NCAA Men’s Basketball Bracketology: Arizona seeks Pac-12 gold in Las Vegas, top seed in NCAA tournament

Collegiate basketball programs across the country eagerly await Selection Sunday as teams, including the University Arizona, eagerly anticipate their NCAA tournament seeding and matchups. (File photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — The road to the Valley’s next big sporting event is about to get the green light as Selection Sunday for the 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament looms. With judgment day upon us, here is a look at Cronkite Sports’s Scott Sandulli’s bracket projections, updated through games on Mar. 12.

On the No. 1 seed line, Houston, Purdue, and Connecticut are universally accepted as three of the four teams expected to grab the top spots. The last one, though, remains a topic of discussion and one of particular interest in the Valley.

(Graphic by Ethan Kaplan/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ethan Kaplan/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ethan Kaplan/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ethan Kaplan/Cronkite News)

Tennessee, as the leading team in the SEC, and the ACC’s best in North Carolina, are part of conferences that are projected to field more tournament teams than the Pac-12, which Arizona leads. In this projection, the SEC has seven teams earning bids, while the ACC claims four, in comparison to the Pac-12’s three. The odds aren’t great, it seems, for the Wildcats to hear their name called on the top line come Sunday, but what may work in their favor is a rather undefined selection process.

The NCAA’s Selection Committee doesn’t have step-by-step criteria for establishing their rankings, but some factors are taken into consideration. For Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s head bracketologist who is recognized as one of the nation’s most recognizable college basketball minds, the committee’s behavior in the past points to its current mindset.

This go-around, Lunardi believes that Tommy Lloyd’s Arizona team has to take care of business at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, which begins Wednesday, and hope for help elsewhere to get its second top seed in three years.

“Arizona needs to win the Pac-12 tournament,” Lunardi said. “There’s no way they can suffer a loss there that wouldn’t hurt them. (North) Carolina and Tennessee would have to fall short in their tournaments, too. I think Arizona is definitely the third of that group.”

ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg shares these sentiments. Greenberg sees Arizona’s previous slip-ups at Oregon State and USC as ankle weights, considering the Pac-12 lacks tournament-caliber teams compared to the SEC and ACC.

“I think Arizona played their way out of it (the No. 1 seed),” Greenberg said. “The problem with the Pac-12 is that there aren’t enough opportunities for Quad 1 wins. I don’t think their conference tournament is going to give them the quality wins that would put them back up on the one-line.”

Falling behind in the ever-pressing strength of schedule metric, Arizona does close the gap in two other key aspects: the NET rankings and Quad 1 victories. The NET rankings, a metric invented by the NCAA before the 2018-19 season, order teams nationwide based on efficiency and results. Efficiency-wise points per possession offensively and defensively factor in with the strength of opponents played, whereas wins and losses come into play in a team value index as well.

Quad 1 wins vary on the quality of the opponent and the location of the game. A Quadrant 1 win is defined as defeating a NET top 30 team at home, top 50 on a neutral court and top 75 in true road contests. Via the NET rankings on Wednesday, only victories over Colorado and Washington State at the neutral site for the conference tournament would constitute Quad 1 wins, and the Wildcats would only meet the Cougars or Buffaloes in the title game.

(Graphic by Ryan Sykora/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ryan Sykora/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ryan Sykora/Cronkite News)

(Graphic by Ryan Sykora/Cronkite News)

As of Wednesday, Arizona paces this trio as the No. 4 team on the list, with Tennessee and North Carolina close behind at 5 and 7, respectively. The Wildcats also nudge the Volunteers and Tar Heels with eight Quad 1 wins to their seven. Lunardi believes this particular statistic holds tremendous weight among the selection committee.

“If your league is deep, and you have more Quad 1 opportunities, say being in the Big 12 versus the Pac-12, the Quad 1 column has clearly become the most important consideration among many,” Lunardi said. “Then, the league that you’re in matters a ton. You’re going to get like 15 of those chances instead of six, eight or 10. It seems that quantity matters as much as quality in that. In the NET era, NET and Quad 1 are coins of the realm.”

Playing quality teams in your league and scheduling a strong non-conference slate also matters, at least to LaPhonso Ellis, a featured college basketball analyst at FOX.

“They (the selection committee) consider things like strength of schedule,” Ellis noted. “Who did you play in the non-con(ference), how did you fare in the non-con, what players were available?”

With such comparative track records in those two key categories, the strength of schedule likely puts Tennessee and UNC in a better position for a No. 1 seed than Arizona. Luckily for the Wildcats, as the premier team on the West Coast this season, things would work out geographically, as they would head to Salt Lake City on the first weekend and Los Angeles for the regional rounds should they advance.

Moving down to the bubble, plenty of teams find themselves on the cut line, with work to do this weekend to cement their spot. Having done all they can, Indiana State will watch the action of the week with angst, knowing the Sycamores squandered their chance at an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament by dropping the Missouri Valley title game to Drake. Indiana State’s case for inclusion seems murky, with a lone Quad 1 in conference win, but the sheer number of wins, with 27, contributing to a notable NET rating of 29th, keeps them afloat in the debate.

“I really, really believe that Indiana State should be in,” Lunardi said. “I would put them in over at least a half dozen .500-ish major conference teams that are going to get in. But history shows that I’d be on the wrong side of that bet more often than not. The things of value just don’t align with Indiana State because they have one Quad 1 win.“

While criteria such as the NET and Quad 1 wins continue to apply on the bubble, Greenberg looks at the inclusion question with less of an emphasis on the analytics.

“My eyes see what the NET is seeing,” Greenberg said. “To me, wins against the field is really important. Best teams you’ve beaten, if you beat really good teams, it shows that (you) can get in the tournament and win a game. You want teams that can win a game.”

Everyone else, though, still has the opportunity to play their way in. Texas A&M and Villanova are two schools that have launchpad opportunities in their tournaments, as the SEC and Big East have seven and six teams projected in the field, respectively. This gives the Aggies and Wildcats multiple chances to enhance their resume with Quad 1 wins. Should either of them string off multiple victories, bubble teams in lower-bid conferences like Colorado and Virginia will have to do damage of their own to hold their spots.

“This time of year, you have to win games,” Greenberg said. “You have to extend the season … For all of the teams, you’ve got to win the games you’re supposed to and then go get one against the field.”

On the safer side, barring a winless weekend, Mississippi State, Michigan State, Virginia and St. John’s should be comfortable on the chopping block for now. Most of the intrigue of the week will go to the teams on the bubble, and rightfully so. Ellis, a former player at Notre Dame, and Greenberg, previously the head coach at Virginia Tech, know this all too well. Having seen the light and dark sides of Selection Sunday, both share in the pain of the unknown.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” Greenberg said. “Only way to describe it. I have a hard time watching (the selection show) because I know for some of the teams watching, that coach is going to have to walk in front of those guys sometimes with no answer. That’s a brutal feeling.”

The pressure of the week and the inevitable wait on Sunday to find out if they did enough to make the Dance can be excruciating, a feeling some of the aforementioned teams will surely share in the coming days.

“It’s indescribable,” Ellis continued. “It was an uncomfortable experience for us. You’re waiting with anticipation. The more teams that are revealed early on, the level of anxiety rises even higher. You’re just hoping that your name is called. One of the most uncomfortable feelings in sport that I’ve ever experienced.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Scott Sandulli expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sandulli has interned as a staff writer for affiliates of Rivals and SB Nation

Ryan Sykora(he/him)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Ryan Sykora expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in communication studies. Sykora has worked with Phoenix Rising, NJCAA, MLB RBI, primarily as a play-by-play broadcaster and host.

Ethan Kaplan(he/him )
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Ethan Kaplan expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in design. Kaplan has interned as a social media correspondent at Times Media Group in Tempe.