A year ago, when the NCAA Tournament selection committee allowed us to sneak a peak at what the 2020 edition of March Madness might involve, few of us could have imagined that was as close as we ever would get to an official bracket. There was no tournament last year because the COVID-19 pandemic hit with its full force just as the season was beginning to get really interesting. There will be one this year, however, so Saturday’s exercise, in which the top four current teams in each region were presented to give all involved an idea what this particular committee values — the NCAA calls it a “Bracket Preview” — will resonate on Selection Sunday, March 14. These were the teams presented Saturday:Region 1: 1. Gonzaga; 2. Alabama; 3. Oklahoma; 4. IowaRegion 2: 1. Baylor; 2. Illinois; 3. Tennessee; 4. TexasRegion 3: 1. Michigan; 2. Houston; 3. West Virginia; 4. MissouriRegion 4: 1. Ohio State; 2. Villanova; 3. Virginia; 4. Texas TechWhat did we learn?MORE: NCAA Top 16 reveal offers first preview of 2021 tournament field1. This committee is all-in on the NETThe NCAA Evaluation Tool is a computer ranking conceived three seasons ago by the NCAA with help from Google and has become the standard metric for the committee to group teams. But it seems this committee also is invested in the rankings themselves, something it always suggests is not important.As well, NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt expressed concern before the season began that there might be issues with the NET because the universe of games would be smaller. Schedules were limited to 27 games. Many games have been cancelled because of COVID pauses.But 12 of the committee’s top 16 teams are among the top 16 in the NET. The only exceptions are No. 17 West Virginia, No. 20 Oklahoma, No. 21 Texas and No. 35 Missouri.The most obvious example of the importance of the NET is the inclusion of Texas Tech as a No. 4 seed. The Red Raiders rank No. 15 in the NET, and that is one element that would appear to qualify them as a top-four seed.They are 4-5 in Quad 1 games – those at home against teams ranked 1-30, on neutral courts against 1-50 and on the road against 1-75 – and 1-1 against Quad 2. That puts them under .500 against the top two quadrants, the only team of the committee’s top 16 to have a losing record in that category. They also played five non-conference games against teams ranked outside the top 275. Teams left out of the bracket reveal, such as Florida State (10-3), Wisconsin (15-6), Southern California (16-3) and Purdue (13-8) played two or fewer.The committee also awarded a No. 4 seed to Iowa, which played four 275-or-worse teams, and whose best three wins are against No. 24 Purdue (home) and No. 28 Rutgers (home and road). But the Hawkeyes are No. 8 in the NET rankings.2. Opting out will be discouragedGavitt told CBS the committee will allow conferences to adjust their policies to declare the methodology to select their automatic qualifier as late as Feb. 26. All conferences currently determine their “AQ” through the use of conference tournaments. But whether they’d like to call off their tournaments and declare a regular-season champion as the designated entrant is up to each league.There has been discussion about some teams wishing to “opt out” of conference tournaments out of concern that one more competition could lead to a COVID pause that would ruin their March. It’s an understandable concern, but so is this: If elite teams were to withdraw from league tournaments, teams that otherwise might not make the field could wind up winning AQ spots. A tournament berth is worth a significant amount of money to a league and its members, which means there technically would be a financial incentive for the best teams to opt out.That would be a terrible look for college basketball.“But the committee encourages that if a tournament is being played, all of those teams that have qualified for that tournament should participate to honor the game and the extraordinary event that players and coaches have gone to, to play a safe and responsible season,” Gavitt said. “And also to help with the bracketing and seeding and selection process, as well.”3. The top four seeds are obviousGonzaga was regarded as the No. 1 overall seed, followed by Baylor, Michigan and Ohio State.The candidates for that fourth No. 1 appear to be limited at this point. Illinois was ranked as the best of the No. 2 seeds by the committee, which presumably came as a surprise to the handful of bracket analysts who continue to project Villanova as a No. 1 seed.The Wildcats’ problem is their 15 games to date only include four against Quad-1 opposition, and they split those games. And they only are scheduled for two more by the end of the regular season.4. Teams that go on pause will not be penalizedThere was a movement by some who follow college basketball to evict Michigan from the top seed line after the Wolverines began a three-week hiatus in their program. But chair Mitch Barnhart said on CBS the committee members do not want to punish those teams that go on pause, and their work reflects that.At 13-1, Michigan remained on the top line. As did Baylor, which has won all 17 of its games but is in the middle of a stretch of five postponed games. Villanova was not pushed for playing just 15 games and held firmly as a No. 2 seed.5. The depth of the Big Ten isn’t hurting its best teamsThree of the top five teams in the committee’s rankings were from the Big Ten, even though the consensus of analysts — as compiled by the Bracket Matrix — projects nine teams from the league to make the 68-team field.
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