Win those two and find a way to split the roadies against FSU and UL and Notre Dame might start to creep up in the conversation.
Auto-bid or bust: Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Miami, Wake Forest
All of these teams are at .500 or worse overall Boston College actually won two straight to get back over .500 on the season. Kudos to our friends up north. Still, a team with losses to IUPUI and Hartford has a long, long way to go. If the Eagles can win both road games this week (NCSU and Clemson), I’ll do what I really hate doing and bring a team back from the bubble dead. Meanwhile, Pitt’s players have officially hit the wall and they join the list of schools that won’t have an impact on Selection Sunday other than negatively affecting the seeds and/or bubbles of teams in the tiers above them.