Bracketology: How high could the Cougs' seed go?

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Moving on up!

Ever since I started this series, the focus has been on what Washington State needs to do the rest of the way to get into the NCAA Tournament — which, of course, was a completely natural posture to take, given that (A) we’ve really only sniffed the bubble a couple of times since we last made the tournament in 2008, and (B) the odds were only about 1-in-5 when we began.

But now we’re in the midst of a five-game win streak, and on our way to that 7-2 finish I said we’d need to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday. This includes three straight wins on the road — two of which qualify as Quad 1 (for the moment) — and it now occurs to me that I might need to ask a different question. Rather than asking, “What do they need to do to get in?”, I guess we now should be asking:

How high of a seed can they actually get?

It feels weird to even consider that, as we are sort of predisposed to assume the worst and anticipate disaster. We wait for the other shoe to drop. We expect everything to be hard.

And it might yet still be.

But damn if this team isn’t surging at the absolute best time.

In the latest iteration of the Bracket Matrix — a “wisdom of crowds” compilation of all the regularly updated bracket predictions those folks can find1 — the Cougs have moved all the way up to a 10 seed, well outside the First Four:

The numbers on the right: Average seed and number of brackets in which the team appears.

That was as of yesterday’s updates, which didn’t yet include the most recent ESPN Bracketology, which posted this morning. Try not to let your jaw hit the floor on this one2:

It’s not just Lunardi who likes the Cougs at this point; at Bracket Matrix, the Cougs are as high as a seven seed.

Bracket Matrix is not predictive — it’s just how resumes stack up right now — but barttorvik.com is, and we’ve used extensively in this series examining the Cougs’ chances of making the field. Here’s how Bart’s site projects us the rest of the way, with us favored in six of the final seven games:

That 81.6% chance of earning an at-large bid is the 37th-highest probability in Division I and, again, well outside bubble status. Unlike bracketologists, this does factor in WSU’s schedule the rest of the way (as well as literally everyone else’s schedules), and their likely performance in those games (as well as everyone else’s likely performances).3 

If the Cougs just keep doing what they’re doing, they’re in with what they’ve already done.

BUT HOW HIGH??

OK, OK — let’s get back to the original question. Here’s where Bart thinks we land if we win out over these final seven regular season games. That would include winning six games in which WSU would be the decided favorite, and winning one game — on the road at equally hot Arizona — in which they would be a decided underdog:

At first blush, this passes the smell test to me. This would mean the committee was ranking WSU as one of the top 20 teams in the country, which sounds great, except you’d be talking about the Pac-12 regular season champ being outside the top 16. That might seem unlikely to you, but I think that’s probably about right, given the weakness of the Pac-12 overall.

Something that’s important to remember here: Bart is simply ordering teams based on their likelihood of earning at at-large bid. He created an algorithm based on a few metrics (NET, Q1 wins, etc.) that have historically correlated with selection. The higher the percentage, the better the resumé; the better the resumé, the higher the seed. It’s a rough estimate: What he’s not doing here is applying any granular, subjective analysis, or any “bracketing principles” — you know, the stuff the NCAA tournament committee will do.

At the heart of WSU’s actual seeding will be a bunch of humans. These humans have a process that, for its flaws, is about as objective as you can get — which is why bracketologists who pay super close attention to this stuff are able to predict both the field and seed lines with excellent accuracy despite not being in the room for the conversations.

One major major major factor in team selection is its record in Quad 1 games. If you’re not familiar with how NET and its attendant Quads work, my podcast partner Craig had a fantastic explainer at CougCenter a couple of years ago. I highly recommend reading it if you’re not totally sure you understand it. Ultimately, the committee wants to feel like they know that you can beat NCAA tournament-quality teams if they put you in the field. The thing they abhor the most is a team getting embarrassed on the big stage, so they are going to lean toward teams who have played a lot of Quad 1 games and shown they can win them.

At this point, the Cougs are 4-3 against Quad 1 opponents. That’s pretty good, but not great, and the main problem here is simply volume: It’s fairly telling that despite playing in the Pac-12, the Cougs only have had seven Quad 1 opportunities. They will for sure get an eighth — next week at Arizona — and that’s good, even if it’s unlikely to produce another win.

However, the thing to remember is that those four Quad 1 wins we’ve already seemingly banked actually are not set in stone; the Quad of an opponent is determined by their NET ranking at the end of the season. Accordingly, a win that is a Quad 1 on one day might not be a Quad 1 on another day. One example: When we beat Colorado at home a couple of weeks ago, that was a Quad 1 because the Buffs were ranked in the top 30 of NET; now, however, they’re No. 38 after getting destroyed by Arizona, which makes that a Quad 2. The reverse is also true! Beating Boise State in Spokane was originally a Quad 2, but the Broncos are now top 50 in NET, so that’s a Quad 1 today.4

(I could write volumes on why this is a very stupid way to pick teams that exists mostly to exclude midmajors from at-large bids, but I’ll spare you here.)

Although unlikely, it’s entirely possible that WSU could end up with as few as one — ONE! — Quad 1 victory.

(I told you: Very stupid.)

As long as WSU closes by winning five of their last seven, I think their place in the field is secure, regardless. But if we’re talking about seeding, the best thing we can do (besides winning out and beating Arizona again) is root for teams we’ve beaten who are either in Quad 1 or near it to continue winning.

Currently Quad 1:

  • Arizona (No. 3 NET; will be Quad 1 no matter what)

  • Boise State (No. 48; needs to stay top 50)

  • Oregon (No. 62; needs to stay top 75)

  • Washington (No. 68; needs to stay top 75 ewwwwww)

Currently Quad 2 and has a shot at getting to Quad 1:

  • Colorado (No. 38; needs to crack top 30)

  • Utah (No. 49; needs to crack top 30)

This is where I wonder just how high the seeding can go.

WSU did not come into the season with any kind of fanfare. We are not on TV where anyone can find us outside the west coast. We have not spent the year ranked. These are all things that can help you with the benefit of the doubt if, say, Boise State and/or Oregon and/or Washington drop out of Quad 1 status, and the teams around the Cougs end up adding Quad 1 wins with their additional opportunities. It seems more likely that a team or two drops out of Quad 1 than Colorado or Utah jumps up. I haven’t gone back and studied past fields, but my gut tells me that three Quad 1 wins is unlikely get this team much higher than a 9 or 10 seed.

The committee — which seems not to pay attention to the fringes of the field until the end, and which I am fairly certain will never have seen us play unless we make the Pac-12 championship game — will not have reasons to believe in us and can therefore underseed us in the bracket.5

Bottom Line

With the evergreen caveat that all of this is a moving target, here’s what I think:

  • Win out, period? I think you’re looking at a 3 seed — being the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champ with two or three wins over Arizona will be very tough for the committee to ignore.

  • Win out in the regular season (which makes you the Pac-12 regular season champ) with a respectable showing in the Pac-12 Tournament? That 5 seed we talked about sounds about right to me.

  • Keep doing what you’re doing — go 6-1/5-2 with a respectable showing in the Pac-12 Tournament? I think you’re topping out on the 9 or 10 line.

Enough optimism, Nusser. I need you to feed my inner Coug!

OK, fine, let’s consider a couple of bad scenarios. I don’t know why you want to, because I’m laser focused on enjoying this ride for all it’s worth. But in service to you, the pessimist, I’ll indulge you.

The first scenario involves going 4-3 over the final seven:

Unfortunately, it’s not a crazy scenario. Stanford has talent, Arizona is Arizona (especially at home), and UCLA has not played like the No. 95 team in the country in some time. The Bruins are good, and they’re out here screwing things up for everyone by sitting at 8-5 in the conference. Here’s what that 4-3 finish does to your odds:

Yuck. But … still better than 50/50, and you’d still have the conference tournament left to add to your resume.

Here’s a worse one:

In that scenario — going 3-4 the rest of the way — your NET sinks like a rock, weighing you down like a ball and chain at the bottom of the ocean floor. There will definitely be a bit of work to do at the Pac-12 Tournament. It’s hard to know how much because, as we will say ad nauseum in the runup to Selection Sunday, the bubble is a moving target. But if I were to guess, I would guess one more Q1 win, which you’d probably be able to get in the quarterfinals, would get you to the tournament.

These scenarios suck. But if I could put a positive spin one them for a moment: The fact that we theoretically could pee down our legs to end the season and maybe just need a little bit of work in the Pac-12 Tournament in order to get in the field is such a testament to what this team already has accomplished.

That’s why I hope you’re joining me in enjoying every bit of this in the moment, rather than worrying about what might or might not be. Because this season is special. And we know these don’t come around very often.

Footnotes

1 The Bracket Matrix proves, every year, to be the most reliable bracket prediction in terms of both the field and the seed lines, regularly outperforming individuals.

One thing that’s important to remember is that “bracketology” during the season is done with the resumés as they stand right now. These are not projections of the end of the season. They are merely a reflection of the work done to date by a particular team as it relates to the work done by other teams.

2  You might note that playing Florida would mean being matched up with former WSU assistant (and past guest of the podcast) John Andrzejek, who now works under another former Kyle Smith assistant, Todd Golden. Andrzejek was largely responsible for recruiting WSU’s international talent — Efe Abogidi, Mouhamed Gueye, Andrej Jakimovski, Rueben Chinyelu — during his tenure.

3 That’s quite far away from where we started this thing, being stoked about a 1-in-5 chance!

4 When you play a team that’s near a cutoff line for Quad 1, it leaves you with a wonderful dilemma. You would think beating another good team by a lot would be good! But if you beat them by tooooooo much, then you knock down their ranking and it’s no longer a good win. And if you lose, well, their ranking goes up, but it’s evidence that you can’t beat a good team. Great system, right??

5 Remember the 2018 football season, and how the CFP committee treated us even as we were running up the score on everyone? That’s illustrative of how the humans behind these things approach teams. If they thought you were good before they started, they’re inclined to believe that you’re good; if they hadn’t even considered your existence before they started, they’re inclined to believe that you’re not actually that good.

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