There’s no need to worry about geography in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Get ready for plenty of talk about the so-called “S curve” instead. And don’t worry—it’s not that complicated.
With the entire tournament taking place in or near Indianapolis, there is no reason for the four geographic regions that have been a part of past NCAA brackets. The NCAA doesn’t have to ensure the best teams play closer to home.
The NCAA instead is trying to use the “S curve” in which a team’s placement is more dependent on its strength than its location. The No. 1 overall seed ideally would have the No. 8 overall seed as the second-best team in its region, the top No. 2 seed in the same section with the No. 7 overall seed and the same approach for 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5.
Whether that happens isn’t a sure thing: Rules prevent conference rivals from facing off early in the tournament and the S curve—the NCAA helpfully put out a specific explanation of this term—often gets broken up.
“The likelihood of being able to be a perfect S curve is probably unlikely,” said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who chairs the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee. “There’s going to have to be modifications.”
It is creating plenty of uncertainty for teams competing for bids—as well as the people filling out the bracket.
“This is just an unprecedented tournament, an unprecedented time,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Hopefully it’s only a one-off and we’re only going to have to do this and navigate this one time this way.”
THOSE CONFERENCE MATCHUPS
Teams from the same conference can’t meet before the regional final if they’ve already played each other at least three times in a season. If they’ve faced off twice, league foes can’t meet until the regional semifinals.
Some of this is already being played out. For instance, when the committee revealed last week which schools would earn the top 16 seeds if the bracket were being announced that day, No. 4 overall seed Ohio State was included in a region with No. 14 seed Texas Tech, rather than No. 13 seed Iowa. Ohio State and Iowa already met once, are scheduled to face off again Feb. 28 and could battle each other a third time in the Big Ten Tournament.
No. 8 overall seed Houston was in a region with No. 3 overall seed Michigan rather than No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. Plenty of other pairings also didn’t quite match what a true S curve would have reflected.
LACK OF NONCONFERENCE GAMES
Division I teams played fewer than half as many nonconference games as usual this year. That makes it tougher than ever to compare the credentials of teams from various leagues.
It also could make it particularly challenging for teams from outside the major conferences to land at-large bids. Typically, contenders from those leagues build their resumes by beating schools from bigger leagues. Those schools didn’t get nearly enough of those opportunities this year.
Barnhart said the biggest challenge is the fact that pandemic-related pauses have caused some teams to play fewer games than others through no fault of their own. There’s also the dilemma of how to rate a team that might lose a game or two due to the rust factor after a long layoff.
“There is no hard-and-fast rule,” Barnhart said. “I think the thing we’ve got to understand is, we’re going to play the ball as it lies. The resumes are the resumes.”
HOW LOW IS TOO LOW?
Up to now, no team has ever earned an at-large bid with a worse record than the 16-14 mark that Villanova had in 1991 and Georgia had in 2001.
That could change this season, because the pandemic limited the number of so-called guarantee games that allow major conference teams to boost their records.
Jerry Palm, who forecasts the NCAA brackets for CBS Sports, said a team could make it this year while being only one or two games above .500 as a possibility. Joe Lunardi, who predicts the bracket for ESPN, believes even a team with a losing record could get an at-large bid.
Finding a team that fits that profile is tricky. Maryland (13-10) was an obvious candidate before the Terrapins won three straight games to pull above .500.
The highest-rated team with a losing record in the NET rankings is Penn State (7-10). The Nittany Lions dealt their NCAA hopes a severe blow by falling to Michigan State and Nebraska in their last two games. They lost to Ohio State 92-83 on Thursday night, but an upcoming matchup with Iowa – ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 – give them a chance to raise their stock.
MEASURING ROAD WINS
One dilemma facing the committee is how to determine the value of a road win during a pandemic, when teams are playing in front of no fans or much smaller crowds than usual.
“It diminishes the effect of the home-court advantage, so to speak,” Barnhart said. “But I never want to lose sight of the fact the team has to test to get on the bus or play, they’ve got to travel, they’ve got to stay in a hotel, they’re out of their element, they’re playing in an area they aren’t used to, all those things.”
Through Sunday, home teams had won 65.9% of Division I games, not far off last season’s pace of 68.4%.