Draws can be overrated. To win an NCAA title, a team has to win six games and doesn’t get any more or less credit whether those wins come against a chalk bracket or a bunch of Cinderellas. But no one cuts down the nets without facing at least a few tests, which is why complaining about, say, Kentucky being in North Carolina’s region is frivolous: If both teams were that good, they’d have to play each other in the Final Four or title game anyway, right?
On the other hand, man oh man did the selection committee sabotage Villanova’s bid to repeat as NCAA champion, giving the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament a draw of the fourth-best team and then criminally under-seeding the Wisconsin team that ended up sending the Wildcats home in a second-round defeat on Saturday, one that was hardly the upset the seedings said it was. The whole thing played like a farce.
Step back and forget about what happened last year. Ignore Kris Jenkins and Marcus Paige and that Final Four pounding of Oklahoma and everything else about Villanova’s brilliant run to a second national championship. Forget that these Villanova seniors, led by Jenkins and Josh Hart, had led the Wildcats to the most wins of any school in the country over the past four years and the most in school history. And even forget that Villanova played every game in 2016-17 with a big ol’ bullseye on its back, the mark that comes with taking the court as defending champs. Put all of it aside and look at three simple facts: Villanova was the best team in college basketball, the selection committee determined Villanova was the best team in college basketball and then the selection committee appeared to seed the East region by forgetting about the first two facts.
Wisconsin was given a No. 8 seed. Wisconsin was the Big Ten regular-season runner-up and the Big Ten tournament finalist. The Badgers’ RPI wasn’t great, largely because a number of the big-name non-conference teams on their slate had unexpected off years (Syracuse and Oklahoma were both Final Four teams in 2016 and missed the tournament in 2017). The Badgers’ record was nothing special but one look at their efficiency ratings (including on KenPom) showed a team better than its win-loss mark. To be fair, the committee can’t, doesn’t and shouldn’t seed solely on metrics but the numbers exist and should be used as a guide to ensure that Wisconsin, which had a rating equal to No. 2 seed Arizona and far better than No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Butler and No. 5 Notre Dame (and a handful of others), not be placed on the third line of the bracket.
The seeding is even more baffling when you look at the Big Ten baseline established with seeds to other teams. Purdue, the conference champ, was given a No. 4 seed. Fair enough. Minnesota, a team that finished behind Wisconsin in both the regular season and conference tournament, didn’t have any notable wins on its non-conference schedule, had a lower efficiency rating than two teams that competed in the play-in game (Kansas State and Wake Forest) and, oh yeah, lost to Wisconsin twice, was handed a No. 5. seed. A Maryland team that started the year 20-2, won just four of its last 10 games and had three horrible losses on its resume, entered the tournament as a No. 6. And then there was Wisconsin, slapped with a No. 8 for no apparent reason. Based on the other seedings, Wisconsin was a No. 5 or No. 6 and not as some sort of judgment call. The committee seeded the other Big Ten teams where it did and the Badgers should have been evaluated by a similar criteria.
Big Ten seeding was a discussion on Selection Sunday, but Wichita State getting a No. 10 seed was seen as the far more egregious error. That took up most of the oxygen. It wasn’t until Villanova and Wisconsin both won on Thursday, setting up this Sweet 16 game masquerading as a second-rounder to determine the winner of the Buffalo pod, that people began to go, “huh?”
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While the committee usually does a fine job with at-large invites – it’s been years since there’s been an appalling omission – the seedings have been a stumbling block of late. It’s not an easy job dealing with preferential travel, spreading out conference foes and trying to keep teams as close to their line as possible. But evidence from the NCAA shows this wasn’t a case of Wisconsin getting bumped down a seed to keep order in the bracket. On the official seed list (which ranks all 68 teams in the field), the Badgers were deemed the 29th-best team in the tournament. Purdue was 16, Minnesota was 18 and Maryland was 23.
Saddling an undeserving team with a No. 8 seed has a three-pronged effect. Wisconsin’s first-round opponent is playing a team that has no business in the No. 8/No. 9 first-round game. (Sorry, Virginia Tech.) Wisconsin is placed in a situation where a potential second-round game comes against a heavily favored No. 1 seed. (Sorry, Wisconsin – if Villanova’s last-second shot falls.) And, in the scenario we just saw happen in Buffalo, that same No. 1 is placed in a situation where a potential second-round game comes against an opponent far superior to the seed adjacent to its name. (Throw in the fact that the committee put Duke as the No. 2 seed in Villanova’s region and the whole thing was just one giant flip-off to Villanova.).
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The selection committee doesn’t win or lose games for a basketball team. Wisconsin advanced to the Sweet 16 on its own merits, and Villanova didn’t because the Wildcats failed to dictate the pace of play, were unable to move the ball around as well as they usually do, saw their most important player go 2-of-9 from the field in a six-point performance and couldn’t get the stop or the score when they needed it most.
At some point in the tournament, Villanova was going to play a good team that could have brought out such a performance and a resulting loss. But Saturday was far too early for that.