Understanding why N.C. State is still a long way from the NCAA tournament despite four wins over likely tournament teams requires an understanding of how the selection committee is assessing potential teams differently this year -- and how that hurts N.C. State, which under the new standards has played (and won) a lot of games that don’t matter.
While the NCAA committee is still using the much-maligned-and-for-good-reason RPI as its base measure of teams, it’s no longer grouping wins and losses by raw opponent RPI (top-50, top-100, top-200, 200+) but instead into buckets of different RPI standards based on where the game was played in an attempt to place a more accurate value on road and neutral-site wins.
So Quadrant 1, which replaces the old “top-50 RPI wins,” now includes results against opponents ranked 1-30 in home games, 1-50 at neutral sites and 1-75 on the road. And so on. (It’s important to remember that the committee spends a lot of time looking at those categories when it compares teams and less at raw numbers like RPI or other metrics, many of which it has available to supplement its decisions.)
These “quadrants” are designed to give a more accurate picture of a team’s schedule strength while, in theory, being less penal to mid-major programs that can’t afford to “buy” home wins against teams with solid RPIs to game the system and boost their tournament profile (something N.C. State excelled at under Mark Gottfried). But that also means that most of N.C. State’s home wins against marginal opposition this season are essentially meaningless because of the changes.
Seven of N.C. State’s 15 wins are going to fall into Quadrant 4, where the committee will only really notice a loss (no at-large candidate wants to see a loss in its fourth quadrant), while the Wolfpack also has two damaging Q3 losses (Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro). As things stood Sunday morning, the Wolfpack was 4-4 in Q1, 0-1 in Q2, 4-2 in Q3 and 7-0 in Q4. That’s a little dirtier on the right side of the team sheet compared to, say, another 15-7 team like Butler (2-7, 2-0, 7-0, 4-0).
Given the expected state of N.C. State’s program going into the season, padding the schedule with that heavy dose of easier games – VMI, Charleston Southern, Bryant, Presbyterian, South Carolina State, UMKC, Jacksonville – was a necessity as much as a choice. Having them count against the Wolfpack’s at-large profile now is a problem Kevin Keatts would have loved to have foreseen when putting this schedule together. The Wolfpack has essentially played its way into this unexpected predicament.
From the Time is a Flat Circle Dept.: N.C. State was one of the last teams into the 2014 tournament when the committee chose the 21-13 Wolfpack over 23-9 SMU specifically because of SMU’s weaker nonconference schedule.
The good news for N.C. State is it has a bunch of Q1 and Q2 games left, but it’s going to need to win a few of them. As things stand, the Wolfpack is probably going to have to get to 20 wins to have a chance at an at-large bid, even with a 10-8 ACC record.
N.C. State will be expected to beat Notre Dame (Feb. 3) and Boston College (Feb. 20) at home and win at Georgia Tech (March 1). That gets the Wolfpack to 18 wins, assuming no stumbles. Wins in two out of three at Wake Forest (Feb. 17) and at home against Florida State (Feb. 25) and Louisville (March 3) would give N.C. State a shot at getting in no matter what happens at the ACC tournament in Brooklyn. A home win over North Carolina (Feb. 10) or road win at Virginia Tech (Feb. 7) or Syracuse (Feb. 14) would jump-start the process. And 21 wins ought to seal it, although as always it will depend on results elsewhere.
All of which is to say, as impressive as N.C. State’s big wins are, they’re only one piece of the puzzle, and the Wolfpack has a lot of work left to do to balance its tournament resume and crack the field.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock