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Committee does fine with first rankings

For the past few years, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has shared its top 16 seeds (the top four seeds in each region) about a month before Selection Sunday and this year they did so on Saturday. The top of the bracket is usually pretty easy to figure out, but this year with all the COVID-related “pauses” that teams have been enduring, there was at least a little suspense to see how that would affect seeding.

The top two No. 1 seeds should have surprised no one. Gonzaga and Baylor are unbeaten and have played tough schedules (Gonzaga in the nonconference season, Baylor in a rugged Big 12). One-loss Michigan, which had been on a COVID pause, was next (and they validated their selection by beating a strong Wisconsin team on Sunday). Ohio State was the fourth No. 1 seed and the second Big Ten team on the top line, and they earned it with a strong resume (and promptly ripped bubble team Indiana on Saturday for good measure). Those four teams have pretty airtight cases to be No. 1 seeds.

That doesn’t mean teams aren’t knocking on the door, though. Illinois, Villanova, Alabama and Houston were the No. 2 seeds (in that order). With a NET ranking a few spots above Ohio State and a manageable schedule before ending the regular season at the Buckeyes, the Illini are in good position if Ohio State or Michigan falter. Villanova lost big to Creighton over the weekend — not a “bad loss” (Creighton is a solid tournament team), so I think they’ll hold on to their No. 2 seed for the moment. Alabama remains a spot ahead of Houston at the moment. Houston had a “Quad 3” loss to East Carolina but has bounced back, while Alabama lost two games to really good teams (Oklahoma and Missouri) before their current two-game win streak started. The Crimson Tide’s tougher schedule keeps them ahead of Houston for now.

The No. 3 seed line is where things start to get interesting. Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Oklahoma were next. The defending champion Cavaliers (since there was no tournament last year, Virginia is still the “defending champs”) lead the ACC and are very close to moving up to a No. 2 seed. The Mountaineers lost a double-overtime thriller at home to Oklahoma, which won’t hurt their standing at all (but adds a major feather to the Sooners’ cap). I had Texas Tech as a No. 3 seed instead of Oklahoma (who I had as a 4). Tech swept the Sooners, and their resumes are very similar, but I suspect that Oklahoma’s clear advantage in the Strength of Record rankings was the difference maker for the committee instead. Tennessee may have lost its No. 3 seed status with their loss to bubble team LSU on Saturday, but they’ll have chances to reclaim it.

Finally, the committee named (in order) Iowa, Texas Tech, Texas and Missouri as the No. 4 seeds. Iowa has lost four of seven, but thumped Michigan State on Saturday and may take Tennessee’s spot. The Hawkeyes have one of the toughest closing schedules in the country. Texas’ inclusion surprised me a little — I had 17-3 USC, who’s leading the Pac 12 in their slot as a No. 4 seed — but the Longhorns do have a very strong schedule. They’re just not beating the best teams on it. Missouri rounds out the top 16 as the final No. 4 seed. They’re an outlier in NET ranking in this group, sitting in the mid-30s, and their back-to-back losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas will probably drop them from this group (perhaps opening a slot for USC).

The committee is evaluating teams on the games they played, and not giving any favors (or penalties) for COVID pauses. To me, that’s all the committee can do. You can’t evaluate them on games they didn’t play or haven’t played yet. With no true shockers in the top 16, the committee is doing an excellent job.

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