Sunday, April 21, 2024

NCAA men’s tournament snubs and surprises

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You’d like to believe past performance has nothing to do with the selection and seeding of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sometimes, though, the committee tasked with that chore makes you wonder.

In fairness to that group, there is not an inclusion or exclusion that is thoroughly puzzling this year. The mere absence of St. John’s, which has as many Hall of Fame head coaches on its sideline as it does victories over the actual tournament field (one apiece), from the field was an indication of sober judgment.

The seeding, though, included some odd choices. A pair of Final Four teams from a year ago (Florida Atlantic and San Diego State) were treated better than their accomplishments warranted, as was longtime postseason stalwart Gonzaga.

Meanwhile, the Mountain West managed the impossible: It got a six-team contingent that was underseeded across the board … except for the one team even casual fans have heard of.

In fairness to the 12 administrators tasked with building this year’s bracket, their job was made much tougher Saturday when North Carolina State and Oregon unexpectedly snatched bids in power conference title games. But there are still some odd seeding choices, and they could very well reverberate over the next three weeks as the tournament unfolds.

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1. SURPRISE: Virginia gets in

Granted, you might not have been surprised if you read The Washington Post’s projected field online Sunday afternoon. But there seemed to be a sense the Cavaliers would miss out on the tournament after a chaotic weekend elsewhere that included Virginia’s ACC semifinal loss to N.C. State.

Virginia ultimately got credit for avoiding dubious losses, even if it has an unfortunate habit of getting blown out by good teams. The Cavaliers also did some of their best work on the road, picking off Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum and defeating Florida in Charlotte, in November.

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2. SNUB: The Mountain West’s seeding

Quality victories seem to matter … unless you pile them up inside the Mountain West, apparently. Regular season champion Utah State landed a No. 8 seed. Nevada was dumped down to a No. 10. Both Boise State and Colorado State were forced into play-in games. And New Mexico apparently was playing for its NCAA tournament life during its Mountain West title run.

The aforementioned outlier is San Diego State, which actually had the worst Quadrant 1 record of any of the six Mountain West teams in the field. The Aztecs went 4-9 in those games and still landed a No. 5 seed. Of the committee’s head-scratching seeding decisions, a good chunk were clustered in evaluating this conference.

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3. SURPRISE: Gonzaga’s seeding

Honest question: Did Gonzaga get credit for being Gonzaga, the program that has made every tournament since 1999? Because a No. 5 seed for the Bulldogs feels more like a reward for always being good than for recognizing exactly what this season’s team has accomplished.

Gonzaga (25-7) went 3-5 against the tournament field, picking off Kentucky and St. Mary’s on the road last month (while also beating Ivy League champ Yale in the first week of the season). It was a good season, worthy of an at-large bid and the chance to wear a home jersey in the first round. But based on the substance of the résumé, this team is listed a couple of lines too high.

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4. SNUB: Oklahoma was safe until it wasn’t

Oklahoma is exactly the sort of team that gets through in a normal year. It ranked in the top 50 in all the metrics, it didn’t have a remotely terrible loss and it bobbed around .500 in a strong league (though league record is not part of the criteria).

But dig a little deeper, and the Sooners were vulnerable. They managed just two victories against tournament-bound teams in 13 tries, beating both Iowa State and Brigham Young at home. Oklahoma’s most notable victory away from Norman was against Kansas State. It didn’t play a great nonconference schedule. And when the spate of conference tournament upsets came, Oklahoma got squeezed out of the field.

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5. SURPRISE: Florida Atlantic improves its seeding

The Owls made the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last year, but they were uneven at times this year on the way to a 25-8 record. They dropped a pair of Quadrant 4 games in nonconference play (Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast), and while neutral-site defeats of Arizona and Texas A&M were helpful, they ended on a down note with a loss to Temple in the American Athletic tournament.

On paper, Florida Atlantic was a borderline team. Instead, it will be a No. 8 seed. The Owls are still dangerous, they rank between 33rd and 41st in the five team sheet metrics, and they did go 10-5 against the top two quadrants. Still, this is probably a hair better than it should be.

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6. SNUB: The Big East’s middle class is shut out

The only three teams from the Big East to make the field are Connecticut (the top overall seed), Marquette (a No. 2 seed) and Creighton (a No. 3). A handy historical comparison: The ACC of 1999, with Duke (a 1), Maryland (a 2), North Carolina (a 3) and no one else.

But that ACC didn’t have teams quite as close to the edge of the field as Seton Hall, Providence and St. John’s, all of which were left out. One thing that couldn’t have helped any of them was how abysmal Georgetown and DePaul were. The other nine teams in the Big East earned four victories that were hollow for résumé purposes when they faced the Hoyas (NET of 205) and the Blue Demons (320). A rising tide can take many forms, and those two programs achieving even a degree of mediocrity would benefit the rest of the league.

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7. SURPRISE (that maybe shouldn’t be): Texas A&M glides in

If there’s something just about everyone can agree on, it’s that teams should be rewarded for piling up quality victories. And the Aggies did exactly that, going 7-7 in Quadrant 1 games and a combined 13-10 against the top two quadrants.

Texas A&M stood out when compared to the edge of the field because of its four Quad 3 losses. And while those certainly weren’t great performances, the Aggies’ best nights (Kentucky twice, Iowa State and Tennessee) more than outweighed the missteps.

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8. SNUB: Sycamores’ hopes are chopped down

The Sunday before Selection Sunday, Indiana State became the year’s cause célèbre after losing the Missouri Valley title game. The Sycamores were 28-6, had good metrics and a star in Robbie Avila with a distinct look. Then the upsets came in from elsewhere.

Indiana State was clearly in the discussion up until the past two days. As the third team out of the field, the Sycamores could have afforded two of the five things that went wrong for them - the ACC, Mountain West and Pac-12 title games, plus Dayton and Florida Atlantic losing in their respective tournaments. When all five happened, there just wasn’t room for them anymore.

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