A combined 73 losses by top-10 teams speak to the parity in college basketball this season. That’s the most losses in a regular season in The Associated Press poll era (beginning in 1948-49). Without a dominant team in the sport, conference tournaments will go a long way toward seeding for the NCAA tournament.
But what if the season ended today? Who should be the four No. 1 seeds?
To answer this question, we turn to ESPN’s Strength of Record (SOR), which measures how difficult it is to achieve a team’s record, given its schedule (not accounting for scoring margin). We also use BPI, which is a forward-looking power rating that utilizes a team’s pace-adjusted scoring margin to measure how well a team has performed and how powerful it is likely to be in the future.
At the center of the debate is the question: “Which matters more: being the best, or being the most deserving?”
SOR Rank: 1st | BPI Rank: 6th
According to SOR, Kansas’ résumé has been the most difficult to achieve this season. Three of the Jayhawks’ four losses have been on the road or on a neutral court against teams in the BPI top 20. It is unlikely that many teams would have been expected to win those games, so they don’t hurt the Jayhawks. On the other side, they have two wins over Oklahoma (seventh in BPI) and six wins against teams in the BPI top 35.
SOR Rank: 2nd | BPI Rank: 3rd
Villanova lost two games in which it was favored to win by BPI: against Oklahoma on a neutral court and at home versus Providence. Its other losses were at Virginia and at Xavier (second and 13th in BPI, respectively). Villanova is projected for 26.9 wins on average, the most among major conference teams.
SOR Rank: 3rd | BPI Rank: 9th
Miami is 12-2 against BPI top-50 teams, the most wins in such games in the nation. One thing BPI sees that SOR cannot is scoring margin. Miami’s two losses in its past 10 games were by 16 points (to North Carolina State) and 25 points (to North Carolina ). Three of the wins were by three points or fewer. As a result, BPI doesn’t view Miami as strongly as some of the other schools.
SOR Rank: 4th | BPI Rank: 13th
Xavier’s strength is its lack of losses. The Musketeers are 25-4, and their only remaining regular-season game is at home against Creighton (Xavier has an 83 percent chance to win that game, per BPI). Xavier boasts eight wins on the road or on a neutral court against BPI top-100 teams and hasn’t lost to a team outside the BPI top 100.
SOR Rank: 5th | BPI Rank: 2nd
Virginia has the No. 1 BPI in home games. Its road résumé, however, is not as strong. All six of its losses have been on the road, against BPI top-100 teams, and by seven points or fewer. Those close losses could be a sign of strength going forward.
SOR Rank: 6th | BPI Rank: 7th
Oklahoma has missed opportunities that might keep it off the top line in the tournament. In conference play, the Sooners have played seven road games against teams ranked 51st or higher in BPI (going 2-5). Oklahoma lost both of its games to Kansas, but Strength of Record does not factor in that both of those games were close. If the Sooners were to win the Big 12 tournament, it would be hard to keep them off the top line: BPI views it as the best conference in the nation.
SOR Rank: 7th | BPI Rank: 4th
Michigan State has three losses by one point, two against BPI top-100 teams (both on the road, one of which went to overtime). It’s possible a trio of well-timed bounces throughout the course of each game in its favor could have done Michigan State wonders. Those three one-point setbacks are all that separate the Spartans from being Division I’s only two-loss team. To Strength of Record, a loss is a loss, and margin of defeat isn’t taken into consideration.
SOR Rank: 8th | BPI Rank: 1st
North Carolina sits at the center of the “best vs. most deserving” debate. Strength of Record treats the Tar Heels’ loss on the road at Northern Iowa as a loss to a team outside the BPI top 100 but doesn’t recognize it was a close loss without Marcus Paige. It also doesn’t recognize that its other five losses, all to BPI top-35 teams, were by six points or fewer. BPI recognizes subtleties about the losses and views the Tar Heels as the best team in the nation going forward.
Determining which teams deserve top seeds is a bit like splitting hairs. The parity of the season has made it difficult to see through the uncertainty surrounding the top teams in the nation. A bounce or two in different directions could have significantly changed the résumés of several of these teams. The selection committee’s job is not one to envy, especially in a season such as this.