Selection Monday for the Aggie Women

Now that the NCAA men's bracket is out, let's speculate about seeds and possible opponents for the A&M Women's Bouncy Ball team. The ESPN bracketology expert for WBB is Charlie Creme, and other analysis can be found at SBN's Swish Appeal, and a number of different computer ranking systems, including RPI.

The Ags Resumé

Despite the proliferation of computational methods, at the end of the day the 10 member selection committee is a very exclusive human poll, which includes subjective judgement calls.

Then, of course, there’s the eye test. All of today’s technology and number-crunching still has its place, and committee members are free to value it how they want.

Most notably, gut feeling and instinct help in comparing mid-majors with sparkling records to high-majors that have suffered more losses through the rigors of league play, said Hancock, a senior associate commissioner with the Big 12 who is in her third year of a five-year term on the selection committee.

"It comes in a lot, especially when you get down to the BCS leagues and how a six or seven (finisher) from a BCS league would fare against a Dayton or Duquesne or a Green Bay (mid-majors)," Hancock said last Monday prior to the Big 12 championship game.

"Some of those teams have great records. I try to maintain, continue to push — even though I can’t be in the room when Big 12 schools are talked about — I continue to push that we’ve got the No. 1 RPI in the country. If you took all our two-through-seven teams and took away the two losses they have to Baylor and gave them to a Green Bay or a Dayton, where would they be ranked? Or would they be ranked at all? The smell test, the eye test, those are all important."

That the Ags are the considered a lock for a 3 seed and in the conversation for a 2 seed with 9+ losses is validation of Gary Blair's Friedrich Niestzche/Conan the Barbarian strategy: That which did not kill us made us stronger. The Ags are an interesting example of how hard it is to develop a single picture of the team from an overall "body of work". Every team changes over the course of a season, and most teams get better. The "Red Queen" problem is that your opponents are getting better too. If the progress slopes were uniform across all teams, then their relative positions in a ranking would be fixed. But of course progress is not the same from team to team and not constant for a given team over the course of a season. To me, A&M's progress fluctuations have been greater than average due to the huge changes in the lineup from last year. The Ags graduated 3 starters, all of who were major contributors on the 2011 National Champions. The returners were Kelsey Bone and the guard duo of Alexia Standish and Adrienne Pratcher, who split the starts over the season. By the end of 2011, Standish was starting, but Sydney Carter was playing the point. In the S16 loss to Maryland, Pratcher and 2012-13 starting power forward Kristi Bellock didn't see the floor. Standish left the team after 6 games in November. Graduation of Skylar Collins and Kelsey Assarian meant the loss of the 2/3 of the key reserves, with only Karla Gilbert returning as the backup post. To illustrate the change, consider the 2011-12 minutes of the players with significant minutes on current team, sorted in descending order of PT in 2012-13:

Name Ht Yr Pos 2011 Games/Starts m/g Comments
Kelsey Bone 6-4 RS Jr C 35/31 24.0 m/g Starting C
Courtney Walker 5-8 Fr G - Starting SG
Kristi Bellock 6-1 Sr F 28/1; 6.1 m/g Starting PF
Adrienne Pratcher 5-7 Sr PG 31/13; 19.0 m/g Starting PG
Courtney Williams 6-1 Fr F - Starting W
Peyton Little 5-11 Fr W - Usually subs for Williams, but also plays at the 2.
Karla Gilbert 6-5 Jr C 35/3 15.1 m/g Gilbert's minutes are down as Bone's play has improved. Gilbert's play was essential in wins in the SEC tourney
Tori Scott 5-10 So W 23/0 4.9 m/g Lost the starting job to Williams, subs at the W.
Jordan Jones 5-6 Fr G - Jones minutes are lower, but has appeared in more
Rachel Mitchell 6-7 RS Fr C RS last year w/shoulder injuries Rachel only played in blowouts, but got minutes with the outcome in question in the SEC tourney, so she's included in this table.

The season seemed to go in phases where fans could watch the young and inexperienced work on incorporating different parts of the offense and defense in real time. Before the SEC tourney, I wrote:

Arguably, the hangover from the loss to Kentucky at Reed Arena is part of the entire slump. It appears that the Ags spent a lot of time dissecting the many errors made in that game, beyond the usual time spend in post-mortem. This team seems to be perhaps overly introspective, to the point where overthinking how to avoid past mistakes leads to a loss of confidence, hesitation, and breakdowns.

This weakness reflects the coaching style of our Hall of Fame coach. Gary Blair has defended the fact that he's a "sets coach" rather than a "motion coach". In the style of Bill Walsh, Blair scripts the first several possessions of each half. At times it seems like the team is determined to run the call regardless of what the other team is giving them. There are also times when the team seems to overreact to whatever the coaches are saying about them in the press conferences. Blair says Peyton Little needs to work on her medium range game; Peyton starts passing up open threes to drive into traffic. Blair says the team doesn't block enough shots; the bigs go after blocks and give up too many offensive rebounds. this can be frustrating to watch, but not continuing to work on getting better isn't a viable option. Toward the end of the regular season, it seemed to me that Blair's script recognized that he needed to get Courtney Williams involved more. It didn't click during the slump, but Williams showed progress in the SEC tourney (setting aside her problems defending Taber Spani). Williams had 11 boards vs. USCe, and scored 11 vs. UK in the final. After settling down in the semi, she hit the clutch open jumper that gave the Ags the lead for good vs. the Vols.

Blair and his staff did a masterful job of restoring the team's confidence during the preparation for the games in Duluth. Will A&M be able to play at a level where we would be favored over the likely 3 seeds? In his analysis of possible 2 and 3 seeds, Parham reflects the conventional wisdom about how to beat the Ags:

The problem, of course, is those losses to LSU and Vanderbilt. What do we make of those? In those two games, star center Kelsey Bone was a combined 12-for-37 from the field. She was held without an offensive rebound against Vanderbilt. In the second loss to UK, she had only 8 shots and 7 turnovers in a game that the Wildcats scored 29 points off turnovers. In the first loss to UK she had 5 turnovers in a three point game.

You never want to see that a basketball game is won or loss as the result of one player, but teams that find a way to bother Bone can beat TAMU.

This is true of the approach taken by Vandy and LSU. But its been the obvious strategy vs A&M all year and it requires that the rest of the team fails to step up. In a way, this is similar to how UConn and Cal beat Stanford by focusing on Chiney Ogumwike and daring the other players to step up. As with Stanford, and Chiney, not every team has the personnel to neutralize Bone, even if everyone knows going in that she will be the focus of the offfense. Continuing the analogy, back in December and January, the rest of the Cardinal weren't able to answer the call. In the Pac finale they won with Chiney being stymied. It's not a gimme, but they aren't dead in the water. A&M has also shown it can compete with limited production from Bone. At Georgia, Bone was limited to 10 pts in 25 minutes; the Ags won easily. In Baton Rouge, Bone went to the bench with 2 fouls at 9:48 of the first half with the Ags up 16-20. The Ags stretched the lead to 11 with 2:06 left before LSU went on a run to cut the lead to 5. In the loss to UK at Reed, the late comeback started with Bone on the bench with cramps. Bone sat large parts of the S. Carolina and UK games in the SEC tourney. In several of these cases, this may have helped Bone play better in the second half. In terms of where the production will come from: Courtney Walker is averaging double figures and UK coach Matt Mitchell called her the player he fears most on the TAMU roster. Bellock and Pratcher can provide points. If Williams (4-4 3FG vs La Tech) and/or Little (5-8 3FG vs Mizzou) can regain the shooting touch they showed early in the year, look out. Gilbert is not Bone, but she can be very good in the paint.

The Ags in the context of the other seeds

Next, let's look at the overall bracketology landscape. The consensus is that Baylor is the overall top seed. The other #1s are going to be Notre Dame, UConn, and Stanford, with some thinking Duke has a chance to displace either the Cardinal or UConn (!!). The argument for Duke is based on various formulas put them higher than Stanford and because they have fewer losses than the Huskies. I would be surprised if Duke takes a 1 seed from Stanford and shocked if they displace UConn. Stanford and Duke are both 11-2 vs top 50 teams, but in Stanford's case those are all top 25 games, while only 7 of Duke's are vs the top 25. This suggests that Duke's S-factor edge is due to beating a better class of teams outside the top 50. Duke has beaten Cal, but so has Stanford. The Cardinal also have wins against Tennessee and, importantly, they're the only team to beat Baylor this year. UConn has 4 losses but those are to Baylor and 3x to Notre Dame (by 1, 9 in 3OT, and 2). To me, this is evidence that UConn and ND are evenly matched, not that ND is significantly better. Tossing heads 3 times in a row happens by random chance 1/8th of the time. UConn has also beaten Duke head-to-head. Duke or whomever they bump would be the top 2 seed. It gets less clear from there, thanks to upsets late in the season and in the conference tourneys, including the Ags win in Duluth. In his analysis of the candidates for the 2 and 3 seeds. Nate Parham looked at everyone in the top 12 in any rating system he could find and came up with 11 teams for 8 slots. Alphabetically, they are Cal, Iowa State, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Penn State, Syracuse, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and UCLA. Of these, Iowa State, Nebraska, N. Carolina, Syracuse, Maryland, and UCLA are viewed as being more on the 3/4 bubble than contending for a 2. Which leaves us with four teams competing with the Ags for one of the other three 2 seeds:

  • Cal: Going into the Pac tourney, Cal had only 2 losses: to Duke and to Stanford. But they split with the Cardinal with the win happening @Maples Pavilion. Cal had a chance to bump Stanford from their 1 seed by winning the Pac tourney... but then they ran into a hot UCLA in the semis. The Bruins didn't just knock the Golden Bears out of the tourney, they beat them convincingly. But Cal still holds the season edge 2-1, having swept UCLA in regular season play. The human polls still have Cal at #6 but the RPI formulas have them lower. There are several arguments for putting A&M above Cal: 1) Sagarin has us above them, 2) We won our tourney and had a much tougher strength of schedule, and 3) my maroon-tinted eyeball sense that we'd BTHO them due to how the two teams strengths and weaknesses align. Cal vs TAMU might happen; I would look at it being very similar to TAMU vs USCe. But between 6 fewer losses, being higher in the other rankings, and having a win vs. a projected 1 seed, look for Cal to get one of the 2s.
  • Kentucky: Despite not winning the SEC regular season or the tourney, the Cats are considered a lock for a 2 seed. As with Cal and UCLA, UK has the 2-1 edge on us in head to head play and also has scoreboard on regular season SEC champ Tennessee. Arguments for A&M: we won the last game, the others were close, and we had a stronger SoS. But UK should get a 2.
  • Penn State: Penn State is #6 in RPI and #8 in Sagarin. Penn State is 6-2 vs top 25 teams in Sagarin, but is 1-1 vs teams in the current RPI top 10. By contrast, A&M is 5-7 vs top 25 teams in Sagarin. Both teams lost to UConn. A&M's wins against top 25 teams include UK and TN, who are above any of PSU's wins. RPI gives PSU the #9 SoS; Sagarin ranks their schedule 18th. Arguments for A&M vs PSU: 1) The Ags worst loss is to LSU at home (#36 RPI, #34 Sagarin). PSU has 3 losses that are worse: to Miami (#58 RPI, #41 Sagarin), Wisconsin (#125 RPI, #78 Sagarin), and Minnesota (#78 RPI, #52 Sagarin). 2) PSU got A&M very early in the schedule; TAMU is a very different team now. Ironically for A&M fans, the Nittany Lions win in Reed Arena in November may be part of what seals a 2 seed for Penn State.
  • Tennessee: The Vols won the regular season SEC crown, split with the Ags, and had a better W-L w/comparable SoS (#3 per Sagarin who has us at #5), having played 1 seeds Baylor, Stanford, and Notre Dame, plus tourney teams UNC and Miami in addition to the SEC grind. Arguments for the Ags: We won the last one. Their worst losses (Chattanooga and Mizzou) are worse than our worst losses (Vandy and LSU). In the Vols favor: Chattanooga is not that bad, and Isabelle Harrison should be back for the NCAAs. Harrison was out for Mizzou and the SEC tourney.

Bracketologists insist that the seeding is done looking at teams as individual teams, not based on conferences. So there should be no impediment to putting 3 SEC teams in 2 seeds. But I would give Cal a solid 2 seed, so that leaves 3 SEC teams for 2 slots. With the Ags total loss number, I would give 2s to UK and Tenn, and 3s to TAMU and PSU. I expect the actual 2s to be Duke, Cal, UK, and PSU.

We'll find out on Monday evening. You can hear the news with the team at annual women's selection show party (free to the public at the Cox-McFerrin Center - that's the practice facility under Reed Arena; the entrance is on the South end of Reed). The festivities start at 5PM CDT with the ESPN broadcast of the bracket announcements starting at 6PM CDT.

No matter where they are placed, the Ags will play their opening game in the Big Dance in Reed Arena on Saturday March 23.

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