Explainer: A trickier NCAA bracket in this unusual season
Friday, February 19, 2021 | 6:03 PM
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.
Teams from the same conference can’t meet before the regional final if they already have played each other at least three times. If they’ve faced off twice, league foes can’t meet until the regional semifinals.
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 season.
Up to now, no team has earned an at-large bid with a worse record than the 16-14 mark that Villanova had in 1991 and Georgia had in 2001.
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. Joe Lunardi, who predicts the bracket for ESPN, believes even a team with a losing record could get an at-large bid.
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 three games. They lost the third to Ohio State, 92-82, on Thursday, but an upcoming matchup with Iowa — ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 — gives them a chance to raise their stock.
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.”
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