Tennessee as a No. 1 seed? Stanford still a top-20 team? No Princeton?
Those were the biggest surprises Wednesday as the NCAA selection committee revealed its current top 20 teams just four and a half weeks ahead of unveiling the real NCAA tournament bracket.
The committee said its first-ever pre-Selection Monday reveal was intended to give the teams that might potentially host first- and second-round games a heads up.
But while it's great to be talking about the women's NCAA tournament in mid-February, Wednesday's "reveal" fell short of revealing too much; the four current No. 1 seeds were unveiled, but after that, teams five through 20 were listed alphabetically.
Still, the idea of an in-season check-in was a rousing success for the inaugural College Football Playoff. And, in this case, the women beat their male counterparts on a good idea -- word is that the men's selection committee is planning a similar reveal next year.
The takeaways are not monumental, but they gave us insight into how the committee members could be thinking on one very special night in March.
So let's take a closer look at the committee's most interesting decisions.
Tennessee -- not Baylor -- is the fourth No. 1 seed
This wasn't an outlandish choice, but it is surprising. The Lady Vols are the nation's top RPI team and have played its second-most difficult schedule. They are unbeaten in the SEC, arguably the deepest conference in the country. But Tennessee hasn't been the fourth-best team in the country from start to finish this season. There have been too many lackluster nights. And let's face it, the Lady Vols are one point away from not even being in this conversation; two weeks ago, they eked out a 73-72 win over Kentucky. One more Wildcats basket that night and Tennessee as a No. 1 seed is not even debatable. Should one basket be the difference? In this case it might have been.
Debatable: Baylor is the more deserving team as the fourth No. 1 seed. Maryland also is probably a better choice than Tennessee. The Lady Bears have lost just one game, and it was to a top-10 RPI team (Kentucky) on the road. It's not as if Baylor built its 22-1 record against bad teams; the Lady Bears are No. 2 in the RPI with a top-15 strength of schedule (SOS). That's solid No. 1-seed stuff. If it's top-50 wins the committee wants, then Maryland could be the pick (the Terps have 11, Tennessee has 10 and Baylor only four). And the Terps (22-2) have a better win-loss record than Tennessee (20-3) against a schedule rated just slightly behind the overall strength of Baylor. The Lady Vols still seem like the third-best of this elite bunch vying for that last spot on the top line.
What we learned: The committee has always rolled a number of criterion into a big pot and stirred, one measure not necessarily more important than another. However, this seems to tell us that winning percentage might not hold as much weight as some other areas. In a race so close in all the other analytics, it seems the better win-loss record would win out. Not here. If something like a tiebreaker even exists in this process, it appears RPI and SOS were it.
While it is important to note that Wednesday's reveal has no bearing on the actual tournament field, the decisions came from the same people who will have the final say in March. So we get a glimpse into how the committee is voting and can assume that the same thought process -- while not necessarily producing the same results -- will go into the final selections. Tennessee over Baylor and Maryland seems to indicate that playing tougher teams and winning most of them counts slightly more than winning more games against slightly weaker opponents. Frankly, that isn't terribly different from the past.
Princeton omitted from the top 20
After South Carolina's loss at Connecticut, Princeton is the only remaining unbeaten team in the country. With nothing but Ivy League opponents the rest of the way and the fact that the Tigers already have handily disposed of the five conference foes they've faced, it's a solid bet Princeton will end the regular season undefeated. That doesn't appear to matter, at least in terms of being one of the best 20 teams in the country in the committee's eyes. The Tigers were not part of the announcement despite the gaudy record, which means that today, at best, Princeton would be a No. 6 seed.
Debatable: Many are wondering how an undefeated team, whomever it happens to be, isn't among the nation's top-20 teams. Princeton's RPI is 19 and Jeff Sagarin has the Tigers rated No 6. However, the fact is that the SOS and quality wins just don't measure up (as is traditionally the case most seasons for Ivy League schools). Sure, the Tigers' record is unblemished, but would it be against a schedule that didn't rank 119th? The committee's answer essentially is no.
Princeton's two best wins, the only two in the top 50, were over Pittsburgh and Michigan, both by convincing margins. The committee is saying that isn't enough to make a top-20 team. Historical side note: In 2011, Green Bay went 32-1 with a 1-1 record against the only two top-50 teams it played, and had an RPI/SOS of 22/163. The Phoenix, in a sense, received a top-20 placement with a No. 5 seeding. Princeton's profile, at this point, is better than that.
What we learned: If Princeton didn't make the cut Wednesday, don't expect a top-five seed next month, either. The Tigers' profile, even while remaining unbeaten, will actually look worse then. Of Princeton's remaining schedule, only two teams (Penn and Cornell) rank within the top-100 teams. Also, the win over Michigan won't look as impressive as the Wolverines continue to fade. At No. 49 in the RPI right now there is a chance Michigan won't even qualify as a top-50 win by season's end. The Tigers have peaked in terms of their NCAA tournament position and undefeated or not, weren't able to get into the committee's top 20. The Tigers still should end up with the best seed ever for an Ivy participant (the previous best was a No. 9 seed for Princeton in 2012 and 2013), but it won't be monumentally historic.
Two seven-loss teams included
While it doesn't seem as important now, perhaps the most surprising decision made in Indianapolis over the last few days was the inclusion of Stanford and Oklahoma despite both teams having seven losses. Let's throw in six-loss Texas A&M. too. The Aggies haven't beaten a good team in a month. To be fully transparent, none of these three teams were included among the top 20 of Sunday night's Bracketology, which included Rutgers, Princeton and Mississippi State instead.
Debatable: Most of the committees of the past, despite the assertions and false assumptions of the fans, have not succumbed to tradition in their decision-making. This one is a little bit harder to rationalize without that element being thrown in the mix. All three of these teams are traditional powers or have some recent history of big-time success. None of them, however, are having top-20 seasons.
None of them are playing particularly well right now. None are in the top 20 of the RPI (since RPI seems to be the argument for Tennessee as a No. 1 seed). None, with the possible exception of the Sooners, has played a special or highly ranked schedule.
The UConn win must be carrying weight for Stanford because the Cardinal, at just 17-7, haven't beaten a good team since, save two wins over Washington. Sunday, they lost to No. 166 Arizona.
A young Oklahoma team got off to a rough start to the season, then rebounded nicely to get back into the NCAA tournament mix. But the Sooners have been just average lately, and a 15-7 record with just one top-50 win outside the Big 12 (whose status as the top RPI conference is actually the biggest head-scratcher in this entire process) just isn't top-five seed material.
The Aggies are 18-6 but are a .500 team on the road and haven't beaten a top-50 team since the first week of January. Their last win against a team even in the tournament conversation was four weeks ago over LSU. Mississippi State and Rutgers appear to be much more worthy of a spot in the top 20.
What we learned: The top-25 poll voters usually are the the only culprits in succumbing to tradition. It appears that somehow happened to the committee here. The other takeaway is the importance of schedule strength.
Mississippi State, having its best season in years at 23-3, has some issues with its nonconference schedule strength, but the Bulldogs are having a better season than Texas A&M, including a win Sunday over the Aggies. While not saying that the decision explicitly came down to a vote between these two, the only area where the Bulldogs fall short are the metrics that account for schedule strength. That would be the only argument upon which the committee could lean.
Oklahoma was No. 29 on the Bracketology board last week. The Sooners' No. 10 schedule strength is the only rationale to support why that ranking, rather than one in the top 20, could be wrong.
Strength of schedule, particularly in the nonconference, carried an amount of weight here. That is a pretty good signal for what is to happen in five weeks.