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Cards and Cats seeded too low?

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the 2014 NCAA tournament bracket involves two in-state rivals with A-list head coaches, lofty preseason expectations and a national championship from the past two seasons: Louisville and Kentucky.

Not only did both teams wind up in the Midwest Region, but they also were placed in the same half of that bracket, meaning the Sweet 16 could feature a rematch of the teams' earlier meeting this season (won by Kentucky).

Both teams were seeded well below their quality, according to advanced team rating systems as well as many fans and experts The implications of this "mis-seeding" go beyond hurting the feelings of Rick Pitino and John Calipari. It has a real effect on each team's chances to get back to another Final Four, as well as the chances for other teams unfortunate enough to be in their section of the Midwest bracket -- most notably the region's No. 1 seed, undefeated Wichita State.


Where should Louisville and Kentucky be seeded?

In Louisville's case, being ranked No. 19 in RPI stands in stark contrast to its top-five rankings in both ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) and some of the other well-known systems out there. As Nate Silver points out at FiveThirtyEight, the NCAA tournament selection committee's insistence on using RPI appears to be the only reason the Cardinals were seeded that low.

Kentucky ranks similarly in the systems that involve point margin as it does in RPI, but a lack of "quality wins" (only one against the RPI top 25 and four against the top 50) resulted in a low seed.

Rankings on Selection Sunday

The difference in Louisville's ranking in the more advanced systems compared with the RPI can be traced to scoring margin (which RPI ignores). The Cardinals' five losses were all by single digits to BPI top-50 opponents. On the flip side, they have 19 wins by 20 or more points, five more than any other team in Division I this season.

Outside of two of Kentucky's losses to BPI No. 2 Florida, each of its defeats came by five points or fewer (six of those were away from home to teams ranked 60th or better). And with a top-10 schedule, BPI forgives the losses and looks at the Wildcats as a team that has competed in nearly every game against tough competition.

The conclusion from all this is that Kentucky ended up as one of the most underseeded teams in the field according to BPI, with Louisville not far behind. Based on our rating system, Louisville is more like a 1-seed than a 4-seed, while Kentucky's strength is in line with a 3- or 4-seed rather than an 8-seed.

More than fairness is at stake. The low seedings have real consequences for Louisville's and Kentucky's chances of success in the tournament -- and might also affect the odds for the top seed in the Midwest Region, the undefeated Wichita State Shockers.


How a low seeding hurts Louisville

First, consider the Cardinals. Our BPI NCAA tournament projections show that they have about a 2-in-3 chance of making the Sweet 16 and a 1-in-4 chance of making the Final Four with the bracket as it stands.

But imagine an alternate reality in which Louisville received the final No. 1 seed -- the one that went to Virginia in the East Region -- as BPI would suggest. Obviously this would require the Cavaliers to be moved somewhere else and would affect other parts of the bracket, but let's assume the only change in the East Region is that Louisville moves into Virginia's spot.

In that case, the Cardinals' chances of advancing rise a few percentage points, up to more than 75 percent to make the Sweet 16 and nearly 1-in-3 to make it to North Texas in a couple of weekends. While the differences might not seem huge, being a No. 1 seed would present a stronger opportunity that Pitino and the Cards certainly wouldn't turn down as they start their uphill climb back to the top.

The other thing to keep in mind with Louisville is the high variance in the performance of No. 4 seeds in the last two NCAA tournaments. As the chart below shows, the advancement of the eight 4-seeds in that span has been quite strongly correlated with their BPI rank entering the tournament. The three teams with BPI ranks in the top 11 each made the Final Four (including the Cardinals from two years ago), and the two teams thought to be very overseeded at No. 4 each lost in the round of 64.

Given Louisville's BPI rank of fourth, which is better than that of any other top-four seed in the three years of official BPI, it certainly wouldn't be shocking to see Russ Smith & Co. make a third straight run to the Final Four despite the low seeding. They'll just have to work a little harder to defend their title.


How a low seeding hurts Kentucky

Reseeding Kentucky according to BPI would provide a more dramatic shift in the Wildcats' chances of advancement.

If Coach Cal & Co. were given the No. 3 seed in the West Region -- the spot currently occupied by Creighton -- they would become the second-best team in that region by BPI, as opposed to being the fourth best in the Midwest Region. As a consequence, their chances of advancing to the Sweet 16 would shoot up by more than 35 percentage points, and their chances of getting to the Final Four would nearly double!

So yes, Coach Cal may have a bone to pick with the committee for seeding his team several lines below where its overall strength would indicate.


How both low seedings hurt Wichita State

But Pitino and Calipari aren't the only coaches who have a justifiable gripe. Shockers coach Gregg Marshall is probably quite unhappy about the effect this double Bluegrass underseeding has on his top-seeded Wichita State team.

If form holds, the Shockers will have to face Kentucky in the round of 32 and Louisville in the Sweet 16. This tough draw gives them the lowest probability of any No. 1 seed to reach the Elite Eight, at 39 percent. Assuming the Shockers advance that far, Wichita State actually has a better chance of winning its Elite Eight matchup (against most likely Duke or Michigan) than either of the two prior rounds.

If the Cardinals and Wildcats were replaced by teams more befitting those seeds -- say BPI No. 14 Syracuse and No. 30 Saint Louis -- then Wichita State would have slightly better than even odds to improve to 37-0 and play for a return trip to the Final Four.

But as it stands, Kentucky or Louisville might end the Shockers' undefeated season before they can even make it that far. Such is the consequence of placing three of the top 10 teams in the same section of the bracket.

Alok Pattani is a senior analytics specialist for ESPN Stats and Info.