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WSU’s path to the NCAAs is more plausible than you probably think

Yes, even after losing to Utah.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Hello, strangers! What follows is a lightly edited crosspost of a newsletter I wrote yesterday for Podcast Vs. Everyone. I thought maybe you would enjoy it too! If you dig it, consider subscribing?

I also wrote up some quick thoughts this morning on last night’s loss to Utah. I’ll be doing those after games as time allows.

The Cougs entered this men’s basketball season with little fanfare. The team lost its top four scorers — one to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, one to the G-League, one to Villanova, and one to USC — and Kyle Smith basically had to rebuild the roster. Unlike last season, which started with such high hopes, this one began with few expectations.

Which is why you’ll certainly be forgiven if you didn’t really notice that this team actually hasn’t missed a beat. WSU wrapped up a 9-2 non-conference schedule last weekend with a nice win over Boise State in Spokane, a sizeable improvement over last season’s non-conference mess. Over the course of those 11 games, they beat the tar out of the low-majors (mostly at home) while losing only to Mississippi State and Santa Clara on neutral floors.

If making the tournament isn’t something you’ve seriously considered, welllllll … look at the bottom of the image in this tweet from yesterday:

There was WSU, hanging out as the 11th-best team out of the field, heading into last night’s Pac-12 opener at Utah.

Of course, the Cougs lost that game by 22 points, despite playing pretty well for 25 minutes and leading by 5 shortly into the second half. Falling apart in that fashion is the sort of loss that tempts you to think that the team isn’t for real, that the non-conference record piled up against bad teams is irrelevant, and that it’s actually very silly to think about the tournament.

Don’t be tempted. Losing on the road to the Utes — who are one of the best teams in the conference — changes nothing, really. In fact, you’ll see that all of the scenarios below assumed a loss at Utah, because that’s what we always do. Set it aside.

To be honest, trying to figure out what Washington State “needs to do” in order to make it to the NCAA Tournament is an exercise I generally loathe. It’s the movingest of moving targets, and my experience has been that fans don’t usually approach it that way — folks tend to speak in definitives, saying things like “we can’t lose this game if we want to make the tournament!”

In actuality, there’s no such thing as a singularly disqualifying loss or a singular win that gets you in (unless we’re talking about winning the conference tournament). The resumé needed for selection is constantly changing because all teams are being evaluated against each other — what other teams do (or don’t do) impacts what WSU will need to do (or not do).

Until such a time that the tournament committee wisely abandons its subjective process for an actually objective one, what it’s going to take to squeeze our way into the tournament — and I think we’re all in agreement that “squeezing in” is what this squad probably will be doing, if it can — is a bit of a guessing game.

That said, the men’s basketball committee (a) has a long history of selecting teams, and (b) an impressive amount of transparency about how they do it, so we do have a good idea of what sorts of wins help a lot, what sorts of losses hurt a lot, and what the in-between results mean. Because of that, the folks who predict brackets are remarkably accurate at selecting the field — usually with only one or two surprises by the end of the season — which allows us to engage in some pretty detailed probability analysis, even at this stage of the season.

A little help from our friend

This is where Bart Torvik’s fun tool, T-Ranketology, comes in.

I won’t get too deep into the weeds on how it works. Here’s what you actually need to know about it for the exercise on which we are about to embark:

  1. Bart’s site ranks teams in a way that very similar to (he calls it T-Rank).
  2. Torvik has analyzed the correlation of the various available metrics (including NET) to come up with an algorithm that predicts where the field will end up at the end of the season based on the rankings.
  3. It’s not foolproof. It’s more meant as a fun thought exercise (like most of his site), so take it for what it’s worth.

Given what the Cougs have done so far this year and the schedule they will play the rest of the way, Torvik’s tool predicts that the Cougs will finish 19-12 overall, 10-10 in the Pac-12, and as the 17th-best team left out of the field. At that point, you’re back in the NIT for the third straight year.

However, that’s not actually that far away from serious bubble consideration; in fact, heading into last night’s game, Torvik’s tool gave the Cougs a roughly 20% chance of doing enough the rest of the way to get into the field.

A 1-in-5 chance? First off, if you’d told me before the season that this team had a 20% chance of making it, I’d have been ecstatic. And with that as a baseline, you don’t exactly need a crazy set of results to see a path to an at-large bid.

Here’s where Torvik’s tool really gets fun: Anyone can input a set of results for any given team for the rest of the season and see what that will do to the likelihood that team makes the tournament. We can come up with a pretty good idea of some paths that could get WSU into the field.

So, let’s look at a range of paths that might just get WSU into the field.

(Note 1: You also can play around with it yourself!)

(Note 2: The screen grabs below are from before the game against Utah. The ol’ efficiency margin took a bit of a hit in that one, so the Cougs’ odds have dropped a bit on the forecaster. I don’t think it meaningfully changes the analysis, but if you click on the links in the text, it will show you what the forecast from each set of results looks like after the team’s ranking dropped.)

Route 1: Optimistic but reasonable results

I am sure of one thing: It will not play out this way. But it does work under some reasonable assumptions.

  1. We will lose both road games at Utah and Colorado, because not only do we always do that, but the Utes and Buffs are both very good. Which is why I had us lose both at home to them, as well.
  2. We will lose both games to Arizona.
  3. We can win five of six against Oregon, USC and Washington, all of whom are in our neighborhood, projection-wise.
  4. We go undefeated against the bad teams.

That gets you 22-9 overall, 13-7 in the Pac-12, and this:

There are all sorts of minor, reasonable tweaks that you can make to this particular set of results that will get you into basically the same spot, like adding in another loss to someone like UW/USC/Oregon but offsetting it with a home win over Utah or Colorado.

Route 2: Big wins, dumb losses

Here’s another combo that gets WSU to 22-9 and 13-7:

Ah yes, this is more like the WSU way: Making sure it’s not easy.

  1. Beating Arizona at home, sweeping Utah and Colorado at home.
  2. Picking up four wins in six games against Oregon/Washington/USC.
  3. Suffering a very dumb sweep at the hands of Cal.

That gets you this, showing you the power of “good” wins vs. “bad” losses:

Route 3: Even more big wins and even more dumb losses

You’ll notice that each of the previous scenarios feature 13 Pac-12 wins just to get in bubble range. If you haven’t connected the dots on that yet, that’s because the conference is poised to go out with a whimper — Torvik predicts just Arizona, Colorado, and Utah to make the field with everyone else solidly outside the bubble.

This cuts both ways. The opportunity is there to pile up a bunch of wins in a power conference, but the opportunities to pick up big, attention grabbing, Quad 1 victories are few.

Is there a combination where WSU could go 11-9 the rest of the way, as predicted … but still have a tournament-worthy resume?

That’s 20-11, 11-9. It includes:

  1. Going 4-2 against the top tier by winning three of four against Utah/Colorado and splitting with Arizona (home win).
  2. Splitting the six games against the other bubble-ish teams (Oregon/USC/Washington).
  3. Going just 5-3 against the bottom dwellers (ASU/UCLA/Cal/Stanford/OSU).

That gets you this:

Not good! But also … in the mix! At that point, if you just remove one loss to one of the bottom dwellers — now 21-10, 12-8 — you get this:


To sum it up:

  1. Route 1 aka Nothing to hold against us except strength of schedule: Win the games they’re supposed to win plus pick up a couple they’re not “supposed” to win against like competition — while losing all the games to the top tier; or
  2. Route 2 aka Proof of concept: Win most of the games they’re supposed to win, plus pick up a couple against the top tier of the conference; or
  3. Route 3 aka Strong evidence that we belong: Win most of your games against the top tier.

One thing worth noting is that in each of these scenarios where Bart predicts them to get into the field, the probabilities of selection are still only about 50-50. These are really just to have a shot.

But wouldn’t that still be fun?