Everybody hates losing. Right now, the consistent theme around here is that a 7-4 Vanderbilt team, which has fallen all the way out of the Top 25, has fumbled away a chance at a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. There may be some truth to that, but there are plenty of counterexamples to show that no, the season is not doomed.
I've gone back, with the help of Ken Pomeroy, and identified every team that:
- Had at least four losses by the end of December, and
- Got a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament that season.
- Georgetown (8-4, #41 in Pomeroy on December 31, #4 seed in NCAA Tournament): Technically, this shouldn't count, as the Hoyas lost to Big East foe Xavier on December 31, which was their fourth loss of the season. Their other three losses came to Wisconsin and Butler on a neutral court, and Kansas at home. Georgetown went 12-6 in the Big East but swept Butler and got a home win over Villanova; perhaps they were an overseed, but they managed to get things together enough to get a #4 seed.
- Michigan (8-4, #21 in Pomeroy on December 31, #2 seed in NCAA Tournament): Three of the Wolverines' non-conference losses -- Arizona at home, Duke and Iowa State on the road -- were "good" losses, but there was also an eyesore of a neutral-court loss to a middling C-USA team (Charlotte.) And then Michigan won the Big Ten by three games, erasing whatever damage they did to their profile early on. About the only thing the four early losses did was make them a #2 seed instead of a #1 seed.
- Virginia (9-4, #42 in Pomeroy on December 31, #1 seed in NCAA Tournament): To be clear, this is a Best Case Scenario; the Cavaliers won a strong ACC by two games and also won the ACC Tournament. You might not have predicted that from an early stretch that saw them lose to Tennessee -- by 35! -- along with losses to VCU, Wisconsin, and Green Bay.
- Florida State (8-5, #40 in Pomeroy on December 31, #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament): Certainly, the 'Noles (who finished the season #25 in Pomeroy) were an overseed, but after losing to a couple of Ivy League teams (as well as respectable losses to Michigan State, UConn, and Florida) early on, Florida State went 12-4 in the ACC -- though without the ACC Tournament title they might have gotten a lower seed than this.
- North Carolina (9-4, #24 in Pomeroy on December 31, #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament): There seems to be something about ACC teams, I guess. The Heels had neutral-court losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt, and Texas early on, along with a road loss to Illinois, then proceeded to win the ACC at 14-2. If we're being honest, the selection committee does seem to have kind of a baked-in respect for the ACC, but it's also true that several teams have turned things around after bad early stretches.
- Maryland (8-4 on December 31, #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament): Again? The Terps had respectable losses to Wisconsin and Villanova, a loss to a middling Cincinnati team, and a not-so-respectable home loss to William & Mary. They went 13-3 in the ACC, though, which seems to cure all ills.
- Kansas (7-4 on December 31, #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament): Kansas lost to Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, and St. Joseph's -- all before December 6. And then they went 22-3 the rest of the way, including Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, winding up with a #4 seed (though of course they promptly lost to 13-seed Bradley.)
- LSU (7-4 on December 31, #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament): The four losses came against Houston, Northern Iowa, Cincinnati, and Ohio State. And then, LSU won a regular season title in what was the strongest SEC in recent memory (the SEC finished this season ranked #1 in Pomeroy, and Florida won a national title) and went to the Final Four.
Now, this list isn't very long, to be sure. That's likely a reflection of the fact that most power-conference teams that lose four or more games in November and December -- when guarantee games make up a significant portion of the schedule -- are simply not all that good. I wouldn't write this article to suggest that a 6-5 Arkansas team, with losses to Akron and Mercer (along with three middling power-conference teams) is in any way likely to claim a top-four seed in the tournament. But in Vanderbilt's case, there is reason to believe that this is still a possibility.
For one thing, and I can't say this too often, none of the four losses, taken individually, are likely to hurt the Commodores in March. Kansas and Purdue are among the best teams in the country; Baylor is a fringe top 25 team (and that was a two-point loss on the road); and Dayton is probably going to make the tournament. What's more, two of those losses came with Luke Kornet out of the lineup. The NCAA's consideration of personnel losses is complicated, to say the least, but we at least know that some weight will be given to the fact that Kornet was not playing in the Dayton and Purdue games.
For another, the SEC's league-wide "work the RPI" campaign means that there are fewer potential land mines in conference play, and more opportunities for (at least in the eyes of the Selection Committee) "good wins." Right now, Kentucky, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Florida look like legitimate tournament teams. Alabama somehow sports a top 25 RPI -- how long that will last is anyone's guess, but there's a decent chance that the Tide will wind up on the fringes of NCAA Tournament conversation thanks to an inflated RPI. Georgia and Ole Miss are in the RPI top 50. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranked SEC team -- Mississippi State -- checks in at #169; hardly great, but not disastrous either. Four losses against a respectable non-conference schedule is hardly ideal, but if Vanderbilt manages to go 14-4 in the SEC -- or better -- there is at least a chance that the Commodores will wind up with a good seed on Selection Sunday.
Of course, they actually have to go out and do that. But what we've seen from the team so far this year suggests that they are capable of doing just that.