A quick note off the top: huge thanks to all of you readers who stopped in and read the Court Report every Wednesday throughout the season. It was a new thing we tried, and it seems to have gained some traction. This is the final edition for 2018-19.
We're less than 100 hours from Selection Sunday. Take a peek around the bubble and you'll see the usual flotsam of major-conference candidates trying to make their way into the NCAA Tournament picture like Kramer on the subway. There are four mid-major teams still in the conversation, though; their chances remain mysterious. Belmont, Furman, Lipscomb and UNC Greensboro are a combined 104-25.
I have no idea which team(s) will be lucky enough to get plucked and placed into the big bracket on Sunday. I do know space is running out. Saint Mary's pilfered a bid with its stunning and commanding win over Gonzaga on Tuesday night in the WCC championship game. It's more likely than not that at least one more bid thief will expose itself over the next few days (candidates for such scene-stealing are detailed further down in this story).
I talked with the head coaches at all four schools noted above. (Their quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity and tidiness.) The ratings affixed to each school are the six ratings systems listed on the NCAA official team sheets (NCAA Evaluation Tool, KenPom.com, Kevin Pauga Index, Basketball Power Index, Strength of Record, Sagarin Ratings).
NET: 46 | KENPOM: 53 | KPI: 60 | BPI: 47 | SOR: 44 | SAG: 59
Selling points: The Bruins have the best Quadrant 1 + 2 record (5-3) of the four schools in question. Belmont is also the highest-rated team on average (51.5) across all six metrics. It has the fewest losses of the four -- and the most road wins (12). It has a sweep of Lipscomb. Also, Belmont did not have All-OVC First Teamer Nick Muszynski for the championship game against Murray State. In Belmont's 79-66 win at Murray State in February, Muszynski accounted for 34 of the Bruins' points.
Drawbacks: Belmont has the most Quadrant 3 + 4 losses (two) of the four mid-major at-large candidates (both are in Quad 3). Of note: the committee has said it monitors efficiency numbers. Belmont's 130th-ranking on defense at KenPom is the lowest of any offensive or defensive tempo-free rating among the four schools. I don't believe that should kill Belmont's chances, but I think it's possible it comes up in the room when the committee starts trying to sort out teams' overall ability and strength.
What head coach Rick Byrd told me: "I can't tell you how many times I've had somebody tell us, 'We can't get somebody who will play you.' There's a challenge for us because it's hard to get quality wins. But because we got to play Lipscomb twice, had the win at UCLA, and though they're not the world-beater, it's still a good win. In fact, we got to win at Murray State just like if they had won at Belmont -- what a quality win that would have been. The fact we ended up playing them on the road this year ended up being a good case for our at-large possibilities, but I'm not counting on any of that. The committee has a tough job. They don't care about what Rick Byrd thinks about Belmont's chances to be in the tournament, so why should I even open my mouth?"
NET: 41 | KENPOM: 55 | KPI: 82 | BPI: 55 | SOR: 52 | SAG: 78
Selling points: The NET thinks most highly of Furman. Plus, the Paladins have by far the best win of the four teams: at Villanova. Also won at Loyola-Chicago, which finished atop the Missouri Valley. Its only bad loss is by two points at home to a Samford team that rates 146th at KenPom. Also, Furman did not have Matt Rafferty at full strength in the SoCon semis due to a hand injury that forced him to wear a bulky protective brace. Under normal circumstances, Bob Richey told me, Rafferty would not have played.
Drawbacks: Furman's 82 in KPI and 78 in Sagarin, which means a result-based and a predictive metric aren't high on the Paladins. It went 1-2 vs. UNC Greensboro. It has a 236th nonconference strength of schedule at KenPom. Whereas UNC Greensboro lost by six at LSU, Furman lost by 18.
What head coach Bob Richey told me: "Everybody's trying to figure out how they're going to view this NET ranking. With us today at 41, if that's a true indicator and that's the one formula the NCAA put together -- they've all said this is our new metric -- then I think it's got to matter. I feel like we have to have serious consideration. At the end of the day it should be whole body of work. It shouldn't be one game or three games or league and nonleague. It's what you've done from November to now. Why us over the other three: the league, the NET and I think we have the best win. That's a given. But are they going to hold that against us because it was in November as opposed to February? Six of our seven losses have come vs. teams in the top 71 of the NET."
NET: 48 | KENPOM: 50 | KPI: 76 | BPI: 53 | SOR: 61 | SAG: 79
Selling points: Lipscomb is the highest-rated KenPom team of the four and has, by far, the best nonconference scheduling. Lipscomb's noncon SOS at KenPom is 26th (Belmont: 87; Furman: 236; UNC Greensboro: 253). Lipscomb has a road win over bubble team TCU and won at Liberty, the auto bid winner out of the A-Sun, by 20 points. It lost by six points total to Belmont in two games and fell by four at Louisville.
The school is also bringing receipts.
Drawbacks: The sweep at the hands of Belmont has to put Lipscomb behind the Bruins in the pecking order. If the bubble begins to shrink, might we see only one of these teams in the field? If that's the case, it's hard to see how Lipscomb could jump over Rick Byrd's Bruins. The other ding is a loss at Florida Gulf Coast, which rates as a Quadrant 3 loss and is the reason -- aside from losing close to Liberty in the A-Sun championship game -- why Lipscomb is in this tight spot.
What head coach Casey Alexander told me: "If you check our nonconference strength of schedule vs. the other teams, you'll see how high we are. If we didn't lose to Florida Gulf Coast, I think we're in without question. We also lost to Belmont on a 3 at the end, a legitimate 3-point shot. If it goes in, it probably flips us with them. We talk about the big teams and their lack of nonconference strength of schedule, but not often the mid-majors. We did what we could control. We can't control our league schedule, but outside of it, we did as good a job as we possibly could have. Our nonconference schedule is so much better than everyone else. We've also never been this good in offensive and defensive efficiency. This year's team is better than last year's (which made the NCAA Tournament)."
UNC GREENSBORO (28-6)
NET: 57 | KENPOM: 81 | KPI: 58 | BPI: 78 | SOR: 32 | SAG: 87
Selling points: Has the most wins of the four teams. The list of teams to win 28 games and not make an NCAA Tournament is short. All six losses are to Quadrant 1 teams. UNC Greensboro is THE ONLY bubble team without a loss in Quad 2, 3 and 4. The SOR rating is 32nd, which is strong. Greensboro lost SoCon Defensive Player of the Year James Dickey in the team's game at Kentucky in early December. In the time he was away (6.5 games), UNCG fell from 61 to 125 in KenPom and has climbed back up to 81. UNC Greensboro's Wins Above Bubble rating is 34th nationally, way better than the other three (Belmont: 43; Furman: 55 Lipscomb: 60). Half of its losses are to 29-4 Wofford. It beat Furman two out of three times.
Drawbacks: Its Sagarin rating of 87 is the lowest in any metric of any of the four teams. It sits at 81st in KenPom, which is a wart as well. UNC Greensboro is the only team of the four that does not have a road win against a power-conference team. Its lack of a signature win could be the dagger.
What head coach Wes Miller told me: "We're in a one-possession game with four minutes left at Kentucky. We chose to press and foul to try and win the game, lose by double figures. We're in a one-possession with two minutes at Furman, we press and foul and it ends up being a bigger loss. If that ends up hurting us, then maybe I need to adjust my coaching philosophy, but I don't think that's what this is about. What is most important to our efficiency numbers is James Dickey, who may be as impactful as any player in the SoCon on a possession-by-possession basis. He goes down in the Kentucky game in the second half and we don't have the same team until February. His absence explains everything with our efficiency. If we were Duke, this would already be talked about on television. It is the only reason our efficiency numbers are low. We played at LSU and Kentucky, top 10 teams in America. If you stop those games with four minutes left in the game, everybody in both arenas thinks we're going to win the game. We don't have a loss outside of Quad 1 on the year. I can't imagine how many teams on the bubble can say that. That's my No.1 argument. The second piece to it is: we don't get Quad 1 games at home. To compare us to a [power-conference] program, we play two Quad 1s all year. They get 10-plus. No Quad 1 team outside our league is coming to play us. Thankfully the SoCon is so damn good."
Is the NET essentially a sorting sibling to KenPom?
As you probably know by now, the RPI is gone and the NCAA changed to using its own sorting tool, the NET, this season. But is it essentially functioning as a cousin of KenPom? And if it is, is that a good thing? With almost all of the season's worth of data complete, we can fairly compare the metrics and see how close the variance is in the rankings. I pulled from the top 100 of each metric as of Tuesday night.
Some interesting results: 17 of top 26 teams are within zero-to-three rankings spots between the metrics. In the top 100, 58 percent of the teams overlap between six spots or fewer. And within 10 spots or fewer, it's 83 percent. That's far from identical but certainly within the same family. Here's how it breaks down:
- Number of top-100 teams in KenPom that are within 0-3 rankings spots of the NET: 36
- Number of top-100 teams in KenPom that are within 4-6 rankings spots of the NET: 22
- Number of top-100 teams in KenPom that are within 7-10 rankings spots of the NET: 25
That leaves 17 teams at 11 rankings spots or greater. Notable outliers include Texas, Ohio State, Furman, Temple, UNC Greensboro and Hofstra.
If you're curious, Kevin Pauga ran similarity numbers between the NET and the other metrics on the team sheet. The BPI has a 57-percent crossover on teams falling between zero and six spots on the NET; Strength of Record is 50 percent; Sagarin is 43 percent; KPI is 37 percent. And if you factor in teams that fall within 10 spots or fewer, KenPom's 83-percent hit rate is 12 spots ahead of the next-closest, BPI, at 71 percent.
So what gives? Well, we can't nail down the answers because the NET's formula isn't known. But raw efficiency is likely playing a hand. Teams with strong predictive rankings that rate well in efficiency margin are overwhelmingly landing close to each other in the NET and KenPom. If you use results-based metrics such as KPI and Strength of Record, there is much more disparity.
This leads me to believe the NET is more predictive-influenced than the NCAA might have you believe. And if that's the case, it's not a bad thing. Predictive metrics have empirically been proven to be more accurate. Betting markets are influenced -- and built -- by them, after all. The question becomes: will seeding and selection be more influenced by predictive metrics than ever before? We'll have our answer on Selection Sunday.
Bid thief season!
Incredibly, only two out of 11 conference tournaments so far have seen the No. 1-seeded team win the automatic bid. With that in mind, and as the bigger leagues get revved up, it's time to identify potential bid-thief candidates. St. Mary's already popped a bubble for one (unknown) team. More could be elbowed out in the coming four days.
Let's take quick tour of the tournaments left that could have a squad sneak up and snag a bid. I'm defining a bid thief as this: a team with almost no chance -- or absolutely no chance -- at an at-large, but rates higher than 5 percent to win its league tournament, per Ken Pomeroy's log5 projections. Six leagues apply.
Pac-12: Oregon (18.1 percent chance to win), Colorado (10.6), Oregon State (10.5), Utah (6.1).
Utah, the 3 seed, is the sixth-most likely team to win it. That tells you about all you need to know that is the bog of uncertainty in the Pac-12. Washington is a lock; Arizona State isn't as easy as I think many believe. If Oregon or anyone else listed above pull out a title-winning run, I think the Pac-12 just getting two teams is still very much on the table. My pick is Washington, though.
Atlantic 10: Dayton (21.8), Davidson (16.8), St. Bonaventure (6.6).
VCU has nearly a 50-percent chance to win the A-10 Tournament, but I like the odds of Barclays Center giving this conference a different champ. The Rams are solid regardless, so will we see Davidson and A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson make a run? St. Bonaventure is a frisky wild card. Dayton has the best freshman-senior duo in Obi Toppin and Josh Cunningham. This league is getting two bids, I can feel it.
MAC: Toledo (21.1)
Some might argue the Rockets should have a case for an at-large if they make the MAC title game. If that happened, Toledo would be 27-7. It might be one loss too many. But maybe the MAC is going to see its tournament offer up a pair of bids; the league has been good enough to warrant two teams in. If the Rockets get hot from 3 (37.9 percent this season), Buffalo could be picked off.
Mountain West: Fresno State (11.9).
All the attention is paid to Nevada and Utah State, but Fresno State (22-8) beat USU at USU and has been good in Year 1 under Justin Hutson. With the tournament in Las Vegas, there's a potential for some craziness. I would not be shocked if Fresno State managed to pull this off.
AAC: Memphis (7.8)
The Tigers are 19-12 and the 5 seed in the American bracket. Having the league tournament on their home floor is a big advantage. They will have a massive fan base overtaking FedExForum every game they play. How will Penny Hardaway do in his first time coaching in the postseason?
Big East: Xavier (6.0)
The Musketeers are 17-14 but have won five of their past six, the only loss coming against Butler on the road by five points. The Big East is arguably as big of a cluster-mess as the Pac-12. Xavier has strong pedigree and has a realistic shot of making noise. I'm ready for just about anything at MSG.
- Kansas' 14-year conference streak coming to an end was rightfully a major talking point as of late, but how about this streak snapping: the Pac-12 just watched UCLA and Arizona fail to finish in the top four of that league. One of those two has been top-four in the regular season every year of the Pac-12 (and its previous iterations) ... SINCE 1948! What!
- Eye-popping stat via Kevin Pauga: Michigan State's 32 wins in Big Ten play the past two seasons are the most by any team in the conference since Indiana in the mid-1970s.
- Yet another absurd streak, this one still in tact: Xavier has finished .500 or better in league play 37 consecutive seasons. Travis Steele has kept an overlooked and remarkable run alive. Xavier went 9-9 this year in the Big East.
- Unfortunate for Vanderbilt: it went 0-18 in the SEC, becoming the first team since 1954 to not win a game in SEC play.
- Iona is off to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year, becoming the first MAAC school in history to do that. Iona's run of four straight conference tournament championships is the longest in college basketball. Iona AD Pat Lyons pulled off one of the best mid-major hires of the past three decades when he brought in Tim Cluess.
- Murray State is probably the best mid-major program in America in the wide view. This year's team marks the 15th time the program's made the NCAAs since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.
- Officiating note: former big-conference referee Karl Hess seems to be on his way to retirement. Hess worked the SoCon this season; it's anticipated by many within his industry that he will retire.
- When bubble-watching this weekend, know this: Alabama in 2018 and Vanderbilt in 2017 are the only teams in history to earn at-larges with 15 losses. No 16-loss team's ever been invited to the NCAAs. Seven times we've seen a 14-loss team get an at-large. That feels inevitable this season.
Let's go inside a winning locker room. This is Las Vegas on Tuesday night, courtesy of Kyle Terada of USA Today. Saint Mary's flings the ice and celebrates its shocking win over Gonzaga at the Orleans Arena.