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Managing Expectations- NCAA, NIT, or Bust?

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How realistic are the Huskies postseason chances?

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way now. If we’re being 100% realistic, Washington is already playing with house money. There was a small contingent who felt before the season that this team should make the NIT. Just about everyone else would have been happy with a winning overall record and signs of progress. But when a team overachieves, it’s hard to keep expectations constant so please indulge those of us who are wondering if we can dream for more.

The Washington Huskies are currently 14-6 (4-3) and in 4th place in the conference right now. They also have a road win over a top-10 team that was #2 at the time. It’s still incredibly early but traditionally those win totals are good enough to start considering an NCAA bid. However, the good folks at bracketmatrix.com show us that the Huskies are on average in next four out territory and making the cut on just 22 of 90 brackets (24%). Why?

For a number of valid reasons, actually. Washington’s win totals are greatly inflated compared to their efficiency stats. UW is 99th in KenPom efficiency margin which in my humble opinion is the best method out there of ranking team performance moving forward. That stands in contrast to their 50th ranked RPI which is meant to measure resume instead. The basketball community at large still likes to look at RPI. This is how I feel about that.

Nonetheless, the “council” still controls who goes to the tournament so RPI has to be considered when you’re looking at what it takes to get in. And this season it seems guaranteed that UW’s RPI will look better than its KenPom rating so I may have to pivot on that point.

Let’s look at the recent history (past 3 seasons) of teams that have barely squeaked into the tournament and teams that have barely missed the tournament to see some minimum standards.

Best/Worst Teams to Miss/Make NCAA Tourney 2015-17

Rating KenPom Rank RPI Rank Wins (Power-5)
Rating KenPom Rank RPI Rank Wins (Power-5)
Highest Rated to Miss Tourney 35 (Clemson, 2017) 33 (Temple, 2015) 24 (South Carolina, 2016)
Lowest Rated to Make Tourney (at-large) 59 (Oregon St, 2016) 63 (Vanderbilt, 2016) 18 (Oklahoma St, 2015)

There are extenuating circumstances for every team which is an outlier but it seems pretty clear that UW has to finish the year with at least 18 wins and both a KenPom rating and RPI better than 60 to qualify as being on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.

The wins will be the easiest part. The Pac-12 is garbage this year. There’s only been one year in the past decade when the conference has had a lower average efficiency margin. I’ll give you one guess which one. Yep. That’s right. The 2012 season when Washington missed the NCAA tournament despite winning the regular season conference title.

That UW team ended the regular season with 21 wins, a 66 KenPom rating, and a 76 RPI (courtesy of a 6-5 record during an average non-conference schedule). The 2013 SEC was also as poorly ranked as this year’s Pac-12 and both Alabama and Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament after finishing the regular season with 21 wins.

Given all of that I think 21.5 wins is probably the inflection point for this team. Let’s say they end up with 21 wins like the 2012 team or the SEC teams. That means they end up with 11 wins in conference either through the regular season or the Pac-12 tournament. So a 10-8 record plus a 1st round victory over say Wazzu in the conference tourney. Unless most of those 10 wins are blowouts and the 8 losses are all closely contested to get their efficiency numbers up significantly, I don’t see that being enough. If this team can’t hit the 21 win threshold then they don’t deserve to be under consideration and all of this is a moot point.

But it gets more interesting if instead you add in that same season plus a conference tournament victory over UCLA or ASU. That gets them to 22 and guarantees them 3 tier-1 neutral or road wins. Still, Washington is going to have to go above and beyond in the wins department to get in.

The problem is that UW has greatly overachieved relative to its scoring margin. Part of that is obvious by its #99 ranking in KenPom. But UW also ranks just 129th in ESPN’s BPI which focuses almost exclusively on margin of victory. I prefer the KenPom middle ground because BPI rates Washington behind 8-11 DePaul who is 1-11 against the top-150.

But KenPom has the Huskies #11/351 in the country in its luck metric which shows that UW has been uncommonly good at winning close games (it has dropped from #1 two weeks ago). They’re 7-1 in games decided by 7 or less points which normally would be closer to .500. Part of that is luck, part of that is coaching, and part of that is Jaylen Nowell’s insane ability to come through at the end of games.

The current KenPom projections have Washington finishing 19-12 (9-9) which would put them in a 4-way tie for 5th place and a 1st round Pac-12 tournament game against someone in the bottom half depending on the tiebreak situation. Even a win or two there likely wouldn’t be enough. UW is going to have to continue to take care of business and spring another upset before the odds tilt in their favor. That means at minimum a 5-2 home record and a 2-2 road record with a win or two in the conference tournament. Doable but difficult.

Let’s say the Huskies fall short of the NCAA tournament. At this point that is still the most likely outcome. Should the NIT be the new goal?

Over the past 3 seasons there have been 59 teams that have made the NIT with an at-large bid. Essentially 20 schools per year. Here are the relevant worst and best in each category for those programs during that time frame.

Best/Worst Teams to make the NIT 2015-17

Rating KenPom Rank RPI Rank Wins (Power-5)
Rating KenPom Rank RPI Rank Wins (Power-5)
Highest Rated 35 (Clemson, 2017) 33 (Temple, 2015) 24 (South Carolina, 2016)
Lowest Rated 108 (Davidson, 2016) 101 (Colorado, 2017) 17 (ASU '15/Clemson '17)

Honestly, the Huskies are already well within NIT range at this point. Let’s return to the projected scenario of a 9-9 finish in conference and 19 wins. I think the Huskies would be favored in their conference tournament game so let’s throw in a victory over Oregon State and a loss to UCLA which puts them at 20-13 with at least a pair of top-50 wins. The RPI in that scenario probably drops a little but hopefully the KenPom number improves. Maybe that results in an RPI around 60 and a KenPom rating around 80? UW is comfortably in the range of a typical NIT team at that point.

If we’re talking about the NIT then I think 9-9 in conference is the threshold to merit consideration. That just requires Washington to win all of their home games against the bottom half of the conference (Wazzu, Oregon State, and Colorado) and pull out 2 road games among Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, and Oregon. Given what we’ve seen from this team so far I don’t think it’s unreasonable for that to be the expectation at this point.

Regardless of how the rest of the season turns out, this team has provided a watchable product. Which is more than can be said for last year’s team. The warning signs are there for the bottom to fall out for this team. So far the only significant injury of the season has been to the freshman backup point guard which was manageable. If any of the starters miss more than a game or two then this team’s potential falls off of a cliff. As stated earlier, the Huskies are much less impressive if you are of the belief that success in close games has the tendency to regress towards the mean.

All of that being said, I will now put forth on the record that I will be disappointed if this team does not at least make the NIT (I know, bold). It doesn’t mean I’m going to declare this season a failure if they don’t and it doesn’t mean I’m going to build a time machine and stop Jen Cohen from firing Lorenzo Romar. But this team has put itself in position to reach that particular goal and I’ve bought in as a fan to the point where that is my expectation whether it’s good for my mental health or not.