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Louisville’s NCAA Tournament chances: Reasons for Optimism vs. Causes for Concern

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Let’s break this thing down from a fundamental standpoint.

Let’s start with this seemingly obvious but still necessary caveat: When it comes to the NCAA tournament selection committee, nobody knows anything for certain.

Every year we think we have this thing relatively pinned down. Then the brackets are released and there at least three or four things — whether it’s teams included/excluded or seedings — that shock everyone who follows this stuff closely.

At the present moment, it seems as though Louisville is sitting as squarely on the bubble as any team in America. Maybe that isn’t the case. Maybe the Cards are already definitively out of the field of 68, maybe they’re more comfortably in than anyone believes. We simply have no clue.

While Joe Lunardi having Louisville as the last team in is nice(?) and Jerry Palm having U of L as the next to last team in is nicer, there’s no way to know for certain what the Cardinals’ current situation is. All we can do is look at the evidence, and right now there are a number of reasons for optimism and causes for concern on the table.

Reason for Optimism: Louisville’s RPI

Love it or hate it, the RPI is still the metric of choice for the NCAA tournament selection committee, at least for one more year. Though it’s likely to fluctuate a small amount over the next three days, Louisville’s current RPI is 38, which is a historically safe number for a team from a major conference.

Only one major conference team has ever been left out of the Big Dance with a top 40 RPI, and that was Cincinnati in 2006 ... five years before the advent of the “First Four,” which created four more at-large bids. Had the tournament been at 68 teams 12 years ago, the Bearcats would have been dancing.

It would be a historic move for the committee to leave Louisville out of the field. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time this year that U of L has been on the wrong end of a piece of negative history.

Cause for Concern: No top 50 RPI wins

Louisville has only beaten two teams likely to hear their names called on Selection Sunday: Florida State and Virginia Tech. The good news is they’ve beaten both those teams twice. The bad news is neither currently ranks in the top 50 of the RPI. Florida State is No. 54 and Virginia Tech is No. 60.

There is no “signature victory” on Louisville’s resume, which gives the committee an easy out if they choose to exclude U of L. Telling the rest of the country on Selection Sunday that the Cards are out because they “only beat two teams in the tournament” and “have no top 50 RPI wins” is an easily digestible argument.

Reason for Optimism: “Top 50 RPI Wins” isn’t a measuring stick anymore

This year, the committee has gone away from “top 25 RPI wins/top 50 RPI wins,” etc. in favor of the much-talked about quadrant system. In theory, the fact that Louisville has three Quadrant 1 wins (at Virginia Tech, at Florida State, at Notre Dame) should be taken into consideration while the fact they are 0-10 against the RPI top 50 should not.

If Florida State rises four spots to No. 50 in the RPI between now and Sunday, Louisville’s ACC tournament triumph over the Seminoles would become a fourth Quadrant 1 wins.

Cause for Concern: Louisville’s Quadrant 1/2 record isn’t great

At the present time, Louisville’s record in Quadrant 1 games is 3-8, and its record in Quadrant 2 games is 2-5. That’s not ideal. In fact, it’s the lowest number of Q1/2 wins of any team on the bubble. Alabama has 10, Oklahoma State has 10, Oklahoma has 9, UCLA has 8, and Arizona State has 8.

Reason for Optimism: Higher priority on no bad losses

Ordinarily I would dismiss this because the committee has historically weighed who you’ve beaten far more heavily than who you haven’t lost to, but that might not be the case this year.

Earlier this week, first year committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen sat down with CBS’ Matt Norlander to discuss a number of different topics related to the selection process. As far as our interests are concerned I thought this response was of particular note:

CBS Sports: One criticism some have had in recent years is that losses don’t seem to matter as much as they should, particularly in some instances where teams with a lot of losses could be justified either not being put into the field or being a seed line lower. Is that true?

BR: The committee has a lot of conversations in private about those last two quadrants. However, when we’re out talking, we tend to talk about the positives and not the negatives. I look at it from two [ways]. One, I think one of the hardest things to do is win the games you’re supposed to. I don’t think we talk about that enough. It’s not necessarily that they’re great wins, but you win the games you’re supposed to -- 18- to 21-year-olds, that’s hard.

Louisville has a perfect 15-0 record in Quadrant 3/4 games. It is the only team on the bubble that hasn’t lost to at least one team that is already definitely out of the NCAA tournament. If that’s something that the committee is putting a higher priority on this season, then clearly it’ll work in U of L’s favor.

Cause for Concern: There’s still a lot of basketball to be played

To me, this is the biggest cause for concern.

Let’s assume that Louisville is currently one of the last teams in the field right now. That’s not a comfortable position. The handful of teams behind them that could play leapfrog with another quality win or two is one thing, but the bigger issue is the number of bid thieves lurking. We already (potentially) saw this last night with Middle Tennessee losing in the Conference USA quarters.

If anybody but Nevada wins the Mountain West, that’s an at-large spot stolen. If anybody but Rhode Island or (maybe) Saint Bonaventure wins the Altantic 10, that’s an at-large spot stolen. If Oregon wins with Pac-12, that’s an at-large spot stolen. If someone crazy wins the SEC, that’s an at-large spot stolen. Same thing in the AAC.

If Louisville is the last team in the field right now, it means everything has to go perfectly for them over the next three days in order to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. That’s asking a lot in March.

Reason for Optimism: Louisville is a good draw and an easy March storyline

The NCAA tournament selection committee NEVER makes decisions based on money or made-for-TV drama. They’ll tell you that. If they did (which they totally don’t), Louisville would seem like a wise choice. Cardinals fans will travel en masse to Dayton (or wherever), and the “Louisville makes NCAA tournament” story basically writes itself at this point, regardless of which angle you’re choosing to attack it from.

But they never do this, so it doesn’t even matter.

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest, I don’t feel great about this. But assuming things don’t get too crazy in other tournaments over the next three days, I won’t be shocked either way when we learn Louisville’s fate on Sunday.

It feels like a genuine coin flip at this point depending on what the committee decides to value the most. If it’s overall RPI, U of L would seem to be pretty safe. If they decide to be overly committed to the new quadrant system, well, that could be a problem.

Root against Bama, root against Oregon, root for the conference tournament favorites, and then hope like hell for the best.