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Cal Basketball Monday Thoughts: March Madness, RPI, and Expectations

Thoughts on Cal's March path, the fickle nature of an NCAA resume and the RPI, and the performance of Cuonzo Martin.

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

As far as I'm concerned, Spokane is spectacular mojo. Let's get this party started!

Cal draws a 4 seed in the South regional

First, the good news: Cal defied the wisdom of crowds by receiving a 4 seed from a selection committee coming under even more fire than usual (more thoughts on that below). And of the various teams that could have pulled the 5 seed across from Cal in Spokane, Maryland was about as good a choice as any.

On the down side, Cal drew the best 13 seed in Hawaii, a team that is better from an efficiency perspective than many other teams with better seeds. For a matter of comparison, Hawaii is just behind Oregon State and just ahead of Washington in the Kenpom rankings, which tells you that Cal should beat the Rainbow Warriors, but that they're good enough to potentially give us all a scary ride.

Generally speaking, it's silly to speculate beyond the sub-regional because it's hard enough to get past on its own, and because who knows which teams will actually make it that far anyway? But if you were hoping for a yellow brick road to Houston, you'll be disappointed. The South is legit. Kansas is the best overall team in the country according to both the Selection Committee and (more importantly) the numbers. Villanova is a borderline 1 seed themselves. UConn, Arizona, Wichita State, and Iowa are all the best team on their seed line, and also top 25 worthy teams along with Cal and 1/2/3/5 seeded teams. In a theoretical world where all 4 brackets are equally strong, there should be six op 25 quality teams each. The South region has nine. Whichever team that manages to escape the south will have earned it.

But that's miles ahead of us. The good news we don't really need to worry about most of that unless the Bears advance to Louisville, which I am firmly in favor of.

For the first time EVER Cal has earned a top 4 seed, and with it geographic preference. That's good! Unfortunately, there are no first round regional hosts in California. That's mildly bad luck! California has hosted a first round sub-regional in 2013 (that was fun!), 2014, and will do so again in 2017 and 2018. This is about as far as Cal would ever have to travel when given geographic preference. Bummer! We'll have to do it again next year so that the intelligent, attractive residents of Sacramento can enjoy the Bears at Golden 1 Arena.

We'll have plenty more on Hawaii later.

Some thoughts on the Selection Committee and scheduling

In case you needed a reminder, the RPI is still wildly important. Sure, you can ask, say, St. Bonaventure about the value of a high RPI and receive lots of cursing in response. But generally speaking, it's the RPI that determines your March fate.

Every single year, the committee claims that there's more than RPI going into the final mix. For example, here's this year's meaningless quotes:

The common metrics most of us use are KenPom, Sagarin, LRMC, BPI, KPI," Castiglione said, rattling off a list of advanced metrics per the New York Times. He added: "We're using more and more metrics than we were in the past. It isn't just the RPI.

Except it is. I took the top 24 teams in the RPI (minus the ineligible SMU and Louisville) and compared their actual seeds with the seeds they would have been given if they had just been ranked by RPI. Only three teams deviated from their hypothetical pure-RPI seeds by more than one line. And two of those teams were Dayton and St. Josephs, two teams from non-power conferences. If there's one specific way the committee deviates from RPI, it's to punish small schools for having weaker schedules with fewer high-RPI opponents - even when their actual performance results in a good score from the NCAA's preferred metric. Sorry, small catholic schools!

I'm writing this not to complain (the RPI and the committee's slavish devotion to it is dumb, though), but as another plea to pay close attention to the non-conference schedules that Cal and fellow Pac-12 teams put together each year. Unless and until the committee actually changes how they do things, it's wildly important for the Bears and their conference mates to put together smart, RPI-tailored schedules each year. Try to get solid mid-major west coast teams like St. Mary's and the best of the MWC to come to Berkeley. Keep scheduling solid home-and-homes against power schools. Try to schedule fewer games against RPI anchors like Rice, Seattle, and Coppin St.

This year, Cal's non-conference schedule was mediocre from a resume building perspective. Thankfully, the rest of the Pac-12 more than carried their own weight. If you want an example of what happens when a good Cal team isn't carried by a strong conference, just remember the 2010 Bears, who were a top 25 team by efficiency metrics but got stuck with an 8 seed because the Pac-10 sucked.

Cuonzo Martin: Meeting expectations that he created for himself

When the NCAA selection committee released their complete seed list, Cal came in 14th. Amusingly, that's identical to where Cal was ranked in the pre-season poll by both the AP and the coaches. Turns out those people occasionally know what they're talking about!

Job well done by Cal's players and coaches, right?

I quote this tweet not because I have any particular desire to highlight a dumb take, but because I think it's important to understand how our program is currently perceived by national types who really don't pay much attention. Nationally, people think that Cal is a juggernaut team that has been held back by a mediocre coach who can recruit players without coaching them up. If Cal should lose in the first weekend, the chorus of people spouting that narrative will be very loud indeed.

Hopefully, you recognize how dumb that narrative is. Cal might have three NBA players. One of those players might not have a position in the league. Another has raw talent that makes scouts drool, but is likely a few years away from being a positive contributor. Another is a solid post prospect who probably needs a year to bulk up to hold up in the league. The roster is generally lacking in players who came into the program as naturally high end defenders.

I say this not to denigrate our players (who are, in fact awesome, and put in all kinds of hard work to become the players they are now) but to point out that this was not a team with every single piece laid out, ready to be easily pieced together on day one. We got to watch as this team learned to play defense together, learned how to score without a high end, true, pass-first point guard, learned how to integrate the talents of their freshmen.

Cuonzo Martin and his staff played a huge role in making that happen. They met the expectations that they created for themselves by bringing in a top 5 recruiting class. Their work during the off-season and during the regular season turned Cal from a team that wasn't even NIT worthy into a team that earned the highest seed in program history in one friggin' year. The fact that anybody (coughTennesseetwittercough) might try to spin that as anything less than a coaching success should set off your bullshit alarm.

Now, when this team is done playing in April, can we please get this weird contract thing taken care of?