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How the West has fallen

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A huge program-changing win for the Washington Huskies simultaneously digs an even deeper hole for the West in March.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

A side effect of UW’s statement upset of the Cats yesterday: The West’s already-bad prospects for a high seed just got worse.

Every year, there are 8 sub-regional sites for MBB March Madness, hosting two groups of 4 teams each. Two of those sites are always somewhere in the Western US (defined here as the everything West of the approximately North-South line of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico). This year, San Diego and Boise are the two Western host cities.

The top 4 seeds in each region are “protected” by the selection committee as much as it is possible, keeping them closer to home. If it always seems like Duke and North Carolina are playing the first two rounds of the tourney somewhere in the Carolinas and Kansas is playing somewhere on the South Plains, that’s not your mind playing tricks on you – it’s because they pretty much always are.

However, because the sites are predetermined, there are bound to be more teams earning a top-4 seed than available geographically-friendly options for certain parts of the country, while too many options with not enough teams to fill them in another region. This year, there’s too many good teams all trying to fit into the Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Detroit regions that are in the running for a high seed (Virginia, Duke, Clemson, UNC, Nova, Cincinnati, Xavier, Purdue, and Michigan State, with Rhode Island and West Virginia in the mix, too).

Quite often, there are not 4 Western teams good enough to fill up the 4 spots reserved for highly-seeded Western teams, but there’s usually 2 or 3. This year, the only team that seems somewhat likely to earn a protected seed in the West is Arizona, and even the Wildcats getting a high seed isn’t a sure thing – many bracketologists have UA around a 4 seed with a month of games left to go.

I did a bit of research (Wikipedia, you are the best) to figure out just how unusual this season is. A quick snapshot at who has ended up being a top-4 seed in the West over the last 5 years:

2017 – 4 teams (Salt Lake City, UT and Sacramento, CA hosting)

(West #1) Gonzaga (Salt Lake City)

(West #2) Arizona (Salt Lake City)

(MW #3) Oregon (Sacramento)

(South #3) UCLA (Sacramento)

2016 – 3 teams (Spokane, WA and Denver, CO)

(West #1) Oregon (Spokane)

(MW #3) Utah (Denver)

(South #4) California (Spokane)

Problem child: (MW #4) Iowa State (Denver)

2015 – 2 teams (Seattle, WA and Portland, OR)

(West #2) Arizona (Portland)

(South #2) Gonzaga (Seattle)

Problem children: (South #4) Georgetown (Portland) and (East #4) Louisville (Seattle)

2014 – 3 teams (San Diego, CA and Spokane, WA)

(West #1) Arizona (San Diego)

(West #4) San Diego State (Spokane)

(South #4) UCLA (San Diego)

Problem child: (East #4) Michigan State (Spokane)

2013 – 2 teams (Salt Lake City, UT and San Jose, CA)

(West #1) Gonzaga (Salt Lake City)

(West #3) New Mexico (Salt Lake City)

Problem children: (MW #4) Saint Louis (San Jose) and (East #4) Syracuse (San Jose)

2012 is the last time the West had as bad a showing as this year. Not a single team in the top 4 seed lines was from the Western US, causing the games in Portland, OR and Albuquerque, NM to feature top seeds of #4 Indiana, #4 Louisville, #4 Wisconsin, and #3 Baylor (however, Waco is in Central Texas, the Bears were closer to Albuquerque than any other option – no sites in TX/LA/OK/KS that year – so the Bears got put there by choice, not by force). But that’s still 3 teams that definitely did not want to be out West.

There are 7 D1 conferences with at least one team in the Western US, but 4 of them have not gotten a somewhat highly seeded team in a long time (if ever): Big Sky, Big West, Western Athletic (about half in PT/MT) and the Summit League (just Denver University). That leaves the Pac-12, West Coast, and Mountain West as the options.

So, what’s causing the problems this year? Well, a bunch of different things. Main five:

Problem #1: The Pac-12, as a whole, is not having a good year.

Other than Arizona State (who’s part of a different problem), the Pac-12 really struggled in non-conference play relative to expectations. Preseason favorite Arizona lost three times in a row in the Bahamas (6-point losses to a pair of bubble teams – NC State and SMU – and a humiliating beatdown at the hands of Purdue), falling all the way from #2 to completely unranked in one week. USC turned a top-10 preseason ranking into a pretty disappointing non-con result, including getting flattened at home by a Texas A&M squad that has been otherwise uninspiring. Both Stanford and Cal picked up a number of bad losses, including one loss so bad by the Golden Bears that it actually doesn’t hurt the Pac-12’s numbers at all – a 24-point drubbing by D2 Chaminade in Hawaii (games against other classifications are treated as exhibitions and do not factor into RPI). As a result, once you get to conference play, the wins mean a bit less than they normally would, and the losses are more damaging.

Problem #2: The Pac-12 teams who did well in non-conference are not the same as the teams doing well in conference.

This is mostly pointing at ASU and Stanford, and, to a lesser extent, Arizona. Arizona State went 12-0 in non-conference, including a massively impressive pair of wins at Kansas and against Xavier on a neutral site. In Pac-12 play, the Devils have gone just 4-6, dropping them so far that they’re on the bubble now (albeit, still on the right side for now). But even if they were to get back to playing like they did earlier in the year, a top-4 seed seems basically out of the question for ASU at this point, despite their fantastic NC RPI. Arizona hasn’t been bad in conference play, but combining the lackluster non-con performance with close losses at Colorado and Washington has the Wildcats far from a sure bet for top-4.

Meanwhile, Stanford is doing the opposite. Coming in to January with an RPI well over 100, there was no reason to believe that Stanford had any shot at a bid at all, never mind a high seed. The Cardinal was supposed to roll over and give easy calories to ASU, Arizona, USC, UCLA, Washington, and so on. Stanford has beaten three of those teams already, dragging other teams down. Although Stanford has climbed from the mid-100s up to around 80, they are still a longshot for an NCAA bid (but maybe the Pac-12 can get a whole bunch of NIT teams!).

Problem #3: The Mountain West is not what it used to be 5 years ago.

Up until 2014 or so, the Mountain West was consistently getting at least two bids a year, often three, occasionally four. New Mexico has been a #3 seed twice in the past decade. UNLV and San Diego State have also been highly seeded at times. But even with the emergence of a really solid Nevada team as the new favorite, the MW is way past those glory days. This year, only Nevada and Boise State have any shot at an at-large bid, and Boise State isn’t exactly firmly in the tourney, either. Nevada might make it into a top-4 seed, but they’d need to run the table while complete chaos goes on elsewhere.

More info: If you have a subscription to The Athletic - which I highly recommend for any avid sports fan of college football and/or basketball - there’s a good article written during the preseason on the Mountain West’s decline: https://theathletic.com/119827/2017/10/06/mountain-west-after-two-down-seasons-the-conference-is-at-a-crossroads/

Problem #4: Gonzaga hasn’t brought their best on the big stage.

This year’s Gonzaga team is good, as usual. They’re #9 overall in the KenPom efficiency rankings, indicating that they could be beating better competition if it were on their schedule. But the few times that the Zags have been tested, they haven’t played as well, and as a result, their resume is nothing like what the advanced stats indicate they should be. Losses to Florida (neutral), Villanova (neutral) and Saint Mary’s (road) aren’t damaging, but they’re really big missed opportunities to earn respect that just doesn’t come by that often in WCC play.

Problem #5: Saint Mary’s somehow lost to Wazzu.