The choice will be made: Texas Tech or Kansas?
Without being in the NCAA selection committee room in Indianapolis, it’s impossible to know how long this will be debated. A few seconds? Minutes? More than that?
Following Kansas’ 78-66 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, one of the most intriguing story lines for KU in the next 24 hours will be how the committee looks at two good but completely different teams.
The decision that’s made not only will impact this NCAA Tournament; it also could be the start of a change in scheduling for years to come.
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The NCAA selection committee, at some point, is going to have to make a judgment call with all its data on which team is better, Texas Tech or KU.
It may seem minor — especially if both teams are 3 seeds — but there could actually be a lot more at stake.
Tulsa, Okla., is one of the hosts for the NCAA’s opening two rounds, and even if KU coach Bill Self says he’s fine with traveling anywhere, it’s hard to dispute the advantage that playing close to home brings. In sportsbooks, a “semi-home” environment is typically worth two points, which is no small thing for any team fighting to extend its season each night in a one-and-done tournament.
Houston, at this point, seems like a near-lock for Tulsa. LSU also could be considered, though it would seemingly be easier to send the Tigers to Jacksonville, Fla. — it’s 604 miles away from Baton Rouge, La., compared to 575 for Tulsa — to better reward a Midwest team for its strong season.
If that happened, it would leave two most likely possibilities for Tulsa: Texas Tech or KU.
And they couldn’t be more dissimilar when it comes to looking at “best” versus “most deserving.”
Here would be the Red Raiders’ argument: They’ve been freaking good. Before the Big 12 Tournament, they’d won their last nine Big 12 games by an average of 19 points, entering this weekend as one of the hottest teams in the country before their hiccup against West Virginia.
The “predictive” rankings — those that look at each possession to gauge teams, using more data than metrics that rely solely on win-loss results — love Texas Tech as well. The Red Raiders came into Saturday 10th in NET, ninth in KenPom, ninth in BPI and 10th in Sagarin, all of which indicate the team would be worthy of a spot at the top of the 3 line.
There’s a problem, though: Texas Tech scheduled poorly. Its first three wins were against Incarnate Word, Mississippi Valley State and Southeastern Louisiana, and the fact that it still had Arkansas Pine Bluff, Northwestern State and UT Rio Grande Valley after that only further showed how bad some of its early competition was.
Let me be clear: Good teams can be good teams while playing bad schedules. If LeBron James joined your local high school team, that wouldn’t mean that he still wouldn’t be the best basketball player in the world.
But the NCAA, in the past, has been steadfast about this: It wants to encourage a strong nonconference schedule. Those games are good for publicity and good for fans, and the selection committee in the past has looked to reward teams who went out of their way to challenge themselves when they didn’t have to.
Which brings us to Kansas.
The Jayhawks haven’t always played well this year. The predictive rankings reflect this fact, as KU entered Saturday ranked 16th in KenPom, 17th in BPI and 13th in Sagarin.
But, man, no one scheduled like the Jayhawks. KU ranks No. 1 in nearly every strength of schedule measure, and because of its early success in close games, the team’s résumé stands out as impressive.
The Jayhawks, coming into Saturday, were tied for second in the nation with 11 Quadrant 1 wins — a standard the committee uses to determine the highest class of victory. Combining Quadrants 1 and 2, KU’s 18 wins were tied for first nationally, with only Michigan able to match the Jayhawks’ number. (To be fair, Texas Tech’s Quadrant numbers aren’t bad — 8-5 in Q1, 8-0 in Q2, but they don’t quite match KU’s quantity.)
KU works years in advance for this very moment. Special assistant to the athletic director Larry Keating — with Self’s blessing — tries to anticipate which teams will be competitive in upcoming seasons, working to fill out KU’s schedule with these squads so its final body of work appears the most impressive.
The Jayhawks did what the NCAA wants: They scheduled hard. The team played Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee on neutral floors, set up a home-and-home with Villanova, took on Arizona State in a road game and played mid-majors Wofford and New Mexico State, who went a combined 33-1 in their conference seasons.
There’s a risk to doing this. When a team has to sweat out every game, there’s not as much on-court time for development. Perhaps David McCormack would have been ready earlier if KU had more blowouts, or K.J. Lawson could’ve shown his skills earlier if the Jayhawks had more directional schools at home.
In the end, the reward for KU is supposed to come Sunday. The Jayhawks, for their trouble of pushing themselves early, often have benefited late by having their résumé rewarded with a strong NCAA seed.
Will it happen Sunday? Or should it? When I asked Self how much the committee should factor in his team’s nonconference schedule and quality wins, he started by saying he wasn’t sure.
“We’re going to be happy whatever happens,” Self said. “I think we could have probably helped ourselves if we won the (Big 12) Tournament, but we didn’t. So I don’t think we hurt ourselves at all by playing in the finals.
“If we were a 4 seed before, we probably are a 4 seed, the way I look at it. I thought we had a chance to get to a 3, and hopefully we still do.”
The committee, while saying publicly it’s supposed to take a number of factors into account, usually has sided toward the résumé side of this argument in the past. That could change this year, or perhaps Texas Tech’s other numbers could be a tiebreaker over KU, but knowing this only further adds intrigue about the bracket that’s to come.
In other years, the KU-Texas Tech debate might not carry much weight. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much which team the committee ranks its 11th- through 15th-ranked teams.
It has the potential to matter a lot this season, though. Most likely, either Texas Tech or KU will reap the rewards of playing close to home, while the other will be sent on a plane somewhere, looking to extend its season without an extra advantage.
The committee must grapple with a quandary it faces every year: Do you reward the best team, or the one that’s most deserving with a tougher schedule?
The answer not only will change both teams’ postseason paths — it could influence how they choose to put together their schedules in the future.