Selection Sunday is upon us. And for the first time in way too long, the Alabama Crimson Tide will hear its name called when CBS airs its NCAA Tournament Selection Show nationally at 5:00 pm CST.
For many, the only question now is, what seed will the Tide get? Obviously that's an important question, but the real thing to look for when the committee's work is unveiled should be, what are Bama's matchups? After all, seeding only matters to the extent that it dictates who you play and when you play them.
When looking at potential matchups I think we can all agree the key is to think about who Alabama would face in the first two rounds. This team has too many limitations to think about the Final Four, but with the right matchups and a pair of good performances, a trip to the Sweet 16 is a attainable enough goal to think about matchups in the first and second rounds later this week.
Here's what we know: as of Saturday, Alabama is projected to be a 9 seed by most bracket experts. Now, these guys are pretty good at what they do and rarely miss by much. However, they are still trying to predict how human beings will make decisions, so there's certainly a good bit of uncertainty involved. That said, I think that uncertainty is limited. I don't see any way Alabama gets as high as a 7 seed; an 8 seed is probably as high as possible. On the flip side, I don't see Alabama falling all the way to an 11 either; a 10 seed is probably as low as possible. Hence, with about 95% confidence, I can say Alabama will end up somewhere between an 8 and a 10 seed, with a 9 seed being the most likely outcome.
As we all know, if Alabama gets an 8 seed, a 9 seed will be the opening round opponent, while of course a 9 seed would mean an 8 seed as an opening round opponent. In either case, a 1 seed would await in the second round should the Tide get a victory in the opener. If Alabama were to drop to a 10 seed, a 7 seed will be the opening round opponent, with a 2 seed likely awaiting in the second round.
Given the above information, we can feel pretty confident that Alabama's opening round opponent will be a 7-9 seed. Here's the rub: there is a lot of variation between the relative strengths of teams seeded in the 7-9 range. Some teams are much stronger than others, and were it not for a few fluke results in close games or the peculiarities of the RPI and the committee's selection criteria, they could easily find themselves as high as 4 or 5 seeds. Meanwhile, due to the same fluke results and/or peculiarities, others might not actually be as strong as even lower seeds. Additionally, matchups are very key. With a team like Alabama that does some things extremely well and some things relatively poorly, stylistic matchups are crucial to Alabama's chances of victory.
Based on Alabama's projected seeding and the projected seeding of other teams, below is a list of Alabama's most likely first round opponents, ranked in order of likelihood (I created a simple formula for this based on several different seeding projections). Note that Kansas State and Purdue are omitted from this list despite being projected in the given range due to the fact that the committee avoids rematches in opening rounds. Florida is also omitted (they could be as low as a 7 seed which could pair them with a 10) due to the fact the committee keeps teams in the same conference from meeting until at least the Elite Eight (unless a conference has more than 8 teams qualify).
San Diego State
Obviously, seeding matters in the sense that Alabama will likely only meet certain teams (like New Mexico or San Diego State) if the Tide drops to a 10, and will likely only meet certain teams (like Southern Miss or Harvard) if the Tide claims an 8 seed. However, again, the most important thing is true team strength (not seeding) and how well Alabama matches up stylistically. Without going into detail on each and every team, let's just say there is a lot of variation here.
For example, Southern Miss has been in the top 10 of the RPI most of the season (hence their inclusion in the bracket) but is ranked only 71st in the Pomeroy ratings (a much better indicator of team strength). Further, they have lost 4 of their last 7 games in a fairly weak Conference USA, and their only wins during that time came in close calls against sub-100 teams.
On the flip side of that, consider Memphis and St. Louis. Memphis, also from C-USA, is ranked 10th in the Pomeroy ratings and has crushed its competition in the last six games straight. St. Louis of the very solid A-10 conference is ranked 12th in Pomeroy and has won 9 of its last 10. The Pomeroy ratings aren't the end-all-be-all, but again, it is possibly the best indicator out there and it thinks these two teams are top 12 nationally. The point is, even though all these teams are seeded around the same area, there is a tremendous variation in actual team strength and Bama fans need to hope the Tide draws one of the weaker from among the group.
Style also matters. Alabama does best with teams that like to speed up the game and don't like being forced to execute at a high level in half-court sets. Alabama does poorest against teams who are comfortable slowing things down and execute well in half-court offense and half-court zone defense. This will be important too, aside from just the overall strength of the opponent.
Looking beyond the first round, we also have a very good idea who the Tide could face in the second round. Since we are fairly confident Alabama will be seeded 8-10, we can be fairly confident Bama's potential opponent in the second round will be a 1 or 2 seed. The eight teams expected to claim these seeds are virtually unanimous across every bracket projection I've seen. Because of being a fellow SEC team, Kentucky will not be a potential second round matchup, but the others all could be. The 1 or 2 seed Alabama gets paired with will not only determine a possible second round opponent, but will also determine the location where Alabama will travel, since top seeds get placed closest to home. These likely top seeds are listed below in order of likelihood, with projected location in parentheses.
North Carolina (Greensboro)
Michigan State (Columbus)
Ohio State (Louisville or Pittsburgh)
Now obviously we don't want to go looking ahead here before we play a tough opening round game, but nevertheless this potential matchup will be very important too. It goes without saying that all of these teams are very, very good, but there are certainly some that Alabama would have a better shot to upset than others.
In any case, we'll find out for sure where the Tide lands in mere hours, with an open thread going live at 4:00 pm CST. At that point we'll all find out together, and then the Madness will be upon us as tens of millions of Americans around the country will begin filling out their brackets (Yahoo!, who is sponsoring this post, is inviting RBR readers to compete in their bracket challenge here). We don't know exactly what sort of matchups Selection Sunday will bring the Tide, but we do know one thing: when those tens of millions print out their bracket, Alabama's name will be on it.
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