N.J. Bracketology: The five-team Jersey dream is (barely) alive
Princeton, Rider and FDU all have legitimate shots to win their conference tournaments. Catch up on where they stand, along with Rutgers' and Seton Hall's paths to an NCAA bid.
The impetus for Guarden State sprouted from a singular thought ahead of the 2021-22 season: Was this state coming into a sort of college basketball renaissance? Could we see three New Jersey teams make the NCAA Tournament in the same year?
The answer, for the first time since 2004 (Seton Hall + Princeton + Monmouth), turned out to be yes. A late-season tear by Rutgers helped the Scarlet Knights join Seton Hall and MAAC champion Saint Peter’s in the field, and Princeton was a couple of baskets away on Selection Sunday from winning the Ivy and joining them.
Given what happened next, what with the Peacocks’ historic Elite Eight run, it’s the most success the state has enjoyed in the tournament in recent memory. In fact, the state has only sent more than three teams one time, when the quartet of Rutgers, Hall, Princeton and Saint Peter’s all made the field in 1991 (and Seton Hall reached the Elite Eight).
That’s a confluence of good fortune worth marveling at, all those teams being tournament-worthy and earning their ways in at the same time. Four was more than half the seven N.J. schools playing Division I basketball at the time, because NJIT hadn’t moved up yet.
Now, for a “small” state (in terms of land mass, we’ll say, not population) like New Jersey to send five of its eight teams to the tournament would be a true pipe dream. The list of states that have had five or more teams go dancing in one year is full of your North Carolinas and Texases, states that have no shortage of options both among the high-majors and the small conferences. (Old source, but still makes the point.)
That’s that, then. Four is the ceiling for New Jersey.
Or… we can get greedy.
Stick with me for a minute, because the path to five New Jersey tournament teams isn’t the most farfetched thing you’ll hear between now and Selection Sunday. (That, of course, will be some TV talking head arguing for North Carolina to make the field of 68, despite the blueblood’s astonishing lack of a quality win.)
To overexplain a bit of background: Teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament either by winning their conference tournament in early March or by receiving an at-large bid because their body of work showed they were one of the best teams in the country. The “low-major” conferences don’t have any teams worthy of an at-large, so these are known as one-bid leagues.
That’s where we start the math. Princeton, Rider and Fairleigh Dickinson are in one-bid leagues, and all have legitimate shots to win their conference tournaments. (Stranger things have happened, but we’re leaving Saint Peter’s, Monmouth and NJIT out of the discussion for today.)
Add Rutgers and Seton Hall – either by automatic bid via their conference tournaments or as an at-large – and New Jersey can claim five of the 68 berths, more than 7% of the field.
The Pirates have not been holding up their end of the bargain here lately. As I predicted last Monday, they’ve moved off the “bubble” section at places like ESPN. But let’s start the deep dive with the safest of the bunch.
Remaining regular-season games: vs. Michigan, at Penn State, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern
Strength of record: 49, BPI: 16, KenPom: 27, Sagarin: 26
Record vs. Quadrant 1: 5-6
Record vs. Quadrant 2: 3-2
Record vs. Quadrant 3: 2-2
Record vs. Quadrant 4: 7-0
Here we have Rutgers’ NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) number, ranking them 28th in the country based on an algorithm that accounts for strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, efficiency on offense and defense and the quality of wins and losses. No. 28 might seem solid, but North Carolina State was at No. 33 in 2019 and the selection committee snubbed the Wolfpack.
Quadrants 1-4 divide a team’s games into tiers based on an opponent’s NET and whether it was played at home, away or on a neutral floor. Rutgers was stellar up and down the “team sheet” until recently, when it added a second blemish in Quadrant 3 with a confounding home loss to Nebraska.
Still, Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights are on track to make their third straight tournament. They should finish the season 3-1 or better. Penn State is pesky, but Rutgers already beat them by 20 once. Minnesota is on a 10-game losing streak.
I’m excited to see where this team will be seeded in the Big 10 Tournament. Mathematically, it could be anywhere from No. 1 to No. 12, based on 100,000 simulations run by college hoops analyst Matt Hackman. Two or more quick wins there could strengthen Rutgers’ case to deserve a No. 5 or 6 seed in March Madness.
Remaining regular-season games: vs. Xavier, vs. Villanova, at Providence
Strength of record: 58, BPI: 69, KenPom: 59, Sagarin: 48
Record vs. Quadrant 1: 3-7
Record vs. Quadrant 2: 2-4
Record vs. Quadrant 3: 4-1
Record vs. Quadrant 4: 6-0
Strength of record is a results-based metric, while BPI, KenPom and Sagarin ratings are predictive. NET is some of both, and in Seton Hall’s case, it’s as if NET took the worst of both worlds.
Their slightly better showing in the predictive ratings tells me the Pirates might have a better record today if they played in another conference – say the SEC, where there a handful of contenders followed by a pile of teams who won’t go dancing and are generally worse than Seton Hall. But that’s not the reality Hall gets to enjoy in the Big East.
The Pirates have beaten who they’re supposed to beat – the likes of DePaul, St. John’s, Butler and Georgetown at the bottom of the Big East. They’ve gone 0-6 against the four best teams in the league, with two more chances to rectify that. And their three Quad 1 wins came against UConn, Rutgers and Memphis by four points combined, two coming on last-second shots.
The committee will know that context. Yes, humans get a say in this stuff, and they’re going to pour the weak sauce down the drain.
Seton Hall sold out Friday’s home game against No. 16 Xavier, and it’ll need every single fan in that building screaming for 40 minutes because it’s the Pirates’ last realistic chance to improve their resume in the regular season. I’m not counting on them to go to Providence for the finale and become the first team to beat the Friars there all year.
It’s not completely out of play, but the Pirates might need a big run at MSG in the Big East tournament to make their resume presentable. If not, the NIT is not a terrible outcome for Shaheen Holloway’s first season coaching this program after the amount of roster turnover it experienced.
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Ivy: One-bid league
Remaining regular-season games: at Harvard, vs. Penn
You’ll notice I’ve done away with the list of metrics now. Princeton’s NET ranking this morning is No. 124, but that will only factor in if the Tigers make the tournament and the committee has to sort where they belong relative to other teams on automatic bids, i.e. are they a No. 13 seed, a No. 16 or somewhere in between?
Princeton must win the Ivy League tournament, better known as Ivy Madness, which I wrote about in this space Monday. Minutes after I hit “publish,” the league confirmed what Luke Benz had figured out on his own over the weekend: Princeton, along with Yale and Penn, are mathematically guaranteed a spot in the four-team bracket with two games to go.
There are a few scenarios in which Princeton drops to the fourth seed if it loses its final two games, which could doom them to face red-hot Yale in the first round. Even with Penn on a seven-game winning streak right now, I have a feeling Princeton would prefer to get the Quakers in the first round, if not a fourth seed like Cornell, Brown, Harvard or Dartmouth.
What Princeton has to its advantage for the first time is hosting rights at Jadwin Gym. Though I wouldn’t expect the crowd to be 100% Princeton fans, the team gets to skip the bus trip and go about its business in the familiar confines of Jadwin, sleep in their own beds. It genuinely could make a difference. All the same, the Tigers will need to figure out how to finally fell Yale.
MAAC: One-bid league
Remaining regular-season games: vs. Siena, vs. Mount St. Mary’s, at Saint Peter’s, vs. Iona
Turning back to Matt Hackman’s handy probability matrices, Iona has a 95% chance of getting the No. 1 seed in the MAAC tournament in Atlantic City. Rider is a close second at 3%.
At least Rider is all but assured of having a first-round bye, which in this conference goes to the top five teams while Nos. 6-11 play in the opening round. The Broncs have four more games to improve their standing, including two massive opportunities at home against Siena (tied with them for second) and Iona.
The general basketball-watching public still doesn’t know about these guys yet. Rider already stunned Iona on the road, which launched an eight-game winning streak that came to an end last weekend. The trio of Dwight Murray Jr., Mervin James and Allen Powell are all capable of making game-changing plays or shots that keep the Broncs in virtually any contest. I’ll be in Lawrenceville to cover the rematch against Iona the night of March 4, when the stakes potentially could be massive.
Northeast: One-bid league
Remaining regular-season games: at St. Francis (PA), vs. St. Francis Brooklyn
I’m also heading out to FDU’s regular-season finale this Saturday against St. Francis Brooklyn. The Knights are a game out of first place and have the best odds of representing the Northeast Conference in the tourney due to eligibility rules keeping out some of their competition.
First-place Merrimack and second-place Stonehill are still “transitioning” to Division I, a period during which the NCAA won’t award them bids to national tournaments. Stonehill will not compete in the NEC tournament but Merrimack will, I was told this month; if Merrimack beats FDU in the final, for example, the conference will give FDU its auto bid to the NCAA tourney.
It hasn’t taken long for first-year coach Tobin Anderson to flip this program around. Last season the Knights didn’t win a basketball game outside of COVID forfeitures till New Year’s Eve, en route to finishing 4-22. Now they’re 16-13, 9-5 against league foes, and winning both high-scoring games and defensive affairs as Demetre Roberts leads four players averaging more than 10 ppg.
Still, with a NET ranking outside the top 300, FDU would be a lock for a First Four play-in game in Dayton against another No. 16 seed for the right to play a power like Alabama or Houston in the round of 64.