How do you spell “Dayton, Ohio”? Right now, there are two especially intriguing ways to do just that: either T-E-X-A-S, or — as an alternative — W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N.
Laugh lines aside, the Longhorns and Huskies offer a reminder that two teams can be difficult if not impossible to understand in totally different ways. These teams aren’t helpful in terms of letting us know how good they are, but they are immensely cooperative in illustrating the point that wins and losses, and conference records, and conference championships aren’t automatic indicators of whether a team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament or not.
Some might regard this as a feature, others as a bug, but it’s real, and it makes college basketball unique.
Start with Texas. The Longhorns are barely above .500 at 11-9. They are 3-4 in the Big 12. They have lost at home to VCU and Radford and fell at Georgia this past Saturday. They also lost at Oklahoma State, one of the Big 12 teams which is almost certain to miss the NCAA Tournament. Texas lost two other home games to Providence and Texas Tech, meaning that the Longhorns have lost four games on their home floor in Austin.
That is a large collection of black marks on a resume.
Yet, Texas has a neutral-court win over North Carolina and a home-court win over Purdue plus a road win at Kansas State. The Longhorns scheduled as well as any team in the country, playing — and losing — to Michigan State out of conference while also losing at Kansas. Texas has won multiple high-end games, played other high-end games it lost, and still gets several more bites at the apple, especially a home date with Kansas early this week.
Now move to Seattle for a look at the Washington Huskies. U-Dub is 16-4, five full games better than Texas. Washington scheduled several tough games out of conference, but lost all of them: Auburn, Minnesota, Gonzaga, and Virginia Tech. A win over Texas A&M isn’t what it would have been a year ago. The Aggies, even with their upset of Kansas State this past weekend, are a bottom-tier team in the SEC. Washington lacks a single win against an opponent likely to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
No wonder U-Dub has five fewer losses than Texas.
Washington, though, hasn’t lost any games at home and, moreover, has lost only two road games, since the Minnesota and Virginia Tech games were played at neutral sites. There isn’t a single bad loss on the schedule through 20 games. Florida State has lost to Boston College. Syracuse has lost to Georgia Tech at home. Arizona State lost at Stanford and has absorbed three Pac-12 losses.
Texas is the team with several significant achievements but lots of black marks, playing in a supremely tough conference which will rough up the Longhorns yet offer UT ample chances to notch huge wins.
Washington is the team with no significant achievements but an ability to avoid black marks, playing in a supremely weak conference which will allow the Huskies to rack up victories but not bolster the quality of their resume with equation-changing scalps.
These are two totally different identities, but they both end up in the same place: giving people no clue whatsoever about their quality.
It is notable that Washington should inhabit the position of a team leading its Power 5 conference yet having no assurance — at the end of January — that it will make the NCAAs. A 7-0 team in the SEC, Big Ten or ACC would be a mortal lock, but a 7-0 Pac-12 team isn’t assured of anything.
Recall the 2012 Washington team. Those Huskies went 14-4 in the Pac-12 regular season but lost in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament and did not go to the Big Dance. College basketball can prevent teams from cashing in on the lottery known as a soft conference, because it forces teams to win at least a few non-conference games of note. This Washington team might be able to get into the NCAA field of 68 if it can finish 16-2 in the Pac, but 14-4 without a spot in the Pac-12 Tournament final will likely lead to a long wait on Selection Sunday.
Conversely, people might look at Texas’s 3-4 Big 12 record — with Kansas having a chance to push the Horns to 3-5 — and think that should disqualify UT for NCAA contention, provided that the Horns can’t at least forge a .500 mark (9-9) in Big 12 play.
Yet, remember last year: Five teams with losing conference records — Syracuse, Alabama, Arizona State, Oklahoma, and — yes — Texas got into the Dance. Meanwhile, USC went 12-6 in the 2018 Pac-12 and made the final of the Pac-12 Tournament, notching a Selection Sunday RPI rating of 34… and did not get in the field. USC had the highest RPI of any Power 5 conference team to not make the NCAA Tournament. There was — and is — a first time for everything.
The point of emphasis is that a given conference record in a Power 5 conference does not automatically mean that a team will — or won’t — qualify for March Madness. It only makes sense, because a team should lose a lot more games in the Big 12 than in the present-day Pac-12.
If you’re getting bloodied in a good league or are winning every game in a bad league, the overall impression left on evaluators and observers is the same: “I don’t know how good this team is.”
Texas and Washington take completely different paths toward the same endpoint.
College basketball can be like that.
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