No two teams during this season have filled the inbox or elicited more comments than Delaware and Green Bay. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to where the two should be seeded, or at least how they should be evaluated. Despite all the input, these two outstanding mid-majors remain two of the more difficult teams to pinpoint just how the committee will view them.
The Blue Hens have one of the best players in the country in Elena Della Donne and are having the best season in school history at 26-1, but the question remains: Exactly how good are they? The cries for Delaware to be a No. 2 seed have been loud. Others are convinced that's far too high. The answer isn't easy.
Although the CAA is no pushover league, it isn't the SEC, either. Delaware has done what it needed to do within the conference in going undefeated with just one game left, but how does that translate? Could the Hens do that in the ACC or Big East? Does such a hypothetical even matter? These are areas of interpretation.
Here's what we do know: James Madison is the only other team in the Colonial that warrants any kind of NCAA tournament consideration, and that is even fringe status at this point. That means that Delaware has played just one tournament-worthy opponent since the calendar turned to 2012. Meanwhile, every other team in play for a No. 2 seed has played multiple games of that caliber.
The other element that makes Delaware a tough call is that there really isn't any truly applicable recent history to shed some light. The closest comparison might be the 2009 South Dakota State squad that went 31-2 overall and 17-1 in the Summit League and had an RPI of 23. That Jackrabbits team received a No. 7 seed. There is also the Green Bay club of last season. The Phoenix were 32-1, unbeaten in the Horizon with an RPI of 22 and ultimately a No. 5 seed.
This would suggest Delaware is probably looking at a No. 4 or 5. However, the problem is that this comparison doesn't quite hit the mark. SDSU lost a conference game in 2009 and had a strength of schedule of 131. Green Bay's SOS last year was 163. Delaware's RPI is in the top 10 this season, and the SOS is now hovering around 50. The basic metrics are far better with the Blue Hens. Plus, the CAA is just a better league than the Summit or Horizon, which at least in part accounts for the difference in SOS.
Delaware also had an early-season run of consecutive wins over Penn State (became the Big Ten's best) and at Villanova (since faded), St. Bonaventure (much better than expected) and Princeton (about what we expected). Three of those teams are going to the NCAA tournament. None of the mid-majors in recent history that were able to finish the season with just one loss were able to even approach that kind of nonconference success.
That is why the Blue Hens have landed on the No. 3 seed line the past two weeks. They have had the best mid-major season in the past decade, even better than the 2004 Houston team that finished in the top 10 of the RPI and received a No. 3 seed. But those Cougars lost a Conference USA game and had three overall losses.
So how about a No. 2 then?
That's where the restrictions of the conference competition and Delaware's lack of games that can be used as true measuring sticks hurt the Hens. As good as the résumé looks historically, it simply can't measure up even in RPI and SOS to that of Miami, Duke, Maryland and Tennessee. The Hens have risen to their highest position on the S-curve all season this week (11), but even that also puts them behind Kentucky and Penn State. The competition is just too steep for Delaware to get higher than a No. 3.
This season's Green Bay team became a much easier case than Delaware after it lost a Horizon League game to Detroit two and a half weeks ago. Suddenly, the Phoenix looked much like last year's club from an evaluation standpoint. So while some were calling for a No. 2 seed for Green Bay earlier in the year, a No. 5 is the ceiling now. This week, the Phoenix are a No. 6, but not because they did anything to drop. Julie Wojta & Co. have just been outdone and surpassed by other teams doing more against better opposition.
Here are some of the other teams that have been the most difficult to evaluate all season:
North Carolina: The Tar Heels' high RPI that has hovered in the 70s and 80s (largely thanks to some all-or-nothing nonconference scheduling) most of the season has been the biggest reason Carolina has been so perplexing. Complicating things even further is that the Sagarin ratings -- another tool to measure teams that takes some other elements, including margin of victory, into account more than RPI -- has had UNC in the low 40s. That discrepancy alone makes the Tar Heels harder to gauge, but even more interesting is North Carolina's propensity to get absolutely whacked in many of their games against their best competition. South Carolina (31), UConn (51), Duke (40) and Miami (24) have all put up huge margins of victory over North Carolina. At the same time, the Tar Heels beat Miami and on Sunday played Duke into the final minutes. Just having to play both of the league's top teams was a rarity in the ACC's schedule this season. The Heels have more top-50 wins than Louisville, Florida and Virginia and as many as Purdue. This club has so many contradictions to contemplate. Ultimately, the Tar Heels look like one of the best 33 at-large teams, but that is anything but clear.
Kansas State: The Wildcats are the opposite of the Tar Heels both in scheduling and the metrics they've produced. The RPI for Kansas State has been in the top 15 almost the entire season, even as the losses have begun to pile up more frequently down the stretch (3-4 in the past seven), but in no way do the Wildcats look that good off paper. The quality of the schedule is what is keeping Kansas State's number high. Playing in the Big 12 helps. The conference doesn't offer many, if any, nights off. So while it doesn't have as many high-quality teams as it has in recent years, the depth remains.
The Wildcats' nonconference schedule looks very much like the conference slate. They didn't play any elite teams and were able to do fairly well, but they also kept the absolute 'dogs to an extreme minimum so as not to drag down that SOS. All of Carolina's quality teams were much better than what Kansas State faced in the nonconference, but the Heels also played nine sub-250 RPI opponents. Ultimately, the Wildcats fare better in the field, but their numbers are still very misleading, making their exact spot in the field harder to nail down.
Oklahoma: The Sooners did almost nothing in the nonconference, but at least played some decent competition (Vanderbilt, Fresno State, Ohio State). That kept the SOS high. Subsequently, Oklahoma has had a solid Big 12 season despite never having a winning streak longer than three games and currently ranking in third place. A top-20 RPI and top-10 SOS say a No. 4 or 5 seed. The 18-10 record, however, says a No. 9 or 10 seed. With all the other factors the committee takes into consideration, that probably leaves the Sooners somewhere in the middle, but that is a less confident evaluation of a team that is capable of completely handling Texas A&M one night and then getting manhandled by Texas four days later.
Texas: Speaking of the Longhorns, they get back into the field as the last team in this week and might be the most challenging call. How else is there to look at a team that is merely 16-12 overall and 6-10 in the Big 12, yet has eight wins over other teams under consideration in the at-large pool? Texas was good enough early in the season to beat Cal, Virginia (which was fresh off a win over Tennessee, which in turn happened to be fresh off a victory over Miami) and Michigan State. The Longhorns also managed to lose four straight conference games at one point and lost at Kansas by 24 and at Kansas State by 20. But perhaps the most interesting part about the Longhorns' story is that, excluding a slightly smaller overall winning percentage and one more conference loss, they have a better profile than last year. Controversial as it might have been, that 2011 Texas team did make the NCAA tournament.
In this week's field, the Longhorns just barely got the nod over Southern California and Dayton. Evaluating these three teams next to one another was one of the hardest parts of the week. Dayton has been outstanding in the Atlantic 10 but doesn't have a top-50 win. USC's RPI is much better than that of Texas. (Interestingly, though, Texas is 13 spots better in the Sagarin ratings.) The overall records of the Trojans and Longhorns are similar, and USC has been four games better in the Pac-12 than Texas has been in the Big 12. USC has also won four in a row. But Texas has more quality wins (eight to five) than USC, and since Jacki Gemelos went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Trojans' only true claim is that they beat Cal twice. Throw all that and more into a blender, and Texas floats to the top -- barely. All three bring different credentials in different categories to the table. Sorting those out is why this can be so tough.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.