There won't be much suspense about anything that really matters regarding the elite seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament. The same five teams are sitting at or near the top of all current polls or computer ratings. They're the same teams that have been there all season.
CURRENT USA TODAY/ESPN RANKINGS
CURRENT USA TODAY COMPUTER RANKINGS
It would be hard to argue with either set of rankings, even though North Carolina is 5th in one and first in the other. So little separates these teams that it's an act of futility to try and separate them. Barring a stunning series of events, four of these teams will get #1 seeds. The fifth team will get top bracketing consideration amongst the #2 seeds (meaning they'll be set up to face the worst of the #1 seeds in the round of eight).
To prepare for this article I tabulated the current ratings from the two previously mentioned sources, as well as the rankings at kenpom.com (created by college hoops fanatic Ken Pomeroy) and the RPI (ratings percentage index) that should be familiar to you college basketball fans. Here's how the "big five" look if you average the rankings of those four sources:
1...North Carolina (2.3 average ranking)
2...Ohio State (3.3 average ranking)
3...UCLA (3.5 average ranking)
4...Florida (4.0 average ranking)
5...Wisconsin (4.8 average ranking)
In terms of geography, the top four line up pretty well for what the selection committee needs. North Carolina and Florida would get either an East or a South spot. Ohio State (or Wisconsin if they rally to look like the best team in the Big Ten) would get the Midwest spot. UCLA would get the West spot.
I compiled those average rankings for all teams currently slotted in the USA Today/ESPN top 15. I then added in Duke and Kentucky because they appeared in the top 15 in some of the other spots while sitting outside that threshold in the polls. Here are the averages after the "big five."
Texas A&M: 8.0
Air Force: 15.3
Southern Illinois: 17.0
Washington State: 17.5
All of those teams with an eight by their name will be battling the odd team out of the one seeds for a number two seed. One will have to slide back to be a three seed. Based on the numbers above, Duke would register as a three seed even though many posters here at the website (myself included) don't really see them as anything better than a middle-of-the-pack ACC team. It will be very interesting to see if Air Force and Southern Illinois get seeding respect. The mid-majors have been gradually earning respect in recent seasons. Gonzaga had some trouble living up to its high seedings in recent seasons, though. Would the committee be willing to seed BOTH Air Force and Southern Illinois in the top 16?
Analysts and handicappers will be tempted to find clues that may help separate the top teams in a way that sheds light on potential championship runs. Truthfully, I think that's futile. All the "A" teams are capable of losing to "A-minus" or "B" teams in a 40-minute sprint on a neutral floor. You can make the case that competitive balance in college hoops has created a scenario where all teams seeded about 13th or better would qualify as at least "B" teams. Some of the lesser seeded teams may be that good as well. Remember that 15th seed Winthrop almost upset #2 Tennessee in an opening round game last year.
I was scrolling through some of the material I posted here at the website last season. Some numbers from the opening weekend of the Dance jumped out at me. I decided to cut and paste them in here.
What you're about to see are the average victory margins for each of the first round seed pairings. Those averages are followed by what I called at the time a "diving average," which is simply the average if you throw out the high and low score. This can help reduce the influence that abnormal results have on an average in a small sample (and is taken from how Olympic diving competitions were judged to counteract Cold War biases when I was growing up).
Here we go...(average "win" listed for superior seed)
1-16: average win was 14.5 points, diving average: 14.5
2-15: average win was 13.0 points, diving average: 8.0
3-14: average win was 8.8 points, diving average: 4.0
4-13: average win was 5.3 points, diving average: 4.5
5-12: average win was 3.3 points, diving average: 3.0
6-11: average win was 0.5 points, diving average: -2.0
7-10: average win was 3.5 points, diving average: even
8-9: average win was 5.0 points, diving average: 2.5
Look at how small those margins are across the full spectrum. The superpowers only won by about 15 points per game vs. the worst of the automatic qualifiers. The 2-15 games were largely competitive (more clear in the diving average). Everything else was a set of nailbiters. The games from 5-12 through 8-9 were decided in the diving average by a three-pointer or less. Even the 3-14 and 4-13 games only showed edges in the 4-5 point range in terms of their diving averages.
When the teams are this evenly matched, the seedings just don't matter that much. Whoever eventually wins the title will have to play very well and catch some breaks along the way. The powers enjoy the perk of getting a virtual bye in the first round against a team typically ranked in the high 100's or low 200's. That didn't help the top seeds much last year. It just means they get one less coin flip game amongst the six needed to go all the way.
Does this mean handicapping the Big Dance is futile? Depends on how you define "handicapping." We had several discussions last year in the Mess Hall at MajorWager.com which basically showed that individual game handicapping was a waste of time. It didn't matter if Team A had some clear edges over Team B. Anything could happen in 40 minutes on a neutral court. Just taking underdogs in games with a spread of six or less consistently grinded out a profit (though it lost championship night). Recognizing that most of the games were true pick-ems where you should just take the points can either be called handicapping or a lack of handicapping.
It won last year. I wouldn't be surprised if it wins this year. Maybe this time around we can adjust our perceptions going in. Instead of trying to find differences between the big name teams, we can look for illusions about pseudo-differences that the media is perpetuating.
Almost everything said on the CBS and ESPN "announcement" shows turned out to be irrelevant in terms of how the top teams would fare. That's going to happen again. If we just take the dogs of 0-6 in neutral site conference tournaments and the Big Dance, we have a good shot at 55-58% or better. Maybe we can find the elements hyped by the media that are warping the lines in the right direction. And, maybe we can discover new elements that are creating the coin flip tendencies we've been seeing in recent seasons.
Watch some games with the volume down and let us know what you see!