Sunday, February 26, 2012

'Who'd You Play, Where'd You Play 'Em, How'd You Do?'


For those wondering about UConn’s NCAA tournament chances, consider these words from – of all people – Jeff Hathaway: “Who’d you play, where’d you play them, how’d you do?”

In a nutshell, that’s the criteria the 10-man NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball selection committee, chaired by Hathaway, will most strongly consider when picking this year’s tourney field.

Hathaway, the deposed former UConn athletic director, repeated that phrase, mantra-like, during a conference call a couple of weeks ago designed to highlight the NCAA's new-found transparency regarding the process. (Yes, the words "Jeff Hathaway" and "transparency" are rarely synonymous, but we digress). At ncaa.org, all the information that the selection committee will be looking at -- the "nitty-gritty" of every team, as well as each program's "team sheets" (they're alphabetical, scroll down a bit for UConn's) -- is available to the public, as well. 

(Of course, all this information was supposed to be updated daily, we were told, but the nitty-gritty page is through Friday's games and the team sheets are only through Feb. 12. Still, it's more info that in the past.)

Essentially, what Hathaway was saying is that a team’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) will be the biggest factor in determining invitations to this year’s Big Dance. I don't necessarily agree with it, but that appears to be the case.

The RPI takes into account a team’s winning percentage (25 percent), its opponents' strength of schedule (50 percent) and its opponents' opponents’ strength of schedule (25 percent). It’s worth noting that the RPI formula also weighs road wins more than it does home wins, while home losses detract more than road losses.

Through games played Saturday (including the Huskies’ heartbreaking, two-point loss to No. 2 Syracuse at Gampel Pavilion), UConn’s RPI was still No. 27 in the land. That’s as good as any of the other NCAA tourney “bubble” teams.

Other factors, obviously, come into play with committee members: the “eyeball” test, how a team’s been playing entering the tournament, how a team has fared without a key injured player, etc. (And yes, Hathaway must leave the room when UConn – or any Big East team, for that matter – is being discussed during the selection process. Hathaway currently serves as a Big East adviser, working predominately from his home).

Personally, I think how a team is playing entering the tourney should weigh heavily. If the tourney were tomorrow, UConn would be 3-7 in its last 10. Its last real good win came well over a month ago. Sorry, that doesn't pass muster in my book. But my book's not the one that counts here.

In the end, it largely comes down to: Who’d you play, where’d you play them, how’d you do?

So where does that leave UConn? Let’s take a look:

Who’d you play? The toughest schedule in America. Hard to believe, considering all the preseason detractors, but UConn’s strength of schedule remains No. 1 in all the land. Many of the Huskies’ non-conference foes – Florida State, Harvard, Central Florida, Arkansas, even Wagner – wound up being better than expected. Add that to the rigors of Big East play, and no one’s played a tougher schedule than the Huskies.

With remaining games against lowly Providence (RPI 155), Pittsburgh (86) and likely a conference weaker sister in the first round of the Big East tournament, UConn’s strength of schedule ranking should take a dip, but likely no more than a couple of spots.

Where’d you play them? UConn has won three games away from home against RPI Top 50 teams: Florida State (20) in the Bahamas, at Notre Dame (39) and at South Florida (47, prior to Sunday’s win over Cincinnati). The Huskies’ worst home loss of the season came against Cincinnati (72, prior to Sunday’s loss). UConn’s worst loss overall, at Rutgers, came on the road.

How’d you do? Against the RPI Top 50, the Huskies are 6-7. They’re 3-3 at home against such teams, 2-4 on the road and 1-0 on a neutral floor.

They’re 2-3 against RPI 51-100 teams – 2-1 at home, 0-1 on the road and 0-1 on a neutral floor – and 9-1 against everybody else.

Add it all up and UConn is still in the NCAA tournament – as of today. Even ESPN “bracketologist” guru Joe Lunardi agrees, apparently even as a 10th seed. But the key words are “as of today.” Beat Providence and Pitt and the Huskies are 19-11 overall, 9-9 in the Big East and almost certainly in – though it would behoove them to avoid a first-round Big East tourney upset. Of course, UConn has yet to win three straight games against Big East teams this season.

Lose one of the next two and UConn would likely need to win at least two games, maybe three, in the Big East tournament to safely get back on the right side of the bubble. Lose them both and just about the only way UConn could get a chance to defend its national title would be to win five games in five days at Madison Square Garden.

And we all know that could never happen, right?





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