The announcement of the NCAA tournament bracket always has some surprises, and always leave a certain fanbase upset about their team’s position, opponents, competition, or lack of inclusion altogether in the field of 64.
But this year’s draw on Sunday night was one of the most shocking in recent memory. Before the full bracket announcement even began, the NCAA announced at 8:30 Eastern Time the top 4 seeds, and that alone was enough to set the web ablaze with Kentucky being chosen over other options – most notably Texas and Nebraska, the Big 12 and Big Ten champions. It was even alluded to by the on-air personalities on ESPN, who had noticed the fury in the 30 minutes between the top 4 seeds announcement and the start of the show.
The shocks continued to roll on from there, as the NCAA stuck to its traditions of leaning heavily on the computer-generated RPI rankings to select, and place, the field. The highest-RPI team to not make the field was #44 Ohio State – though that was expected: with a 15-16 record, Ohio State wasn’t eligible for the tournament (across all NCAA team sports, teams can only make national championship tournaments with a losing record if they get their conference’s automatic bid). The next team on that list was #35North Texas, who shared the Conference USA regular season crown with Western Kentucky, but lost to the Hilltoppers in the tournament championship game to miss the automatic bid.
The Mean Green’s best non-conference win was probably their 3-0 sweep of tournament team Oregon State. Only one team got in as an at-large with a lower RPI: ACC 4th-place team NC State (#49).
Below, check out who won the biggest and who lost the hardest on Selection Sunday:
Kentucky – Kentucky is a very talented team, and we hate to rain on their parade, but it’s not clear the resume justifies a top 4 seed over the likes of Texas and Nebraska. Sure, Kentucky had only 3 losses this season – but those losses came against the only 3 top-10 teams they played (then-#7 Creighton, then-#7 Kansas, and then-#4 Florida). They do have a win over Florida when they were #1 earlier in the season, but weighed later in the year – they lost the 2nd matchup. In fact, they lost that matchup by a sweep: the same way they lost to Kansas and Creighton. They do have solid wins over Utah, USC, and Louisville, and were largely dominant in the SEC, but I don’t think we’ve seen enough yet to declare the SEC a league worthy of 2 teams in the top 4. Bringing us to our next winner…
The SEC – In the pre-show transition from the preceding basketball game on Sunday night, the marginally-informed commenters were discussing the “quality of the SEC” in volleyball. Regular volleyball fans raised their eyebrows at this, knowing that it’s been a while since SEC was one of the top 3 teams in the country (at best), and then rolled their eyes at insinuations that ESPN is hell-bent on the SEC. Turns out – the discussion might have been accidentally prophetic. The SEC sent 4 teams to last year’s NCAA tournament, and only 1 advanced to the Sweet 16 (Missouri). A year prior, they sent 4, and 1 qualified for the Sweet 16 (Florida). A year earlier, they sent 5, and only 1 advanced (Florida). In 2013, they had no teams in the Sweet 16. We’d have to go all the way back to 2012 to find two SEC teams finish in the top 16 of the NCAA tournament, and all the way back to Tennessee in 2005 to find even 1 SEC team in the Final 4. Has enough changed this year for the committee to justify two SEC teams in the top 4? I definitely think the SEC is in an “up” cycle, but I think the selection committee (and the computers for that matter) were a little-too-quick to reward the conference with those ultra-high seeds. The 4 teams is about right, but two #1 seeds will continue to be the primary topic of discussion until the games start. At least both schools draw strong home crowds – which should create good atmospheres if they advance to the regional semi-finals.
The High Point Panthers – The Big South has never had an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament before. High Point qualified last year as the conference champions, and had to know they had a chance at 39th in the RPI, but they were one of the few invited teams to not post a team-celebration photo: it’s not clear they had one. The team hadn’t Tweeted for 6 days before the selection show. The Panthers had just 2 wins this season against NCAA tournament teams – both in conference against Radford. But they made it – one of the 32-best at-large teams in the country in the eyes of the committee – and they now have the same opportunity as everyone else to win the title. They face Purdue in their opener – the Boilermakers have had some cold streaks this season – with Utah possible in the next round. It would be a longshot for High Ponit to win either of those games, but at the same time…neither is an unwinnable game either, if you’re looking for a Cinderella.
Wichita St. Shockers – Wichita St. is playing in a new conference this year, the AAC, which they ran through to a 28-3 record. This is a case where a team was rewarded for playing a softer schedule – the AAC is not as good, this year at least, as Conference USA, and Wichita St.’s only win against a top-25 team was over Creighton. Still, the committee rewarded their lofty RPI (driven largely by just 3 losses) and gave the Shockers the right to host for the first time in program history. Wichita St. could have been nervous that the AAC wouldn’t stack up well enough to earn a top-16 seed. Even the team thought it was a “long shot.” Wichita was 1-3 his season against the RPI top 25 (Creighton), 1-1 against teams 25-50, and most significantly were 9-0 against teams ranked 63-86 and didn’t lose to a team ranked lower than 22nd in the RPI After the announcement, coach Chris Lamb pointed out that the committee likes to have host teams whose fans show up well for games. Wichita St. does fit that category – they rank 10th in the country with 2,700 home fans per game this season. Their arena can hold up to 10,400, and in a city of almost 400,000 people, they actually have one of the largest local populations to draw from of any team in the tournament.
The ACC – We knew the ACC had improved this year, but we were still caught off guard when they got a whopping 6 teams in to this year’s NCAA tournament – an increase from just 3 last year. And that’s even without pre-season favorites and top-15 team UNC as one of the 6 (Florida St., Louisville, Miami, NC State, Notre Dame, Pitt). Louisville roared back from worst-to-first in one season under Dani Busboom Kelly, Pitt held strong in spite of some tough graduations, and Florida State stumbled but still had just enough to sneak in, and NC State was, literally, the “Last Team In” according to the NCAA.
Humans – The NCAA has always relied heavily on the RPI to select this field, and they did so again this year, by eschewing the Texas Longhorns from the top 25 (AVCA had them ranked 2nd, we had them ranked 3rd before their big win over Baylor last week). This is not quite as bad as a few years back when the AVCA had Purdue in the top 25 but the NCAA left them out altogether, but it again showed that very little deference is given to the human eye, intuition, or expectation. A warning to teams: learn every detail of the RPI system that you can, and build your schedule to exploit it. It matters, more than anything.
Nebraska Huskers – Nebraska being left out of the #1 seeds isn’t as big of a disappointment as, say, Texas, but they were co-Big Ten Champions. That at least gave them a shot. It matters because Nebraska is so good at home (and, really, has the biggest and baddest home crowd in the country). Nebraska was 15-0 at home this season, 10-2 on the road, and 1-2 at neutral sites. They’ve only lost 3 home games in the last 3 seasons combined. Getting to ride the DeVaney Center crowd all the way to the Final 4 would’ve been a gift (it could still happen if Kentucky is upset in an early round). The Sprint Center in Kansas City would likely be a strongly pro-Nebraska crowd, depending on who else qualified (Creighton or Kansas would also draw significant support), so if the Huskers can get there, they should see familiar faces again.
Iowa State Cyclones – Iowa State has to be happy to receive a #13 seed and the right to host an opening round of the NCAA tournament – something not even Kansas is getting the right to this season. However, they couldn’t have been happy to see the teams in their pod. Princeton won’t scare the Cyclones much, but the other half of the pod will. Wisconsin is probably appropriately placed based on the totality of their season, but they are a young team that’s gotten better as the season went on and have wins against Nebraska, Louisville, Illinois, Michigan, Marquette, and Iowa this season. If freshman Dana Rettke rises to the occasion for the Badgers (Marquette as an opener is no easy task either), then Iowa State vs. Wisconsin will be one of the better second-round games of the whole tournament. Which is not what a #13 seed wants to see.
The Big Ten – The Big Ten might be the deepest conference in the country this season (the Pac-12 could stake a claim to that as well), but will only host 3 pods this season – thanks in large part to the conference beating up on themselves. Iowa missing being the 9th team (which would match the Pac-12) hurt, so too did a few Big Ten teams at the bottom of the conference (Rutgers) dragging down everyone’s RPIs. The Big Ten hosted 5 out of the 16 pods last year, but this year it will just be Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska who have earned that right. Here’s a question: if Michigan State was playing in the SEC or the ACC, would they have won enough games to earn a national seed and hosting duties? My guess is yes.