RTC Top 25: NCAA Tournament Prognostication EditionPosted by Andrew Murawa on February 25th, 2014
Yesterday we released our regular weekly RTC Top 25, where each of eight voters picks their Top 25 in much the same manner as any Top 25 poll across the land. Today, however, we asked that same panel of voters to pick a Top 25 with a different, more focused, question: Rank the top 25 teams in the nation according to their likelihoods to advance the furthest in the NCAA Tournament. In other words, the teams you see pollsters below picking #1 are not necessarily the teams that are the best in the nation today, or those with the best resumes, but rather the teams our eight pollsters view as most likely to emerge from March Madness with the honor of cutting down the nets in Cowboys Stadium. Let’s get right to it, then stay with us for plenty of analysis after the jump, comparing the selections of the different pollsters as well as comparisons between our normal Top 25 and this special edition NCAA Tournament Prognostication Top 25.
Quick n’ dirty analysis:
- Kansas Is The Favorite. Half of our pollsters picked the Jayhawks as the team to beat come March, with none of the eight picking Bill Self’s squad any lower than a favorite to advance to the Final Four. While there are those who aren’t sold on Kansas as the odds-on favorite, there aren’t any among the group that question their potential for a serious run through March and into April.
- Florida, Arizona and Michigan State. The Gators and Wildcats each earned a pair of number one votes as well, and while there were a handful of voters who were relatively down on them (a couple #6 votes for Florida and a couple #5 votes for Arizona), prospects are still clearly high for both teams. Michigan State, on the other hand, is the big surprise in this poll, at least compared to our usual Monday poll. Following their loss to Michigan over the weekend, the Spartans dropped to #16 in this week’s RTC25 – their lowest ranking of the season. Still, while nobody was willing to go all-in with Tom Izzo’s team, six of our eight voters picked them as a Final Four team, while nobody among the group was willing to go lower than #6 with Sparty.
- Believing In Blue. Kentucky hasn’t done a whole lot this season to deserve much confidence, but our pollsters as a whole can’t overlook all the talent on that roster with the thought of a late run. While the Wildcats were just inside the top 20 in this week’s poll, they’re in the top 10 here.
- Major Distrust of Mid-Majors. We’ve got four teams from outside of what are now the seven power conferences, and three of those four teams took a major hit in this poll compared with our regular weekly poll. Wichita State reached a new high-water mark yesterday in our poll, checking in at #3, but despite six of our eight voters picking them as an Elite Eight team, they fell five spots in this poll. Saint Louis, who checked in just outside the top 10 in yesterday’s poll, fared even worse, dropping nine spots to #20 in our list of March favorites. And San Diego State? The Aztecs were in the RTC top five just two weeks ago, but today only two of our eight voters see the Aztecs as even a borderline Sweet Sixteen team, with one of them neglecting to rank them at all. Only New Mexico came away unscathed, just barely checking in inside our Top 25.
- Big Differences of Opinions. There are several teams on which our pollsters differ widely. Syracuse, the #1 team in the nation as recently as last week, is still a major national title contender according to a couple of our pollsters, with another putting them outside of his top 10, and the remaining five falling somewhere in the middle. Likewise, Creighton’s poll numbers run the gamut between #10 and #21, while Cincinnati is ranked as high as #9 in one poll, and as low as #25 in another. Then there’s UCLA, which is ranked in the 20s in half of our ballots, but in the upper-teens in a pair of others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s one team that pretty much everyone agrees on: Ohio State. The Crafty Buckeyes are ranked at the most optimistic as the #17 team, while nobody would pick them lower than #22.
- RTC pollster Bennet Hayes explains why he is so high on Louisville (#6 in his rankings) and skittish about Cincinnati (who he has unranked) despite two fierce battles between those two teams: Louisville will be tested before the AAC Tournament (games at Memphis and SMU and at home against UConn remain), but the Cards are on the same trajectory as last year’s title team. They haven’t lost since January, whipping along as an efficiency buzzsaw led by a preseason All-American who has somehow become one of the most underrated players in the country. It’s not hard to believe in the defending champs right now, but I can’t find it in me to say the same for their fiercest competition in this first AAC season. The paper resume for Cincinnati is admittedly impressive, but I can’t help but feel that the heavy offensive load shouldered by Sean Kilpatrick has the Bearcats walking a tightrope. A season ago, only one team with an offensive efficiency rating outside the nation’s top-100 won a game in the NCAA Tournament (who else, FGCU), and the Bearcats are currently 105th in that metric. I won’t go as far as to say the Bearcats won’t win a game this year, but for all the grit and toughness that has gone into building Cincy’s utterly intimidating defensive identity, I don’t think there’s enough offensive firepower to fuel a sustained Tournament run.
- RTC pollster Brian Otskey took the opportunity to talk about why he’s one of the two pollsters with Kansas as low as #4: I like this Kansas team a lot because it is oozing with talent and potential, but there just seems to be something missing. I honestly can’t quite put my finger on it but this Jayhawk team does not overwhelm me like the one in 2008 did where I had no doubt coming into the Tournament that it would win the title. Kansas can absolutely make the Final Four or even win a championship because there is no one team that stands out as a sure-fire contender this season. However, Bill Self should be concerned with a couple of things. For one, Kansas’ poor turnover margin is a huge anchor to any March success. Kansas is playing with fire each time it turns the ball over too much and does not force enough turnovers on the other end. This is also a team that fouls way too much, a recipe for easy points for most opponents. No national champion has ever had a defensive free throw rate worse than No. 147 (Louisville, 2013) in the era of Ken Pomeroy’s statistics and Kansas currently ranks No. 265 in that department. A notable difference between last year’s Louisville team and this year’s Kansas team is the turnover margin, which allowed the Cardinals to overcome fouling to the point where their pressure defense was a huge asset. I am also concerned about Kansas’ ability to defend the three-point line and I worry about how such a young and inexperienced team will react in the pressure cooker of March, even with perhaps the best coach in the nation on the sidelines.
- RTC pollster Randy McClure discusses why he was so hesitant to put unbeaten Wichita State in his top 10 likeliest teams to win the national championship: It comes down to the notion of winning it all versus winning five NCAA Tournament games or fewer. Butler won five games twice in a row, but couldn’t win a sixth. George Mason and VCU won four games each (ed. note: VCU actually won five games, but one of those was an irrelevant play-in game). Wichita State did the same last season. It’s much, much harder to win the national title than it is to make the Final Four, and that’s because a national title contender is guaranteed to face at least one or, more likely, two other teams that will have the requisite coaching, talent and balance to beat them. I’m also a big believer in two other key factors working against the Shockers this year. First, every team in my top 10 has at least one legitimate pro prospect — someone who can make game-saving plays for his team when things break down (and things always break down in the Tourney). Wichita, as great a team as it is this season, has no such player, and championship teams tend to have at least one of those prospects on the roster. Second, I fully expect Gregg Marshall’s team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a sterling 34-0 record (#cheerfortheears, after all), and if a giant red-X target of being a #1 seed isn’t enough, carrying the burden of an unbeaten season along with it will create a media firestorm that will cause every Shockers’ opponent to bring its absolute best game. Wichita State has had a fantastic season, but the Shockers won’t be cutting down the nets in North Texas.
Conference Call: Big Ten (5), ACC (4), Big 12 (3), AAC (3), SEC (2), Big East (2), Pac-12 (2), Mountain West (2), Atlantic 10 (1), Missouri Valley (1).