Tom Oates: NCAA tournament scenario makes Saturday's game important for Badgers

Tom Oates: NCAA tournament scenario makes Saturday's game important for Badgers

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Brad Davison photo

Brad Davison scored a team-high 14 points in the 82-68 win over Nebraska on Jan. 21 at the Kohl Center.

Amid the organized chaos that is college men’s basketball this season, the key word is balance.

Led by the Big Ten Conference, where 12 of the 14 teams still have a legitimate chance to reach the NCAA tournament a month before Selection Sunday, the six major conferences are short on national title contenders and long on bubble teams.

So where does that leave the University of Wisconsin, which has an unsightly 14-10 record but is conducting a torrid love affair with the analytics people?

In need of five more wins, that’s where. Starting Saturday. Heck, especially Saturday.

This is the second year the NCAA tournament selection committee is using its just-developed NET rankings and, with seven regular-season games remaining, the Badgers are ranked 31st. UW is one of only two teams in the top 38 with double-digit losses (No. 29 Purdue is the other). Both are greatly aided by the remarkable depth of the Big Ten, which has 11 teams in the top 40.

It’s not just the NET’s computer that is helping the Badgers’ resume, though. UW is 30th in ESPN’s BPI rankings, 30th in the Sagarin rankings and 31st in the KenPom rankings. Currently, most of the bracket experts have it as an eighth or ninth seed.

It is important to note the NET — like the RPI before it — is one of many sorting tools used by the committee. However, the NET was designed to give the committee a better look at each team’s full body of work because it isn’t based as heavily on strength of schedule as it was in the past. With only one year of evidence, we don’t yet know how much the committee will rely on the NET, which breaks wins and losses into four quadrants based on the NET ranking of the opponent, where the game was played and margin of victory, among other things.

The gist of the rating is this: A team wants to win as many Quad 1 games as it can and avoid Quad 3 and 4 losses if at all possible. Games that qualify for Quad 1 are home games against top-30 teams, neutral-site games against top-50 teams and away games against top-75 teams. Quad 2 games are home (against teams ranked 31 to 75), neutral (51-100) and away (76-135). Quad 3 games are home (76-160), neutral (101-200) and away (136 to 240). Quad 4 games are all the rest.

Although the records can change as the ratings of past opponents change during the season, UW currently is 7-7 against Quad 1 opponents, 1-2 against Quad 2s, 0-1 against Quad 3s and 6-0 against Quad 4s. The Badgers’ seven Quad 1 wins are impressive — last year it had 10 — and they are 6-1 against teams ranked in the top 23. The only real blemish on UW’s NET rating is a neutral-site loss to New Mexico, which is ranked 127th.

That explains why Saturday’s game at Nebraska is the next closest thing to a must-win game for UW. The Cornhuskers are ranked 168th and a defeat would add another Quad 3 loss to UW’s NET rankings. With its marginal record, UW might not be able to overcome such a stain on its resume.

UW’s NET ranking should secure its bid, but it can’t afford to drop any further. According to last year’s NET, the two biggest NCAA snubs were No. 33 North Carolina State and No. 35 Clemson. However, the Wolfpack were 3-9 and the Tigers 1-10 in Quad 1 games.

Although the Badgers are solidly entrenched in the NET, wins and losses still count and their record is the most suspect part of their resume. Of course, the committee could consider that they went 5-5 prior to Micah Potter becoming eligible, but to feel totally secure the Badgers need to get to 19 wins by the end of the Big Ten tournament.

Should they go 3-4 and finish the regular season at 17-14, they would have to win two games in the Big Ten tournament to get to 19-15. Should they go 4-3 and finish the regular season at 18-13, they possibly could go one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament and still make it with an 18-14 record. But given the large number of bubble teams and the uncertainty over how the NET rankings will be used, does UW really want to take that chance?

One thing that seems highly unlikely is UW making it with a 17-15 record. Going 3-4 and then losing the opener in the conference tournament would put the Badgers in murky territory. Only three teams in history have received NCAA at-large bids with 15 losses, all in the past three years. They all had 19-15 records, though.

Since the tournament expanded in 1985, only 16 teams with 14 or more losses received at-large bids, including two each in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In most instances, however, those teams were at least four games above .500. Just once in the past 29 tournaments has a team that was only two or three games above .500 received an at-large bid.

But there is encouraging news for the Badgers’ chances. After Saturday, four of their remaining six games are at home, where they are 11-1. They also can help themselves with Quad 1 games against Purdue, Michigan (road) and Indiana (road) and Quad 2 games against Rutgers and Minnesota.

But unless the Badgers stumble against Nebraska or Northwestern (No. 150), the NET rankings aren’t a huge concern for them at this point. Getting wins is. If they can win five more and get to 19, they should be in. Four more wins might do it, but that would be a real roll of the dice.

<&rdpStrong>Preview: Badgers vs. Nebraska</&rdpStrong>

Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.

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