Each week, ESPN's Joe Lunardi predicts the NCAA tournament field if the season ended today. While he's good at this, Lunardi only focuses on past performance, and wins and losses. Bracketology Busters looks at which teams should be expected to perform significantly better or worse than their projected seeds.
With less than a month until Selection Sunday, things are starting to shake out, but there are still some large gaps between perception and reality. This week, we feature an emerging Big East team, and a Big 12 power that might be overrated.
Oklahoma | Current Seed: 1 | Status: Overrated
If they beat Texas Saturday night, the Sooners will not only be No. 1 in their region in Bracketology, but also the top-ranked team in both polls. It's easy to see why. A win against the Longhorns would move the Sooners to 26-1 overall and 12-0 in the Big 12. Likely national player of the year Blake Griffin's ridiculous stat lines in the frontcourt are a huge plus for public perception as well.
But Oklahoma hasn't been nearly as dominant as any of those numbers would indicate.
They've been winning, but not convincingly; six of their 11 conference wins have come by eight points or less. Sooner or later, the ball isn't going to bounce their way in one of these close games. And it's not like all those tight wins have come against elite teams. One of them was a five-point victory at home against Colorado; that same Buffaloes team found themselves down 37-9 at halftime of their next game against Iowa State.
Griffin is obviously fantastic, there's no disputing that. His teammates, offensively at least, are excellent as well. Freshman guard Willie Warren is hitting 60-percent of his attempts inside the arc and senior Austin Johnson hitting more than his share of big 3-pointers. But on defense, Griffin's supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore is one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation, but Oklahoma's overall defense is pretty ordinary. The Sooners perimeter pressure in particular leaves a lot to be desired; they struggle to force turnovers, and are just average at defending the three. In this sense, the 2009 Sooners are reminiscent of 2008 UConn: one obvious, memorable defensive presence on an otherwise pedesterian unit. (That team, for the history challenged, flamed out in the first round to 13th-seed San Diego. Though, in Connecticut's defense, leading scorer A.J. Price played just nine minutes before injuring his knee.)
From a performance standpoint, Oklahoma really hasn't done anything in Big 12 play to separate itself from either Kansas or Missouri. They'll be given that opportunity though. Along with their visit to Austin Saturday night, they face both the Jayhawks and Tigers down the stretch. With their gaudy record, the Sooners could lose one, and maybe even two, of those three marquee matchups and maintain their No. 1 seed. But even if they do end up on the top line, in reality they're just not in the same class as teams like North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
West Virginia | Current Seed: 7 | Status: Underrated
The Mountaineers have seen the forces of luck and scheduling conspire against them over their first 12 games in Big East play. Despite their 6-6 league record, they've actually outscored their opponents by an average of almost four points per game. On a per-possession basis, West Virginia has been the sixth best team in the conference, just behind Villanova.
And they've done it against an incredibly difficult schedule. As impressive as the Big East is this season, it does have four teams -- South Florida, St. John's, Rutgers, and DePaul -- that just aren't very good. In their first 12 conference games, West Virginia has faced those four teams a total of two times; in their final six games, they'll go against three of them, including a home game against DePaul, easily the worst team in the league. The Mountaineers have also already played the conference's two best teams, in Pittsburgh and Connecticut, and don't have to face either over the final three weeks of the regular season.
Another reason West Virginia has flown under the radar is that nothing about the Mountaineers really catches your attention. With Joe Alexander gone to the NBA, they don't have a star on their roster. They excel at two things that you'll never notice by just watching highlights: offensive rebounding and perimeter defense. Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings have them ranked 16th and second in the nation in those two categories, respectively. Putbacks and guard defense may not be as exciting as dunks and blocks, but when it comes to winning basketball games they are just as, if not more, important.
Thanks to the easy closing schedule, West Virginia will likely finish with 11 or so conference wins, and rise above their current seven seed. But because of their bad fortune thus far in the year, they'll probably still be underseeded come tournament time; if you're a No. 1 seed, the Mountaineers are not a team you'd want to face in the Sweet 16.