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Texas Longhorns Basketball Bracketology

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Wading through a confusing minefield of conference tiebreakers and projected NCAA tournament brackets to get a glimpse of the future.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

March is upon us, and it is time to look ahead at what is on the post season horizon for the Texas Longhorns. Shaka Smart's team is currently 19-11, and has a road game this Friday night at Oklahoma State to finish off the regular season.

But let's at least be a little honest with ourselves. Although the Oklahoma State game is important and the Big 12 tournament is just around the corner, most Texas fans are probably starting to spend at least a little time contemplating the NCAA tournament, and how things are likely to shake out for the Longhorns.

And with the second Oklahoma and Kansas games now in the books, I am starting to think about this as well. Having these games behind us makes the thinking a little easier, as the possible combinations are now reduced to something a little more managable.

Efforts around bracket prediction -- termed for branding and search engine optimization as Bracketology -- are all over the Internet. And at this point in the season, these various predictions start to become pretty reasonable. While there are many bracket prediction resources to choose from, there are two that I focus on.

The first is the Bracket Matrix, which builds a consensus bracket based on a survey of many online bracket predictions. This is rather handy, and usefully summarizes the general view of what the NCAA bracket would likely look like if the season ended today.

The second tool I use heavily is the bracketology section of TeamRankings.com. The TR approach is a little different in that it does not attempt to predict what the tournament would look like if the season ended today. Instead, they have built models that predict the rest of the season and the conference tournaments, and then take this information and feed it into an algorithm that simulates the NCAA selection and bracketing process. This stochastic calculation gets done many times on a computer, and the result is a probability distribution of where each team will be seeded. You can check out the Texas page here.

For Texas, the predictions of these two approaches is starting to reach the same conclusion. The Bracket Matrix suggests that if the season ended today that Shaka Smart's team would likely draw a 5 or 6 seed, while TeamRankings' models project that a 5 or 6-seed is most likely for Texas, with a 4 or 7-seed also in play.

So what is it going to take to get these various seeds? Answering that first forces us to look at the Big 12 tournament.

The Big 12 regular season finish and the Big 12 tournament

This section contains a few corrections to some errors that I made while analyzing this initially. Thanks to Ryan Clark for straightening me out.

At this point, while it is a little tricky to sift through all of the possibilities, we can make a decent guess as of now on Texas' position in the Big 12 tournament. But first we have to grapple with seeding tiebreakers.

The top half the Big 12 standings are a little congested. Kansas has the top seed locked up, but after that we have to start to consider a boatload of tiebreakers to resolve seeding among the next five teams. This exercise initially seemed terrifying to me, until that I saw that Ryan Clark had already worked out most of what I needed.

Let's summarize simply: Texas' tiebreaker over West Virginia probably won't matter. Oklahoma took the tiebreaker over both Baylor and Texas with its win tonight. And unless Iowa State manages to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse over the weekend, Texas will hold the tiebreaker over the Cyclones. [EDIT: Iowa State holds the tiebreaker over Texas because of its early season win over Kansas.]

This slots Texas in somewhere behind Oklahoma, and -- unless hell freezes over -- ahead [EDIT: either ahead or behind] of Iowa State. West Virginia needs to only win one of two games to stay ahead of Texas, and Kansas has the top spot locked up. The exercise is left to the reader to match OU and the Mountaineers to their proper seeds.

Texas and Baylor seem likely to face in the 4 vs. 5 game, making the tiebreaker between them of merely academic importance for everyone other than the team managers in charge of packing uniforms. And then the winner of that game will most likely play Kansas. [EDIT: There is also some chance that ISU sneaks in to become Texas' opponent in this game, but Baylor is the most likely opponent.]

In the unlikely event that Iowa State beats Kansas, [EDIT: or the somewhat more likely case where Texas loses to Oklahoma State and Baylor wins against West Virginia] the Longhorns would draw a 6-seed in the Big 12 tournament, and face either Oklahoma or West Virginia.

How will Texas' NCAA tournament seed be decided?

Texas is guaranteed two more games before the NCAA tournament. The first game comes on the road on Friday night at Oklahoma State. The second game will come in the Big 12 tournament, and will likely be against Baylor. And since my crystal ball tells me that Texas will most likely be the fourth or fifth seed in the Big 12 tournament, a quarterfinal victory would likely result in a rematch against Kansas.

Various combinations of things can happen here.

First, what is the worst case scenario? If Texas loses in Stillwater, and then drops the first game of the Big 12 tournament, then the Longhorns would likely be picking up a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament. (Of course the process is complex, and other things could move the Horns up or down a line, but right now it is a little hard to grapple with all of that.)

Should the Longhorns manage to win this Friday to close the season, but drop their first Big 12 tournament game, then they would likely end up sitting either at a 5 or 6-seed -- I could see it going either way.

Likewise, a loss on Friday and a win in the Big 12 tournament would also leave them sitting on the fence, although this might be preferable in the eyes of the selection committee, as it would give Texas another win against a highly rated team in the RPI. Let's say this scenario makes things more likely to tip towards a 5.

Should the Longhorns win against Oklahoma State and win a game in the Big 12 tournament, then a 5-seed for March Madness seems like the baseline expectation, and pulling a 4-seed isn't out of the question.

Of course, if Texas manages to win in Stillwater, advance to the semifinals of the league championship, and beat Kansas in Kansas City, then a 4 or 3-seed starts to look like a real possibility. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

What are the differences between earning a 4, 5, 6, or 7 seed in the NCAA tournament?

There are pretty significant reasons for Texas to want to improve its potential seed as much as possible between now and the NCAA tournament. The table below lists the first and second round opponents for each of the four seeds we are considering.

Seed First-Round Opponent Second-Round Opponent
4 13 5/12 Winner
5 12 4/13 Winner
6 11 3/14 Winner
7 10 2/15 Winner

Things get substantially harder for lower seeded teams over this range of seeds. Let's look at some examples of possible opponents to understand just how important seeding can be.

The difference between getting a 4-seed and a 5-seed is substantial. 12-seeds are generally good, drawn from  among the very best teams from one-bid leagues as well as the final at-large teams.

Potential 12-seeds are Valparaiso (currently ranked thee spots below Texas in the kenpom.com rankings), St. Mary's (ranked four spots below Texas), Arkansas-Little Rock (a top 50 team in kenpom.com), Monmouth (has wins over UCLA and Notre Dame), San Diego State, or -- and this is the worst possible scenario -- Gonzaga. The Zags' Pomeroy rating is nearly identical to Texas' rating, and Gonzaga would have the two best players on the floor who would both be problematic match-ups for Texas.

Other plausible 12-seeds would be at-large teams like Temple, Butler, USC, and VCU. With three of those four opponents, the blog posts and columns practically write themselves.

The advantage of a 4-seed becomes obvious when you consider the sorts of teams likely to show up on the 13 line. Teams like Chattanooga, Akron, Hofstra, South Dakota State, and Stony Brook all sit outside of the top 50 in the Kenpom.com rankings. A team like Texas would be a significant favorite against any of these teams on a neutral floor, while games against many potential 12-seeds would be viewed as a tossup.

And things just get worse for the 6 and 7-seeds. Any of the at-large teams listed above could end up as a first round opponent, and additionally a cohort of even better teams -- such as Cincinnati and Syracuse -- become potential round-one opponents.

One conclusion that you might take from this is that there is frequently little correlation between seed number and ability for teams seeded between about 5 and 12, and that teams with the underdog seed are frequently every bit as good as their first-round opponent. And sometimes much better; we live in a world where Wichita State, a top 10 Kenpom team with a great back court and the nation's top rated defense, currently projects as a 9-seed. (Future 1-seeds: have fun with that.)

As we move through the second round, the road gets even worse for the 7 and 6-seeds, relative to the 4 and 5-seeds. These teams will likely to come up in the second round against teams like Virginia (or North Carolina), Xavier, Oregon, Utah, and Duke. No thanks; I would rather catch the winner of that 5 vs. 12 game, or a 4-seed -- so long as it isn't Kentucky.

The importance of finishing strong

It should be fairly obvious based on the previous section that for Texas winning its next two games is critically important for getting its best chance to progress in the NCAA tournament. Two wins could put Texas into the conversation for a 4-seed, and a 5-seed would likely become the fall-back position.

But things can quickly go the other way with two losses to finish the year. So even if you don't fully dive in to the team until the NCAA tournament starts, you may want to pay attention over the next few days.