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NET Gains And Losses - What Will The Committee Do With The New Formula?

Scott looks at the NET and wonders how the committee will put it to work

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NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Duke at Gonzaga
Nov 21, 2018; Lahaina, HI, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward RJ Barrett (5) takes a shot against Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Rui Hachimura (21) in the second half during the championship game of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational at Lahaina Civic Center.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Madness hit March a little early this year when Gonzaga fell in the WCC Championship to St. Mary’s on Tuesday night. Gonzaga, who was thought a lock for a No. 1 seed, now faces a number of plausible scenarios in which they fall to the 2-line (many of which would benefit Duke and make three No. 1 seeds from the ACC more feasible). Perhaps more importantly, where the Bulldogs end up might be the most clear indication of how heavily the NCAA is weighing its new NET rankings versus more traditional aspects of a team’s resume.

Even with the loss, Gonzaga only fell one spot in the NET rankings to No. 2. It’s highly unlikely they would fall any farther than No. 3 come Selection Sunday, and that would likely require Duke or Kentucky to win their respective conference tournaments. However, the rest of Gonzaga’s Team Sheet isn’t as glowing: while three of the five analytic measures still have the Bulldogs in the top four, the KPI has them all the way down at No. 11, while their strength of record (SOR) is No. 8. Meanwhile, with St. Mary’s loss the Zags Q1 record falls to 4-3, with two of those wins at the very bottom of the Q1 bracket (at NET No. 52 Creighton and at NET No. 72 San Francisco).

In contrast, all of the other legitimate contenders for a top seed have at least seven Q1 wins, with that number possibly rising this weekend. As a thought experiment, even if you gave Gonzaga the benefit of the doubt and projected their Q1 record to a more challenging schedule by, say, doubling the number of Q1 games they played, their projected six Q1 losses would be more than any competitor. So while the Zags have an advantage in the NET, teams like Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and Tennessee (and perhaps even the Big Ten Champion were it to be Michigan or Michigan State) would likely have a superior resume, using the NCAA’s own quadrant system, come Sunday.

Some historical context is also useful here. In this last decade, only four teams outside the consensus “power” conferences have earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga in 2017 and 2013, Wichita State in 2014, and Memphis in 2009. The 2014 Shockers were an outlier, finishing with an undefeated record despite not playing a single ranked team during the season. The 2009 Tigers suffered three early season losses to quality teams before winning 25 straight, including a victory on the road against a ranked Gonzaga team. The 2017 Zags had only one loss and beat St. Mary’s three times (with the Gaels ranked in all three contests), while the 2013 Zags had only two regular season losses, both against ranked non-conference foes.

What’s the common thread amongst these teams? To compensate for their weak schedule, they had to sweep through their conference: all four were undefeated in conference play and won their conference tournament. The 2019 Bulldogs can’t claim to have done that. And while the victory over Duke is impressive, it’s this year’s team’s only stellar win. Indeed, despite the perception, Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule was no juggernaut this year, yielding a SOS rank of 63 (for comparison, Duke’s is 7, Kentucky’s is 29, and UNC’s is 13).

All of this is a long way of saying the following: historically speaking, a conference tournament loss would seemingly disqualify a mid-major team like Gonzaga from a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Indeed, all of the past No. 1 seeds were ranked outside the top-5 in the RPI at season’s end, meaning they received a bump from the committee based on the eye test and the accomplishment of an undefeated conference season (for what it’s worth, Gonzaga would be No. 7 in the RPI rankings if they were still used today). But the NET is different, and it’s unlikely the Bulldogs will fall from the top-4 in the new ranking system. So if the Zags end up with a No. 1 seed, it likely means the NCAA is leaning heavily on the new NET rankings. If they fall to a No. 2, it’s likely that the old fashioned “resume” is still playing the most significant role in the committee’s decision making.

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