In giving itself a chance to beat West Virginia, Clemson confirmed again (as they did initially in the UNC game and again in the UAB game…I will discuss some of the other controversial inclusions and exclusions below) that they do have skills necessary to win games in this tournament, but my feeling is if you don’t beat an RPI top-50 team before the tournament, you don’t belong in the tournament as an at-large.
For the record, I began writing this when Clemson was ahead by 9 points, and it was partly written in my head before the game started. I just haven’t had time earlier this week to either watch the tournament reaction or write a blog, especially since I filled out around 30 brackets (I have two ESPN accounts, and I filled out all the ones I came across, as many as I could. It’s partly to cover my bases from not having watched enough games this year, but it’s also because I’m much better at individual match-ups than I am at, “This team is going to win this region”…of course most people who show confidence at the latter effort are frequently wrong.)
As for Clemson and its athleticism, I don’t care if they look like Bill Russell’s Celtics if they don’t beat anyone of note. There are few phrases more annoying in the football context where less than 2% of the teams can play for the BCS title at the end of the year, but in basketball, the “eye test” is arguably appropriate as an argument when it’s a close call for #40-something. But not when you can plainly rule out a team based on a lack of accomplishments. Being unable to keep a convincing lead against North Carolina was repeated against West Virginia. So maybe that game was a cause for concern as much as it was a credit to Clemson. (Roy Williams isn’t a particularly good conference-tournament coach anyway. Even his national-championship teams lost in the second game of their respective conference tournaments.)
I know the RPI is flawed, but come on. I wouldn’t require beating a top-25 or top-30 RPI team, but I think counting #50 and above gives enough leeway to factor in the RPI’s weaknesses.
Even Alabama, who had an RPI of 80, beat a top-50 team, Georgia, twice in a row right at the end. I have no reservations about leaving Alabama out, by the way. They didn’t beat anyone worth much out of conference, and they played in the SEC West, so I don’t care if they did beat Georgia twice, their 12-4 SEC record isn’t really better than Georgia’s 9-7 without even looking out of conference.
Speaking of 9-7, that’s how Clemson finished in the ACC, and given their givens, I think they had to distinguish themselves better than that. I’m definitely more impressed with Harvard (especially considering their out-of-conference accomplishments) tying Princeton for the Ivy League crown than I am with 9-7 in the ACC this year.
The other “first four” at-large winner, VCU, is a team I wanted to see in this tournament. They had three wins over top-50 teams going in. People talk about recent losses in criticism of VCU’s selection. They had 6 losses since January 3, including one to George Mason and two to Old Dominion. During that time, they also beat Old Dominion and George Mason. The win over Old Dominion was on the road.
Maybe this doesn’t make up for losses to Northeastern, Drexel, and James Madison, but that’s a different argument. It’s still true that they finished the seaon on an overall upswing despite the losses.
I would also give them credit for playing the non-conference schedule they played. That probably contributed to making them the team they are now, even though again there were some losses to non-tournament teams. Winthrop and Wake Forest have had better years (one neutral-court win, one road win), but it was clear they were not dodging competition. These are the other non-conference highlights: loss to Tennessee (neutral), win over UCLA (neutral), loss to South Florida (road), win over VMI (home), loss to UAB (road). The loss to Tennessee was by 5, the loss to South Florida was by 1 in overtime, and the loss to UAB was by 3.
I heard it said in watching the ODU game that VCU would not get an automatic bid (I had not been following “Bracketology,” which I think is silly until the last week), and although I normally am for ODU, I said aloud, “That’s a shame” that VCU lost because I felt that the tournament would be missing something without them.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that because they looked really good in this game, that they deserved an at-large bid. I’m not discussing them to the exclusion of any contender who did not make the field. I’m not here to argue that they belonged ahead of Colorado, Virginia Tech, and St. Mary’s. Certainly had those three made it and VCU went to the NIT along with UAB and Clemson, VCU would not have had a right to complain. As a side note, from the two St. Mary’s games I’ve seen recently, VCU looked better even in the loss to ODU than the Gaels did during the WCC tournament. My objection is to the statements made on ESPN (by Jay Bilas for example) that VCU doesn’t pass the laugh test. I think dismissal of VCU to that extreme is a continuation of the bias against mid-majors. I don’t know how many Butlers or George Masons or Bradleys these people need. Incidentally, VCU’s profile is not a whole lot different from that of the George Mason team that went to the Final Four. Granted, that team making the Final Four was a bit of a fluke, but George Mason could have easily been excluded from the tournament that year, and few would have been outraged or even moderately annoyed.
It is not an aberrant event for a team to look like a tough out in losing a conference title game and having that team end up in the tournament. About 7 years ago, Utah St. barely lost in the final and surprised most (including Lunardi, if I remember correctly) by making the field. The defense from the committee (which used to take more questions, by the way) was the type of game they played, and obviously some consideration was given for the quality of the WAC and the narrow loss of an automatic opportunity. The committee did seem to move away from that in recent years (Mississippi St.’s snub after the 1-point overtime loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament final last year, for instance), but I don’t believe they should have. In the case of VCU, I think it’s worthwhile to consider that losing in a rubber match to a clear tournament team (ODU is seeded 9th, and you could easily argue they should be higher) by five points is a good showing even though obviously it does not result in an automatic bid.
I think UAB’s inclusion was a somewhat misguided show of respect for winning (in the regular season of course) a Conference USA that has highly respectable programs including UTEP and Memphis, and a recognition of the type of program at UAB in recent years. However as far as this season, there is no way one top-50 win goes ahead of the six that Colorado had. I don’t care if Colorado played no non-conference games or if they were the ugliest six games since the shot clock was implemented, that’s still more impressive. So I think I’m with the UAB critics, but the people outraged about VCU (especially if they’re not also complaining about Clemson) didn’t give this a fair hearing, they just over-reacted due to having assumed VCU was not on the committee’s menu. The committee got this one wrong, but I think I understand where their impression of UAB came from at least.