Tuteja: An early look at Stanford’s March Madness chances

Feb. 11, 2015, 10:39 p.m.

Although it’s not even the middle of February, my sports mind has already begun thinking about the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. Growing up, March Madness was always one of my favorite times of the year, especially given that the first games always seemed to fall over the week of spring break.

Moreover, I’ve personally always found bracket challenges with friends much more fun than fantasy football. Given the 9.2 quintillion combinations for a 64-team bracket, it’s always fun making picks and hoping that they somehow turn out correct — regardless of how low the odds of getting these picks correct actually are. After all, Warren Buffett did partner with Quicken Loans to offer $1 billion to anyone who picked a perfect bracket last season (Spoiler alert: No one did, but if you’re like me, you’re still probably getting emails about mortgages from Quicken Loans.)

One thing that has changed for me since starting college is that I now actually have a team to root for in college basketball. In my home state of Alabama, college basketball is often an afterthought when compared to the football craze. Last year marked the first season since 2008 that Stanford made the NCAA tournament, and the team upset New Mexico and Kansas en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. Thus, given my love of March Madness and Stanford basketball, the question that I’m pondering at the moment is: Will Stanford make the NCAA tournament this year?

To give a little background, the NCAA tournament is made up of 68 teams. Out of these 68, 32 spots are awarded automatically to the 32 conference champions. The NCAA selection committee meets in March to debate the remaining 36 spots based on a variety of metrics that they use to evaluate the teams. Even though it’s still early and there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Stanford’s resumé up until now.

Stanford currently sits at 16-7 overall and 7-4 in the Pac-12 conference, which ties the team for third in the conference with Oregon and Oregon State. Fortunately, the Cardinal will have the opportunity to play both of these teams at home in a few weeks, in what will absolutely be must-win games.

According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the Pac-12 is currently only projected to have three teams in the NCAA tournament. As of now, Stanford is one of those teams, along with Arizona and Utah, and is currently projected to be a #9 seed in the tournament. Lunardi has Oregon as one of the first four teams out of the field of 68, which makes the home game against Oregon near the end of the season all the more important, as a loss might mean switching places with Oregon and falling out of the field of 68.

A metric that the NCAA selection committee likes to use to compare teams is the Ratings Performance Index, or RPI. The index attempts to quantify the difficulty of a team’s schedule and its performance on that schedule. According to ESPN, Stanford is No. 44 in RPI. Given that some of the teams ahead of Stanford will win their conferences and hence not compete for one of the 36 at-large spots, this puts Stanford in solid striking position to enter the tournament. Unfortunately for Stanford, it has what the committee would view as “bad losses” to teams that have RPIs outside of the top 100.

For example, Stanford lost earlier in the season by 15 points to DePaul (RPI of 119) and last week to Washington State (RPI of 129). Counterbalancing these losses are wins against Texas (RPI of 32) and Wofford (RPI of 46). Some believe that the selection committee places more weight on bad losses than on quality wins, and if that’s the case, the Cardinal certainly need to avoid losses to Colorado, Cal, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State — the five remaining teams on its schedule with RPIs of greater than 50.

On the other hand, Stanford has two golden opportunities on the road in the coming weeks against No. 11 Utah and No. 7 Arizona. The Utes are in second place in the Pac-12 and have an RPI of 12. In its final road trip of the season, Stanford has a rematch with Pac-12 leaders the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, who boast an RPI of 7. The Cardinal lost a heartbreaker to Arizona at Maples Pavilion in January but played without then-injured freshman star Reid Travis. A win against either the Utes or the Wildcats would most likely clinch an NCAA tournament berth if Stanford were to win against the five aforementioned teams with RPIs over 50. Moreover, a win against either of the teams would certainly help with seeding in the NCAA tournament, which is important if Stanford wants to make a run in March.

Overall, these remaining few weeks are unsurprisingly the most important weeks of the season for Stanford. This year’s team features three starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team in Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic. Given that all three of these players are in their final years of eligibility, it seems like this is the year for Stanford to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament and capitalize on their veteran experience.

Contact Shawn Tuteja at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Shawn Tuteja is a senior studying mathematics and statistics. He serves as the color commentator of KZSU 90.1 FM's coverage of the Stanford football team and the play-by-play announcer for men's basketball broadcasts. Hailing from the great state of Alabama, Shawn grew up an avid fan of college football and has written feature articles and columns on a wide range of Stanford sports. Contact him at sstuteja 'at' stanford.edu

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