It’s White Knuckle Time for A-10 and Big East teams fighting to reach the NCAA Tournament
By KEVIN McNAMARA
If it’s (okay, one day to go) March, it’s all about the Bubble in college basketball.
That’s not the case for the upper crust, of course. New Age Blue Bloods Gonzaga and Villanova are playing for seeding, even while traditional powers like Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kentucky are playing the scrambling game that most of the rest of the country is so familiar with.
Anyways there are impactful games that effect NCAA Tournament chances nearly every weekend afternoon and weekday night for the next two weeks. ESPN calls it Championship Week. In this pandemic season of 2020-21, it truly is a race of survival to both keep winning and avoid any positive cases of COVID-19.
Anyways this slice of Bubble Trouble is all about the Big East and Atlantic 10. Both leagues have not acquitted themselves very powerfully this season, save Jay Wright’s Wildcats and Creighton’s Blue Jays. No other Big East team is able to breathe easily right now, although Dan Hurley’s UConn Huskies are nearing that point. The A-10 is just a mess, the top half filled with half a dozen pretty good teams that all lack much meat on their hoop resumes.
First a little history.
The 2020 Tournament promised oh so much for these two conferences. First of all Dayton loomed as a favorite for the whole thing – a national championship. Obi Toppin and the Flyers were cinch No. 1 seeds and playing as well as anyone in the country. On the downside, only Richmond merited consideration from the remainder of the A-10 and the Spiders were touch-and-go entering March.
The Big East was stacked, by modern Big East standards. According to Kenpom.com, the league was looking at a certain six bids with Villanova and Creighton as 2 seeds and Seton Hall a 3. Providence, the hottest team (6-game winning streak) in the conference, was an 8 seed via the computer ranking.
Of course the 2020 Tournament went up in smoke as the dawn of this historic pandemic coincided with the arrival of the virus. (If you haven’t read THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED, do it now). Ever since fans from Dayton to Federal Hill have wondered what their teams could have done last March.
Anyways we are now a full calendar year ahead. The parameters of what looks like a normal college basketball season are upside down amid a national wave of expected postponements, COVID pauses and other pandemic-related issues. One obvious statistical anomaly is the NCAA’s NET ranking tool. The NET, while the best tool we’ve got, is flawed this season because teams played only limited non-league games.
The best example sits right near the top: Colgate. As of Sunday, the Red Raiders were 10th in the NET. Ahead of teams like Kansas, West Virginia and Florida State. Colgate has zero Quad 1 games, let alone wins or losses. On Kenpom the Red Raiders were 92nd.
I raise this only to implore the NCAA Men’s Basketball committee (selection committee) to not base it’s final at-large decisions too heavily on NET ranking. They always say it’s simply a `sorting tool,’ and we never believe them. I can guarantee that the committee will cite a win/loss record vs. Quad 1 and Quad 2 as a differentiating factor for the majority of its decisions.
So what do you do with Colgate if the Red Raiders don’t win the Patriot League on March 14? Colgate is 11-1 but due to league rules has played just three opponents (Army, Boston University and Holy Cross). That’s like Kansas playing a Big 12 schedule against only Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas.
Should Colgate get in the NCAA’s as an at-large if its NET is say, 18, and finishes 13-2 after a loss to Lafayette in the Patriot League finals?
Here is what the two conferences are looking at:
Villanova is fighting to remain in the top 12 and merit a two or three seed. Creighton is trending towards a four or five seed.
UCONN (12-6, 9-6)
The Huskies have jumped from the 50’s to 36th in the NET and 28th on Kenpom after wins over Georgetown and Marquette. Bottom line: With star guard James Bouknight in the lineup the Huskies are 8-2 and look like an NCAA Tournament team to me. If you sit on the committee and watch the games that should be obvious. Huskies are 5-6 against the top two Quads and wrap up against Seton Hall and Georgetown this week.
XAVIER (13-5, 6-5)
The Musketeers are missing some marquee opportunities due to COVID pauses but are 6-5 against the top two Quads after an important upset of Creighton Saturday. In another sign of the NET’s weakness this year, that victory elevated Xavier nine spots up to 48th.
This is a team that needs to put in more work. Beating Georgetown and Marquette on the road this week is highly advisable.
SETON HALL (13-10, 10-7)
The Bracket Matrix has the Pirates teetering on the brink of a First Four game and at this point Kevin Willard’s team will take it. A pretty solid resume is now in question with a NET of 54, Kenpom of 44 and a 6-9 record vs. Quad 1&2.
The Pirates are fading after losses to Georgetown and Butler but can right the ship against UConn this week.
Teams like St. John’s and Providence cannot be ignored but both basically can’t lose again until the Big East semis or championship game. PC would need wins over SJU and Villanova this week, plus some run at the Garden to merit a long look-see.
St. BONAVENTURE (13-3, 11-3)
Good luck making sense of this conference. COVID pauses have set all traditional measurables aflame with Rhode Island playing 17 games, the Bonnies 14, Richmond 10 and Saint Louis 9.
The Bonnies clinched the regular season crown but the above paragraph basically renders that meaningless. Mark Schmidt’s team is good and looks like the best group in the A-10. It’s current NET of 28 and Kenpom of 31 backs up that appearance. Two non-descript non-league are cause for concern if an early exit from the A-10 tournament develops.
VCU (17-6, 10-4)
The Rams did a fine job compiling a pretty strong resume until the last week of February. Losses to George Mason and Davidson raised red flags and when you consider this team’s best wins came against sinking Saint Louis and over possible snubs Utah State and Memphis on neutral courts one has to wonder where the beef is on the resume?
SAINT LOUIS (12-5, 5-4)
If any Atlantic 10 team is cruising to get punished for its inability to stay clear of COVID issues it’s the Billikens. This team is filled with veterans, plays tough and looks like an NCAA team. It just doesn’t have the good right now.
The Bills beat LSU and North Carolina State early on but missed most of the month of January to keep building a resume. A NET of 49 and Kenpom of 50 scream bubble but this is a team I can see winning the A-10 title and taking things out of the committee’s hands.