Do the Cougs really have a shot at the NCAA Tournament?

OK, it's time to address the giant elephant in the middle of the room.

Left for dead after the inexplicable loss to OSU at home on Valentine's Day, the Cougs' postseason chances have once again become a topic of conversation following their second road win of the season over a top 25 team.

Some say there's no chance whatsoever that this team can earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. Some say if the Cougs can win their final three Pac-10 games that they could have a legitimate case. Where's the truth?

The first thing everyone has to realize is this: The NCAA Tournament field is a moving target. There is only one surefire way to guarantee entry into the Dance, and that's to earn your conference's automatic bid. Outside of that, nobody can say, "Do this, and you're in," because everything's relative. All that matters is how your resume stacks up with others' at the end of the season, and there are just too many scenarios where teams could either strengthen or weaken themselves considerably .

What we can do, though, is examine the factors that are working for and against the Cougs based on what the committee has shown is important to it over the years. Then we can make an educated guess as to what, if anything, might put WSU in the conversation on Seleciton Sunday.

Before we start, let me note one thing: The RPI sucks. It's a terrible, terrible measure of the quality of a team that is so counterintuitive I am consistently dumbfounded that presumably intelligent people actually use it. However, the reality is that the NCAA Tournament committee does use it, and any meaningful analysis must take that into account. So I'm going to talk about it, even though I vehemently disagree with it.

This is a fairly lengthy post, so you're going to have to click on the link below to access the analytical goodness that follows.

 

Factors working for the Cougars in their resume

Road wins at Arizona State and UCLA: Clearly, this is at the top of the list. Above all, the committee wants to see that you have the ability to compete in the NCAA Tournament if they put you in. When you show them that you can beat two teams that likely will be in the seeding range of your first-round opponent -- especially away from home -- that is absolutely huge. Honestly, if we were sitting here with the same record but you replace these two wins with a road win over Stanford and a home win over Oregon State, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

The overall weakness of the mid-major crop: This is something that is going to help all potential bubble teams this year. Some of the mid-major conferences that have been getting multiple bids in recent years just aren't going to get them this year. The WCC and Horizon are only getting one team in unless Gonzaga or Butler lose in their conference tournament. The Missouri Valley and MAC probably are only going to get their conference tournament champion in no matter what happens. Davidson is probably on the outside looking in if it doesn't win its tournament. You get the picture: There's an opportunity here for multiple major conference teams with middling resumes to get into the field.

Playing some strong non-conference opponents: The committee loves ambitious scheduling, and the Cougs scheduled three non-conference opponents who are virtual locks for the tournament (Pitt, Gonzaga and LSU), another who was thought to be on-target for an at-large bid before falling apart (Baylor), and another major conference opponent (Mississippi State). No, the Cougs' overall strength of schedule isn't that good -- just 60th according to collegerpi.com -- but the Cougs will get credit for testing themselves early and often.

Close losses: Yes, ultimately it comes down to wins and losses, but again, the committee doesn't want to be embarrassed if they put you in the field. The Cougs haven't been blown out since that debacle against Washington to open the Pac-10 season, and they played both Pitt and LSU tough away from home. This gives the committee confidence that you're probably not going to lay an egg in the Tournament once you get there.

Factors working against the Cougars in their resume

Lack of a distinguishing non-conference win: While the Cougs will get credit for their schedule, going 1-4 against those five teams I outlined earlier -- picking up your only win against the weakest of the bunch -- isn't exactly showing you belong with the big boys, especially when Gonzaga (who destroyed the Cougs in Pullman) and Baylor aren't looking as strong as they once did. Unfortunately, this is something WSU can't change at this point, and those losses to LSU and Baylor we feared would haunt us are doing just that.

That RPI: Neither the Cougs' overall RPI (No. 102 according to collegerpi.com) nor their RPI strength of schedule (No. 60) are flattering. The biggest problem the Cougs are facing is that the RPI is based on record, opponents' record and opponents' opponents' records. Their numbers are being dragged down by an inordinate number of very, very weak teams on our schedule, such as Mississippi Valley State (5-25, No. 330 RPI), Fairleigh Dickinson (7-21, No. 305) and Sacramento State (2-21, No. 341). Also working against the Cougs in this? Lots of home losses, which count for more than road losses. Fortunately, the committee has seemed to place less stock in RPI in recent years.

The strength of the Pac-10: Or, should we say, lack thereof. Now, we can argue 'til the cows come home whether the Pac-10 is actually down overall this year or simply lacking a big-time heavyweight for the first time in some years, but the fact remains that the RPI hates the Pac-10. Because of this, the committee might not value any wins we already have -- or might get between now and the end of the season -- as highly as we'd all like to hope.

So, do they have a shot?

Well, it would seem a tad ridiculous to have this entire conversation and not say yes, wouldn't it? But they're going to need a lot of help.

First of all, they're not going to win the Pac-10 tournament, not with Taylor Rochestie needing to play 38-plus minutes for this team to have a chance against any kind of quality opponent.

What they do have going for them is the opportunity to make statements between now and the end of the season. For all of the hand-wringing before the season about the end of our Pac-10 schedule, it's now looking like a blessing that we've got three tough teams coming up, plus the Pac-10 tournament.

So what puts them in the best position? I was going to write that somehow, some way they needed to get five wins between now and the end of the season, but BH over at the WSU Football Blog beat me to it. Here is our thinking in a nutshell:

  1. Win the final three regular season games, win two games in the Pac-10 tournament. You've now added a road win over UW, home wins over Arizona State (for a season sweep) and Arizona, and neutral court wins over Oregon and one of four teams that are a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Win two of the final three regular season games -- which, no matter how you mix and match it, would include two wins over tournament-bound teams -- and win three in the Pac-10 tournament to get to the finals, which would likely feature neutral court wins over two tournament-bound teams.

The first scenario features four wins over RPI top 50 teams, while the second likely does as well. That's a pretty spectacular way to finish the regular season, and would likely get the tournament committee's attention, because while they certainly look at entire bodies of work, finishing strong is important. That also should give a substantial boost in their overall RPI number. Whether it will get them in that magical 40-50 range is tough to say, because it's so dependent on your opponents, but it should help considerably.

What else can be done? Root like heck for Gonzaga, Butler, Davidson and Creighton to win their conference tournaments. Every bid that goes to a fluky conference champion will do major damage to the Cougs' chances, no matter what they do.

I know we all thought we were through with this a couple of weeks ago, but reality is if there ever was a year that a thoroughly average major conference team could squeeze its way in at the last possible moment, this is it.

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