February 9, 2018 10:44:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- As Ben Howland sees it, he's already been through the gauntlet. He's confident the coming weeks will expose that gauntlet to the rest of America.
"Whoever comes out of the (Southeastern Conference) for the NCAA Tournament, this league is going to do well in the Tournament, I have no doubt about that," said Howland, Mississippi State's men's basketball coach. "Our league is going to be really good because this thing is a gauntlet; there's nothing, top to bottom, one through 14, like this in the country. It's brutal. You better bring your best every day or you have no shot."
Just a few weeks ago, MSU looked like it would be relegated to the role of NCAA Tournament cheerleader, once again cheering on its conference mates in the NCAA Tournament. After a four-game winning streak -- and an opportunity for another quality win 1 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) at Missouri -- MSU (18-6, 6-5 SEC) is sporting a resume much closer to NCAA Tournament contender than ever before.
The last two weeks have been particularly kind to MSU as the wins collected in that span feed perfectly into the NCAA Tournament Committee's new measuring sticks: quadrant wins.
It's been common over the years to judge a team's quality based on record against the top 50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), against the top 100 teams or by bad losses against teams outside the top 200. What it did not do was account for the added difficulty of winning away from home or ease of winning at home, so the NCAA conjured up quadrants to rank games by difficulty based on rank of opponent and location.
There are four quadrants, Quadrant 1 being the most difficult and Quadrant 4 being the least. Quadrant 1 games are against top 30 teams at home, top 50 teams on a neutral court and top 75 teams on the road. The same principles for wins go throughout the four quadrants: for example, beating the No. 76 team on the road is a Quadrant 2 win, but beating that same team at home or on a neutral floor is a Quadrant 3 win. Quadrant 4 -- the weakest wins -- come against teams ranked 161st or worse at home, 201st or worse on a neutral court or 241st or worse on the road.
MSU has two Quadrant 1 wins and three Quadrant 2 wins, with all but one of those wins being a part of its active four-game winning streak. Beating Missouri at home and South Carolina on the road are currently rated as Quadrant 1 wins while the home wins against Alabama and Georgia are Quadrant 2 wins.
On that criteria, MSU is either roughly equal or just below those considered to be just outside the field of 68 for the Tournament. In ESPN's Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection, he has Syracuse as one of the First Four Out with six combined Quadrant 1 and 2 wins compared to MSU's five; UCLA is also in First Four Out with four such wins and Washington is projected to be in the field with five.
One separating factor could be strength of schedule. All four teams have similar records -- Syracuse 16-8, Washington 17-6, UCLA 16-7 and MSU 18-6 -- but strength of schedule ranks the teams differently. Syracuse's schedule is ranked 51st in Ken Pomeroy's numbers and 55th in ESPN's Basketball Power Index, Washington's ranks 71st and 79th, UCLA ranks 79th and 87th; MSU's currently ranks 105th and 96th.
MSU still has opportunities ahead of it: if the RPIs stay as the currently are, Saturday's game against Missouri (16-8, 6-5 SEC) is a shot at a Quadrant 1 win, as is going to Texas A&M on Feb. 20 and hosting Tennessee on Feb. 27.
The SEC schedule that lies ahead is also an opportunity to boost its rating in the advanced metrics made available to the NCAA committee. KenPom's numbers, for example, have MSU ranked 64th; only once in the last five seasons has a team ranked in the 60s in KenPom gotten an at-large bid to the Tournament, but MSU has already shown the ability to climb. This four-game winning streak has seen rise from 81 to 64 with only one top 50 KenPom win; of MSU's final seven regular season games, three of them are against current top 50 KenPom teams.
Such numbers will be what ultimately decides MSU's Tournament fate -- not that Howland is buying into them entirely.
"Somebody told me Lunardi has (Alabama) as a 9 seed; that's a joke," Howland said. "I'm saying this again: whoever comes out of this league for the Tournament is going to do well, collectively."
His team is inching closer to being considered to join them.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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