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If you’re the NCAA tournament committee, here’s what you’re seeing when you look at Georgia: A team that had a nice run in the SEC tournament and gave Kentucky a scare in the semifinals; a team that went 3-0 against South Carolina; a team that had, according to RPI, the third-best non-conference schedule of all Division I teams.
Mark Fox has harped on that final point, and he should: It’s the best argument his Bulldogs can make. The committee really, really likes teams that schedule difficult non-conference games. (The thinking being that non-conference game are the only ones a school can control. Its league determines the rest.) It’s the reason Georgia has a real argument for Big Dance inclusion above, say, South Carolina (non-conference schedule strength of 298) and Michigan (NCSS of 205).
But here’s also what the committee sees when it considers Georgia: Zero victories against the RPI top 50. No team from a major conference ranked above Georgia in RPI — the Bulldogs are No. 64 — went 0-for-the-top-50.
(Oh, and if you’re a fan of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, there’s no joy there, either. KenPom rates Georgia the nation’s 65th-best team, one spot behind Georgia Tech. ESPN’s BPI ratings have the Bulldogs 52nd; Tech is 48th.)
Some people view 20 wins as a measuring stick. It isn’t for the committee. South Carolina is 24-8 but probably won’t make the field of 68 — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm agree on this — because it played nobody in non-conference and had only one top-50 win. The committee cares more about the quality of your victories. That’s why Texas Tech — coached by Tubby Smith, who once took Georgia to consecutive NCAA tournaments — is a lock at 19-12. The Red Raiders have six top-50 wins.
That’s why Georgia had to beat Kentucky in Saturday’s semi to have a real chance. It had to beat somebody other than South Carolina, which it had beaten so often that the Gamecocks all but ceased being a Somebody. The Bulldogs gave it a go but lost by 13. Had they lost by a point, it wouldn’t have made a difference. (Another fallacy regarding the committee is that it’s swayed by “good losses.” It isn’t.)
Closing argument: Say Georgia does somehow land in the NCAA bracket — and South Carolina doesn’t. You’d have a team making the field of 68 as an at-large invitee without having beaten any of the other 67.
The shame of it is that, had Georgia played the regular season the way it played the SEC tournament, it would absolutely be Dance-bound. This should have been an NCAA tournament team. But it lost to Seton Hall, the newly crowned Big East champ, and Chattanooga, the Southern winner, in non-conference. (It also lost at home to Kansas State, which is going nowhere.) It lost at Baylor in the SEC-Big 12 challenge.
Georgia was 0-3 against Kentucky and Texas A&M, the only two SEC teams clearly bound for the NCAA, and 0-4 against Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU, teams that have fallen off the bubble. The Bulldogs’ three best wins came against South Carolina. The fourth-best came against Georgia Tech, which tied for 11th in the ACC.
Maybe I’ll be surprised and the committee will smile on Georgia. It has happened before. In 2001, the Bulldogs were 16-14 on Selection Sunday, having lost their first SEC tournament game to LSU. Most of us working the tournament figured they were done. They weren’t. They didn’t just get into the Dance — they got in as a No. 8 seed, which meant the committee considered Georgia one of the nation’s 32 best teams.
But that Georgia, even at 16-14, had an RPI of 19. It had the nation’s most difficult schedule. It had seven wins over the RPI top 50. I learned my lesson that stunning Sunday: As much as the committee might insist RPI is a gauge and not a determinant, it’s closer to the latter. The same is true today.
The way to blow up your RPI is to play good teams and beat a few of them. In 2015-16, Georgia got the first part right. It flubbed the second. It should have been the third SEC team in the NCAA bracket. It figures to be one of several that land in the NIT.
Further reading: Can March Madness save us from college basketball?