Top Six

Feb 12, 2021

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That's the goal, I think. I'm not really worried about "can we get a one-seed?". At least not like I would be in a non-Covid year. This year, to me, the goal is to be one of the top six teams in the eyes of the Committee on Selection Sunday. That's the sweet spot.

First, I should say that I'd be happy with a three-seed. Anything but being a four-seed across from Baylor or Gonzaga, really. Everything I'm about to write is based on avoiding Baylor or Gonzaga until as late as possible. And this year, it's very easy to control that. I should cover the "why" first.

Why avoid Baylor and Gonzaga? Well, by nearly every metric - advanced statistics, polls, eye test - they're clearly the top two teams. This is from 2.5 weeks ago, but on January 25th, this is how far Baylor and Gonzaga had distanced themselves from the field:

The gap continues to widen. Just using that statistic (AdjEM), as of today, Gonzaga and Baylor are both 35.xx, and Michigan in third at 28.xx (Illinois is 4th at 27.xx). The gap between Baylor (2) and Michigan (3) is the same as the gap between Michigan and Texas Tech (19th). So if that chart were to be updated, it would be Gonzaga and Baylor up here, then a 1-inch gap, and then 17 teams in the next inch.

The point: best case scenario in the NCAA Tournament is to avoid Baylor and Gonzaga until the Final Four. In a normal year, it's really hard to do that because the committees are seeding based on "keep the top four seeds in each regional close to home if possible" among other things. This year, with all of the games in the Indianapolis area, it's an S-Curve. Think of it like a snake draft.

The four best teams get the one-seeds. And they're seeded one through four. The fifth team gets the 2-seed opposite the "#4" one-seed, the sixth team gets the 2-seed opposite the "#3" one seed, and so on.

It has often worked like that in the past, just not "officially". For example, it was likely between Illinois and Arizona for the final 1-seed in 2001. Illinois got the 1-seed, and right down there at the bottom of the regional was 2-seed Arizona. #4 vs. #5, as it turned out, for a spot in the Final Four.

But other times that wasn't the case. Especially when there was an attempt for regionals to be "regional". When trying to keep western teams in the West Regional and eastern teams in the East Regional, you'd often slide up or down a seeding line to make the travel distances/matchups work. This also sometimes meant that instead of the #1 overall seed getting the 8th-best team as the 2-seed in their bracket, they'd get the 5th-best team because the geography made sense.

They somewhat fixed that when first and second round sites were no longer "regionals". Here's the best way to explain that, if you're unfamiliar with that change. In 1995 I went to the first round games in Salt Lake City while I was in Park City on spring break. I saw the bottom half of the West regional. 6 Oregon/11 Texas, 3 Maryland/14 Gonzaga, 7 Cincinnati/10 Temple, and 2 UConn/15 Chattanooga. In 2011 I went to the first round games in Washington DC. I saw four teams from the West regional (6 Cincinnati/11 Missouri and 3 UConn/14 Bucknell) and also four teams from the Southeast regional (1 Pitt/16 UNC-Asheville and 8 Butler/9 Old Dominion).

The change (in 2008 I believe) meant that it no longer had to be the top or bottom half of a bracket at a first round site. It could be... four teams from the West and four teams from the Southeast all playing in DC. As a result, by total chance (I had the trip planned for months and was hoping to maybe see Illinois get placed there), I ended up seeing the two championship game teams (Butler and UConn) win their first and second round games. Under the old format, they'd be set to play each other the next round. Under this format, they go off to their respective regional finals.

SO, when they made that change, they basically tried to keep the top four seeds in each regional close to home. To use my 2011 example above, UConn was a 3-seed so they were sent to DC to keep them relatively close to campus, and Pitt was a 1-seed so they got the same treatment. If you got a top-4 seed, they tried to put you close to home for the first two rounds.

And for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight, they also tried to keep the top seeds within their "region". Let's use the 2-seeds that year as an example. In 2011 the 2-seeds were San Diego State, North Carolina, Florida, and Notre Dame. And the regional finals were in Newark, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Anaheim. So UNC went to Newark, Florida to New Orleans, Notre Dame to San Antonio, and San Diego State to Anaheim.

This year? There's no regional consideration. Not for the regionals, not for the regional finals. Every game will either be in Indianapolis, Bloomington, or West Lafayette. So if they were seeding that 2011 Tournament with this format, they wouldn't care about UNC going to Newark and San Diego State going to Anaheim. It would be the four 1-seeds ranked 1-4 and then the 2-seeds would be slotted as the #5 overall seed is opposite the #4 one seed and so on.

I'm making that more confusing than it needs to be because I started with 2011. Let's just use the last (actual) Tournament in 2019 as an example. Top two seeds in each region with their overall ranking by the committee:

East: 1-seed Duke (1), 2-seed Michigan State (6)
South: 1-seed Virginia (2), 2-seed Tennessee (5)
Midwest: 1-seed North Carolina (3), 2-seed Kentucky (7)
West: 1-seed Gonzaga (4), 2-seed Michigan (8)

Why 1 vs. 6 and 2 vs. 5? Geography. What would those brackets look like this year? Duke (1) paired with Michigan (8), Virginia (2) paired with Kentucky (7), North Carolina (3) paired with Michigan State (6), and Gonzaga (4) paired with Tennessee (5).

We're finally getting to the reason for this post. I keep seeing discussion about whether Illinois can somehow climb to a 1-seed, but that's not really my specific goal. I think Gonzaga and Baylor have the top two 1-seeds wrapped up, so really 3, 4, 5, or 6 would all work just as well. Honestly, I don't see much difference between being the #3 overall 1-seed or the #6 overall 2-seed. The plan is to avoid being 7 or 8. The 2-seeds that are slotted 7 and 8 have to beat Baylor or Gonzaga to get to the Final Four.

I know, I know. The plan for every team is to win the national title, and who cares if you have to beat them in the 1st round or the title game - you still have to beat one of them at some point. I get that. I'm just saying that I have my eyes set on the dream of getting to the Final Four, and to do that, the best route is to end up 3, 4, 5, or 6 in the final ranking of teams that the Committee puts together. 7 and 8 - both two-seeds - have to go through either Baylor or Gonzaga to get to the Final Four.

I could probably take that further. Say we lose a few games and drop to somewhere around 10th. Well then I'll be hoping the Committee has us 11th. Because then we'd be a 3-seed in a non-Baylor and non-Gonzaga regional. For the 3-seeds, 9 and 10 are up against Baylor or Gonzaga, 11 and 12 are not.

I could probably simplify that like this. Let's say Baylor is 1 and Gonzaga is 2 (something I think the committee might do if they're both undefeated given Baylor's tougher conference schedule). Here's how those regionals would look:

Baylor (1) - {2-seed} (8) - {3-seed} (9) - {4-seed} (16)
{1-seed} (4) - {2-seed} (5) - {3-seed} (12) - {4-seed} (13)
{1-seed} (3) - {2-seed} (6) - {3-seed} (11) - {4-seed} (14)
Gonzaga (2) - {2-seed} (7) - {3-seed} (10) - {4-seed} (15)

Whatever we do, I want to be in those middle two regionals. How do we get there? In the final rankings from the Committee, finish 3-4-5-6 or 11-12-13-14. End up 7-8-9-10 or 15-16 and you have to go through Baylor or Gonzaga to get to the Final Four.

And please note that this is not a reference to the NET rankings. Illinois could finish 8th in the NET rankings but end up as the #3 overall team. Illinois could also finish 4th in the NET rankings and end up as the #11 overall team. NET is just a baseline that helps the Committee figure out who you beat and who you lost to. In 2019, Houston was #4 in the NET (their fans were thinking 1-seed) and they got a 3-seed. Michigan was #10 in the NET and they got a 2-seed. Further down, Wofford was #13 in the NET rankings but they fell to a 7-seed. Again, it mostly exists to reveal how good your opponents were, not how good you are. Did you beat a bunch of highly ranked teams and did you beat some of them on the road?

This is a long post that could be summed up in maybe one paragraph. Maybe I'll just end with that. Here's the TL;DR....

The NCAA is going with an S-Curve this year. So we know how to avoid Baylor and Gonzaga. The sweet spot is either getting the last two 1-seeds (3 and 4) or the first two 2-seeds (5 and 6). But if we don't get that, hopefully we fall to 11th through 14th so we can get the last two 3-seeds or the first two 4-seeds. That's the best path to the Final Four. The numbers we don't want to see come up on the roulette wheel: 7-8-9-10-15-16. Stay out of those spots and as of today I feel really good about a possible run to the Final Four.


Duce20 on February 12, 2021 @ 12:27 AM

Completely agree. And it’s not about avoiding either team it’s about playing them as late as possible. 1 it could be a FF, 2 it gives some opportunities for them to lose.

Hoppy on February 12, 2021 @ 01:14 AM

We also have to hope another B1G team isn’t the 3rd or 4th 1 seed, right? (Or really just ahead of us but not in Baylor/Gonzaga’s bracket)

Doesn’t that complicate things as well with the rule that the top 4 teams of a conference have to be in different regionals? (If they occupy a 1-4 seed)

Actually, couldn’t that scenario bite us in multiple ways? Say Baylor gets the one seed and another Big 12 team gets the 2 seed that would normally be with Baylor. They’d have to make a switch. Could it possibly us they switch with?

BigRedIllini on February 12, 2021 @ 05:15 AM

Actually, I was thinking about this. If we don't face Michigan in the regular season or the big time tournament would that be a consideration by the committee? The rules to avoid teams playing conference teams multiple times, but I could see a scenario were they seat 1(4) v 2(5) or 1(3) v 2(6) us so that we play in the elite eight.

bradidas on February 12, 2021 @ 03:11 PM

This is the year to show the bracket as 1 Baylor vs 64 East Central State, 2 Gonzaga vs 63 West Tech etc. Why do we even need Regions? If we do have Regions, will we still refer to them geographically? Or will it be the Gonzaga Region and the Baylor Region, etc?

IBFan on February 12, 2021 @ 10:51 PM

Think this team and fan base better focus on beating the 13,14,15 seed we face. Tonight’s performance was a disaster and Nebraska isn’t as good as any team we will face.

MrOizo on February 14, 2021 @ 11:22 AM

Agreed that the early rounds are scary, especially if it's a "bad" matchup for us with some lanky wings/abundance of talent at the 3/4 spots. If we can just get some low-seeds that matchup well, I'd be really happy. Second concern, don't face Gonzaga or Baylor until Final 4. But I would much rather face one of them in the Elite 8 and lose (I could live) then getting knocked off first weekend...

IlliniJoe81 on February 18, 2021 @ 02:26 PM

Turns out they gave us the #5 overall and still put us with #2 Baylor because #3 Michigan and #4 Ohio State are both in the Big Ten. So we need to pass one of those two teams.

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