What does best mean?

What does best mean?

This season more than any other we seem to be stuck in a crossfire from the age old NCAA selection debate about the “good mid-majors” versus “middling majors” and at-large bids. The CAA title game is tonight and the team that loses, either Drexel or VCU, is about to join Iona and Middle Tennessee squarely on the bubble.

The problem is that on that same bubble are teams like Northwestern and Seton Hall. The Wildcats are 18-12 and 8-10 in the Big Ten heading into the conference tournament. The Pirates are in the same boat at 19-11 and 8-10 in the Big East. Iona has 25 wins as do the two teams that will take the court in Richmond tonight. MTSU has 24. Should these teams be rewarded for dominance in a mid-major setting?

It’s tough to decide. The NCAA selection committee is charged with selecting the 37 “best” remaining teams for at-large bids. The criteria of that, as we’ve seen in mock selections, comes from a variety of sources — but too often the RPI. Let’s start there.

RPI for the six teams:

  • Iona – 41
  • Northwestern – 48
  • VCU – 49
  • MTSU – 59
  • Seton Hall – 60
  • Drexel – 63

The best and the worst here are separated by exactly 22 spots. Go further down the chain and the difference of 22 spots in the RPI is the difference between TCU (100) and Oklahoma (122). I dare you to tell me which is better. Obviously it has failed to solve the problem. What about two other metrics stat heads love, LRMC and Ken Pomeroy?

LRMC for the six teams:

  • Iona – 32
  • MTSU – 41
  • VCU – 44
  • Drexel – 47
  • Seton Hall – 56
  • Northwestern – 63

Pomeroy for the six teams:

  • Drexel – 41
  • VCU – 46
  • Northwestern – 49
  • Iona – 56
  • Seton Hall – 62
  • MTSU – 63

Average ranking combining all three:

  • Iona – 43
  • VCU – 46
  • Drexel – 50
  • Northwestern – 53
  • MTSU – 54
  • Seton Hall – 59

It is fascinating to me that the team often called the “best” amongst these six teams, and the safest in bubble predictions, Seton Hall, consistently falls in the fifth place position in these metrics and is sixth in average overall ranking. Why they are they the “safest”? Opportunity.

Best in the college basketball world doesn’t mean, “Expected to go furthest in the tournament,” or “Strongest tempo-free resume.” Instead it means, best “resume,” which is a funny word all in itself. Seton Hall’s resume says that on some nights it can beat really good teams like Georgetown, Connecticut, West Virginia and, coincidentally enough, VCU. Then again, SHU’s resume also includes losses to Villanova, Rutgers, DePaul and fellow bubbler Northwestern.

Similarly, Northwestern has beaten Michigan State. Actually, that’s not similar at all. The Wildcats have one Top 50 RPI win and four painfully close RPI Top 50 losses. That’s why, even with the head-to-head result, Northwestern is behind Seton Hall right now.

But those two teams each had 11 chances to get those Top 50 wins. You know how many chances VCU, Drexel, MTSU and Iona had combined? Seven. They won three of them. (Note: Drexel has a chance to get another Top 50 win tonight if it beats VCU.) Unfortunately, all of those teams also had the opportunity, thanks to leagues they play in, to accumulate some bad losses. The four non-BCS teams have four 201+ RPI losses (two each for Iona and MTSU). Their leagues offered the chance for Iona and MTSU to screw up and unfortunately the Gaels and Blue Raiders fell for it. That thin line meant one screw up in their respective conference tournaments left them in an almost helpless situation.

And they’ll be penalized for it too. Because even though the numbers think that Iona might be the “best,” they didn’t have the opportunity to prove it on the court.

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