by Ken Pomeroy on Thursday, February 27, 2014
One of the best things in college hoops is the seemingly impossible chase for a perfect record. I like it so much, I chronicle how many teams keep that dream alive as the season progresses (Collect ‘em all) knowing full well that number will eventually reach zero, usually long before March.
While some claim a loss is good for a team—ignoring that we’ve had an undefeated champ more recently than a one-loss champ—I say that’s insanity. What’s good is immortality. The next team that pulls off a perfect season would have a special place in history that has eluded all other national champions since 1976.
The chase for perfection requires a few things to come together, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of team involved. Obviously, a soft schedule helps. So does some luck. The team involved has to be much better than its schedule, as well. It’s a special intersection of a few unrelated things and it doesn’t happen very often. You can’t help but appreciate the rarity from an analytics perspective.
As you are probably aware, this year it’s happening. Now that Wichita State is on the cusp of getting to Selection Sunday with a zero in the loss column (though there’s still a very real chance it doesn’t), the country seems obsessed with whether the Shockers will get a one-seed. It feels like coverage of a presidential election. Pundits must take one of two sides of the story and do everything they can to defend their position. There is no room for nuance.
Hot take #1: The Shockers have played a weak schedule. If they played the big boys, their record would be worse and they’d be exposed as the sixth-best team in the Big 12. They don’t deserve a one-seed and you’re a fool for believing otherwise.
Hot take #2: The Shockers are unbeaten, and a team can’t do better than that. They deserve a one-seed and you’re a fool for believing otherwise.
I realize people have to offer strong opinions to attract an audience. My strong opinion here is that there is some truth to both of these extremes. However, way too many words are being to devoted to whether Wichita State gets a one-seed. It’s not very important to their chance for actually winning a national title.
I suppose if you are a Shockers’ fan, there is some status associated with getting a one-seed, but in terms of the team’s chances of making history, it’s way more important what the rest of its section of the bracket looks like. And five years from now, few will remember who the one-seeds were. (Quick, name the one-seeds from 2009.) Fifty years from now, people will remember if Wichita State was undefeated.
The coverage of this story is frustrating because in a better world, our nation’s college basketball experts would be analyzing things. Everyone knows Wichita State has played a weak schedule. It requires no expertise to tell us that. However, just because a team has not played a tough schedule does not prohibit it from being considered one of the four best teams in the country. Indiana State in 1979 may have played only one top-50 team. (This, according to the Massey Ratings - there was no RPI then, even though the committee “had 72 pages of material the average fan [didn’t] see”. Elitists!) They got a one-seed and looked pretty good in the tournament. Of course, one example from 35 years ago isn’t proof of anything, but there have been great teams that have played weak schedules since then. Really, it’s a logical fallacy and just plain lazy to define a team’s ability by its schedule. Besides, it sounds like the people critical of the schedule are the ones that don’t understand that winning at Saint Louis is more difficult than beating Duke at home.
On the flip side, it’s not breaking news that going undefeated is rare. However, a team’s record can be deceiving. I’m fairly sure that if Stephen F. Austin had beaten Texas and East Tennessee State, few would be advocating that an unbeaten Lumberjacks’ team with the 337th-best schedule should get a one-seed. And as recently as two seasons ago, a one-loss Murray State got a six-seed. It’s not plausible that a single loss knocked them from a one-seed to a six. In quasi-power conference news, Texas Tech received a three-seed in 1996 as a one-loss team. It’s hard to believe that single loss, to eventual nine-seed Eastern Michigan, would have dropped them two seed lines.
Not many seem to address the more difficult issues surrounding the potential for Wichita State to do the impossible. Things like: How good are the Shockers? What chance do they have of winning a national title? These are far more interesting questions, and the answers don’t have all that much to do with their strength of schedule or even that the team is undefeated. This type of discussion would benefit from the expertise of people who watch a lot of games involving the top teams, talk to coaches of these teams, and generally have more information to make these kinds of judgments than most people. Instead, the coverage is like a debate between Dick Morris and Paul Begala.
I get it when Kansas and Wichita State fans go back and forth with one side bragging about their team’s schedule and the other bragging about their team’s record. You can hardly expect those people to be objective. But it would be nice if regular people started taking a stab at whether Wichita is actually one of the four best teams in the land.
What Wichita State is doing is why I love college basketball. The analysis of what Wichita State is doing is why I cringe at the coverage of college basketball. I haven’t even got to the issue of how there is some distinction given to Wichita State being the first team to go 30-0 in the regular season. (As if going 30-0 including tournament games is somehow a lesser achievement?) There’s also the trivia floating around that 11 of the 12 teams to go 30-0 made the Final Four. It’s kind of a silly stat considering that six of those either got to the Final Four or were already in it upon winning their 30th game. Two others were a game away after win number 30.
No team has ever been 35-0 and Wichita State has a realistic shot of doing that by getting to the round of 32. But if I had to guess, they won’t get back to the Final Four, because most one-seeds don’t get there. (47 of 104 one-seeds have made it to the Final Four in the 64-team era.) And the difference between this season’s one-seeds and the rest of the pack may be less than it has been in most previous seasons, so you might expect the average one-seed’s chances of getting to Dallas to be worse that the historical rate of 45%. Additionally, Wichita State is probably worse than the average one-seed. We can say that without offending our friends from Wichita. Part of the unbeaten formula has nothing to do with a team’s quality and just because a team’s unbeaten does not make them the best in the land.
Still, Wichita might be good enough to win six tournament games with a little luck and matchup help. Obviously, they won four last year and one could make the case they are a better team this season. But one could also make the case they were better two seasons ago and they lost in the round of 64. That’s tournament life for you. Instead, we’re bogged down in one-seed talk. According to most in the national media, the Shockers are either deserving because they’re unbeaten or they’re not because their conference is weak. But the more difficult task is determining whether they are actually one of the four best teams in the country. Maybe the experts are avoiding this question because there are no easy answers to it.