NCAA men's basketball: Selection committee's job will be tougher than usual this year

Posted Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Spotlight: Kentucky at the crossroads

After climbing back into the polls with a five-game winning streak, No. 25 Kentucky (17-8, 8-4 SEC) finds its postseason hopes back on the ropes because of Tuesday's season-ending knee injury to freshman center Nerlens Noel, the nation's leader in blocked shots (4.4 per game).

Noel, a 6-foot-10 standout who also averaged 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest, tore the ACL in his left knee during a 69-52 loss to No. 7 Florida. Kentucky followed up with Saturday's 88-58 loss to unranked Tennessee.

Noel's absence raises questions about whether the defending national champs will make the field for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

In a statement, Kentucky coach John Calipari called the injury "devastating" but said Noel has a positive outlook and should "come back stronger than ever" -- likely as an NBA rookie next season. But in terms of defending their NCAA title, the Wildcats' hopes now rest on 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, Noel's backup-turned-starter.

Asked about Kentucky's hopes for an at-large bid, NCAA basketball committee chairman Mike Bobinski said, "It's truly a shame what's happened to Nerlens Noel ... How they perform without him in the lineup will really tell the story, I think, of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky. It's way too early to consider them in, out or in-between."

Storylines

Huggins reunion: West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who previously worked at No. 10 Kansas State (20-5, 9-3 Big 12), takes the Mountaineers (13-12, 6-6) to Manhattan, Kan., tonight (8 p.m., ESPN) for a key league game.

Mountain West mayhem: Six of nine teams in the Mountain West spent the past week ranked among the nation's top 65 teams in RPI, with five in Sunday's top 42. Although only No. 19 New Mexico (22-4, 9-2) and No. 24 Colorado State (21-4, 8-2) made the AP poll, the list of NCAA at-large contenders also includes San Diego State (18-7, 6-5), UNLV (19-7, 6-5), Air Force (15-9, 6-5) and Boise State (16-8, 4-6).

Big game in Big Ten: The league lead will be on the line Tuesday (6 p.m., ESPN) when No. 1 Indiana (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten) plays at No. 8 Michigan State (22-4, 11-2). The Spartans seek payback for a 75-70 loss at Indiana on Jan. 27, the team's lone setback in its last 12 games.

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A mock bracket exercise designed to familiarize newcomers on the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee with the challenges of creating the 68-team field in March provided more clarity than expected for participants in Indianapolis.

Mike Bobinski, the committee chairman who oversaw the three-day session that ended Friday, said lots of tournament veterans had their eyes opened, too.

He predicted it will be more difficult than normal in a parity-filled season to identify college basketball's top team, let alone place 68 schools in a meaningful pecking order for seeding purposes. After all, No. 1 Indiana just became the first school in six weeks to complete a full week at the top of the college basketball polls without sustaining a loss.

And the Hoosiers (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten) are merely one of five teams to receive at least one No. 1 ballot from voters in this week's polls.

"I think our job will be as challenging, maybe even a little bit more so, than years gone by from a seeding perspective," Bobinski said in a conference call. "It appears that we're going to have a lot of teams that look and feel alike. ... I think this type of field will give us even more madness than we're used to in March."

So place all the power programs on upset alert and monitor the RPI rankings regularly between now and March. Each school's RPI, which changes daily, is merely one of a dozen tools that will be used to seed teams for the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 19-20 with the First Four matchups in Dayton, Ohio.

Although committee members are not required to lean on one piece of data more than others during the seeding process, it is interesting that Bobinski said NCAA officials recently asked a statistician to compare the performances of "all the major different rankings that exist" in college basketball and determine how well those evaluations correlate to performance in the tournament. The result?

"The RPI actually did end up with the highest level of predictive value and the highest correlation with, ultimately, success in the tournament," Bobinski said. "That doesn't mean we're going to use it more or less this year. It's just a very interesting piece of information."

OK, that's the public spin. But let's be clear: If Bobinski chairs the committee and considers this a "very interesting piece of information," rest assured it will be emphasized behind closed doors. Strong RPI rankings and winning records in league play helped the final four teams on Friday's mock ballot -- Baylor (16-9), California (15-9), Virginia (18-7) and Iowa State (17-8) -- squeeze into the faux field.

What does that mean to elite teams' chances in March, based on the latest RPI results?

It tells us that New Mexico (22-4), the No. 19 team in the AP poll and the leader in the Mountain West standings, is the country's most underrated team. The Lobos rank third in RPI and, like unranked Oklahoma (16-8, 18th in RPI), figure to surprise fans with loftier-than-expected NCAA seeds if they avoid late-season collapses.

Conversely, the RPI rankings do not dote as heavily as poll voters on top-ranked Indiana (11th in RPI) or No. 10 Kansas State (19th in RPI), two teams that may not be as locked and loaded for elite March seeds as their fans believe.

But much can change, and will, over the final month of the regular season. Sunday's latest NCAA bracketology projections show the top four seeds in March, based on AP rankings, will be No. 3 Miami (21-3), No. 7 Florida (21-3), No. 1 Indiana and No. 2 Duke (22-3).

It's hard to argue with that group. It's also hard to rule out potential top seeds for No. 4 Michigan (22-4), No. 5 Gonzaga (25-2), No. 6 Syracuse (21-4), No. 8 Michigan State (22-4), No. 12 Louisville (21-5) or No. 14 Kansas (21-4). All are tracking today as second or third seeds.

Bobinski made it clear that Kansas and Louisville will not be punished excessively for recent three-game losing streaks because both schools posted double-digit winning streaks (18 for Kansas, 11 for Louisville) and reached the top spot in at least one poll during their hot streaks.

"It is our job as a committee to take a full season's perspective and get a little longer view on things," Bobinski said. "We try not to react minute to minute, game to game, day to day."

But committee members must act in March. And Bobinski, at this juncture, has drawn only one iron-clad conclusion about this season.

"It seems like the worst thing that can happen to you is you ascend to the top spot," Bobinski said of the weekly polls, "because you're bound to get beaten quickly thereafter."

One month before the bracket is set for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, that seems to be the lone certainty of this topsy-turvy season in college basketball.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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