Did Duke's bid for No. 1 matter?
March, 6, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
In its fourth season under Jeff Bzdelik, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons men's basketball team is not quite the fan-alienating train wreck of seasons past, but it isn't very good, either.
Wake Forest has scored 1.0 points per possession and allowed 1.10 to ACC opponents this season. It ranks 12th in the ACC in the former category and 13th in the latter. It owns home losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College. Its 16-14 overall record is well-earned.
On Wednesday night, the Duke Blue Devils lost 82-72 at Wake Forest. This was, in the bracket parlance, a bad loss -- the kind that can knock a bubble team out of the tournament, the kind that can irreparably tarnish a team's chances of landing in contention for a No. 1 seed.
Duke, of course, is not on the bubble. The Blue Devils fall into the second category: They are one of a handful of teams jockeying for one of the fabled top-line seeds. Or at least they were.
Wednesday night's loss almost certainly takes Duke out of the running for a No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils were a No. 2 in Joe Lunardi's Monday Bracketology update and the No. 6-ranked team overall on Joe's S-Curve. The Blue Devils' wins over Michigan, Virginia, UCLA and Syracuse, and their typically impressive RPI and strength of schedule numbers, put them in top-seed contention in the first place, even if midseason losses to Notre Dame and Clemson left them a notch or two behind the Arizonas and Floridas and Kansases of the world.
Adding another questionable loss this late in the season makes the top-seed battle a little clearer. It certainly puts them behind Wisconsin -- which had its own January swoon in losses to Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana but has wins over Florida, Saint Louis (neutral), Virginia (away), Michigan (away), Iowa (home and away) and Michigan State. It should put them behind Villanova, which beat Kansas and Iowa on a neutral court and has lost just three games to two teams, Creighton and Syracuse. Virginia, Syracuse and Michigan are all in position for, or close to, No. 2 seeds as is, to say nothing of the difficulty of unseating Arizona, Florida, Wichita State or Kansas from the top line.
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWednesday's loss likely takes a No. 1 seed out of play for Mike Krzyzewski and staff, but honestly, how much does that really matter to Duke's title hopes?
There is still a good deal to settle here -- the ACC tournament might well decide the Duke-Syracuse-Virginia seeding hierarchy -- but no matter how you dice it, Duke's path to a No. 1 seed looks more difficult than ever.
The good news? It totally doesn't matter.
Every February and March, college basketball fans and pundits spend an inordinate amount of time debating the various merits of the teams in contention for No. 1 seeds. Only the bubble drama can match the top-line debate for annual volume. Entire programs and conferences are called into question. (See: State, Wichita.) Résumé nits are picked. Teeth are gnashed. And every year, we conveniently forget that the on-paper difference between a No. 1 or No. 2 -- or even a No. 3 seed -- is almost irrelevant to a top team's national title chances.
This sounds like college hoops heresy. It's actually just common sense.
Last March, writing for Slate, Ken Pomeroy explained why. Seeding doesn't "significantly influence title chances," Pomeroy wrote, because "a team's chances of winning the tournament will be restricted most by its potential matchups against the great teams in the field." Usually, matchups against a tournament's best teams won't come until the Final Four, and "the chance of playing one of them doesn't differ much whether a team is a No. 1 seed or a 3."
Every year, Pomeroy ranks all 68 tournament teams based on his adjusted efficiency formula and projects odds of each team's chances of winning the national title. Year after year, swapping a No. 1 seed for a No. 3 produces only marginal tweaks in a team's title odds. Instead, what really matters is the potential matchups in various quadrants of the bracket. As we see every year, there is no guarantee a No. 1 seed won't find itself in a more imbalanced and fraught spot than a given No. 2 or No. 3. There is always a loaded region. It all just depends.
Which is not to say seeding doesn't matter at all. For lower-seeded teams, it matters a great deal -- and teams with big gaps between their RPI-based résumé and their per-possession performance tend to suffer for it.
You don't have subscribe to Pomeroy's brand of efficiency metrics to see the sense at work here. You can use Vegas odds, or the RPI, or your own eyeballs. No matter which you prefer, the simple fact is that being a No. 1 seed matters only if it gets you into an easier region -- and out of the way of other top teams.
Which is why it's impossible to say whether Duke's bad loss Wednesday night will really end up all that bad for the Blue Devils. If it spurs a drop to a No. 4 seed, well, sure. But in a year with at least a dozen reasonable title contenders, a No. 2 or No. 3 is just as likely to keep Mike Krzyzewski's team out of the way of one of the top squads best suited to stopping its combination of brilliant spread offense and so-so half-court defense.
For now, 10 days removed from a concrete bracket, Duke's odds of winning a national title haven't changed. In the end, the NCAA tournament always comes down to the matchups. Until Selection Sunday makes those matchups real, one top seed is always just as good as another.