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It’s early February, and we’ve broken new ground in the Kyle Smith era: The Washington State Cougars are now appearing in most NCAA tournament projections as the Cougars sit just one game out of first place following a dramatic overtime win over Washington in Seattle on Saturday.
On the heels of a strong non-conference showing, we started thinking way back at the beginning of Pac-12 play about what the Cougs likely would need to do over the rest of the season to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. Oddly enough, the Cougs have actually played remarkably close to what I called “Route 2: Big wins, dumb losses,” where I somehow correctly hit on 10 of the first 11 conference games. The only miss — thank God — was Saturday’s game, which I predicted as a loss. It has literally never felt so good to be wrong!
That’s led us to a point where the wisdom of crowds at BracketMatrix — which compiles the bracketology of about as many regularly updated brackets as it can find — have placed the Cougs as one of the “last four in”, bordering on a bye into the First Round. This is with the resumé they hold right now, which includes a No. 42 NET ranking and a 4-3 record in Quad 1 games. It’s not a projection to the end of the season.
So, let’s project what likely will be needed. We’re going to look at it from two perspectives:
- What will probably get the Cougs in; and
- What will almost certainly get them in.
(Note 2: None of these scenarios include a Pac-12 tournament simulation, because that’s just too many variables for me to tackle here. But if you want to play around with it, be my guest! And be sure to report back in the comments.)
What Probably Gets You In
Back at the end of December, this is what I selected for the inputs on the remainder of Route 2:
That — plus the projected loss to Washington — put the Cougs at 22-9 and 13-7 in the Pac-12 heading into the conference tournament, giving the Cougs a slightly better than 50% chance of getting an at-large bid. Those were good enough odds to place them as one of the last four byes. If the Cougs post those results the rest of the way, Torvik’s site gives us slightly better odds to make the tournament now than it did then — the win over Washington likely responsible for pushing it up to 61% (a 9% improvement).
Given that the inputs above are perfectly reasonable (and maybe even slightly pessimistic), that’s good news! However, because the bubble is a moving target, and because teams’ odds will creep higher as the season goes along — including other teams currently competing for the bubble — that 9% improvement over the start of Pac-12 play still has us in basically the same spot: hanging out in the last four in/last four byes bubble:
That shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, going 6-3 against what’s left of this schedule is simply maintaining status quo … and maybe even a little worse. (You can see above that this set of results actually was a minus-11% change from where the Cougs’ odds are today.)
It would mean losing your last two Quad 1 opportunities, and — as I’m sure you know by now — proving you can beat teams that are “tournament quality” is super important to the committee. It’s very likely going to leave you feeling like the Cougs need to do a little work in the Pac-12 tournament to secure their spot.
What Almost Certainly Gets You In
I think we all would really love to be out of that “work to do” area that leaves you queasy on Selection Sunday. (Although, given where we’ve been since 2008, feeling that way on Selection Sunday would be an incredibly welcome feeling.) What will it take to avoid that?
Oddly, I really don’t think WSU will absolutely need another Quad 1 win to make a rather iron-clad resumé. In the above scenario, if we simply flip Cal at home to a win, our odds at Torvik’s site shoot all the way to a whopping 89% — the 33rd best odds, slotting WSU as a 9 seed. At that point, you’re 23-8 and 14-6 and probably the 2 or 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. While the Cougs might not actually land as a 9 seed, it’s really tough to imagine the committee leaving a team like that out.
What if we continue with the “big wins, dumb losses” theme of Route 2? Like, say, losing to Oregon State on Thursday but beating Oregon on Saturday, then winning out with the exception of losing to Arizona on the road? Still the 33rd best odds the rest of the way at 89%, good for landing as a 9 seed.
The Bottom Line
I think it’s actually pretty darn simple:
Go 7-2 — in pretty much any combination the rest of the way — and you’re in GREAT shape.
- Avoid stubbing your toe by beating the teams you’re supposed to beat?
- Stub your toe once but win at Oregon or Arizona?
- Stub your toe twice and beat both Oregon and Arizona?
All of those are fantastic, given the work you’ve already done. You’re probably already in, regardless of what happens at the Pac-12 tournament.
Go something less than 7-2? It might get you in; might even probably get you in. But you’re definitely going to feel like there’s work to do in the Pac-12 tournament.
Jeff Nusser founded CougCenter and wrote literally thousands of articles here, but he doesn’t do that much here anymore. Instead, he records a podcast with fellow former CougCenterer Craig Powers called Podcast vs. Everyone and writes a newsletter by the same name. If you’d like more of this, you can sign up here: