After the emotional, program-defining victory for Notre Dame basketball last night, it is difficult to look at anything objectively. But after the Irish knocked off the Tar Heels, I was somewhat surprised to see that ESPN's Joe Lunardi did not change his 2-seed projections to include the ACC champion Irish. He currently has Virginia, Arizona, Gonzaga, and Kansas sitting on the 2-line; Notre Dame still holds the 3 seed it entered the ACC tournament with.
Obviously, the difference between a 2 seed and 3 seed is not immense, but I do believe that the Irish have earned a 2 seed when the bracket is finally released tonight. Here are some of the reasons why:
If you had told me before the season that Notre Dame would go 29-5 and win the ACC Tournament, I would first ask you whether you were a sane person, but then I would rejoice in our 1 seed. Just last year, Virginia went 28-6, won the conference, and easily secured a 1 seed.
Looking at the past 10 ACC champions, 7 of those teams secured 1 seeds, 2 of them settled for 2 seeds, and only 1, the 2011-12 Florida State team, ended up with a 3 seed. That ‘Noles team went into March with 9 losses, nearly twice the amount the Irish have.
In fact, 4 of those ACC champions that claimed 1 seeds had worse records than our Irish did heading into March Madness, along with both 2 seeds. For this Irish team to end up with a 3 seed would be an extreme anomaly for recent ACC champions, especially when you consider that this version of the ACC is much stronger than many past iterations with the addition of four Big East schools.
To elaborate on this point, I looked at all Power 6 conference tournament champions over the last decade. Out of champions with 5 or fewer losses, only 2012 Missouri and 2008 Wisconsin were rewarded with anything less than a 1 seed. It is definitely a rarity for 29-5 Power 6 champions to be left off the 1-line, yet the Irish may find themselves without even a 2.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has been known to reward teams that step it up late in the season. A famous example of this phenomenon is the 2011 National Champion UConn Huskies. After finishing 9-9 in the Big East, Kemba Walker led UConn to a Big East tournament championship, vaulting a team that finished 9th place in their conference to a 3 seed.
When it comes to closing strong, these Irish have done exactly that. After their thrashing at Cameron Indoor, the Irish have rattled off wins in 8 of their last 9 games, with the only setback being at the hands of the Syracuse zone defense. The Irish's last 5 games include victories over top-20 teams like Louisville and North Carolina, as well as a win over 2nd ranked Duke. Perhaps most impressively, all of these recent key victories have come away from Purcell Pavilion, which leads me to my next point.
Ability to Win in Tough Environments
Throughout much of Mike Brey's tenure as head coach of the Irish, Notre Dame has been praised as a team that's tough to beat at home. In neutral courts and on the road, they have not been quite as successful, with multiple early exits from March Madness and zero conference championship appearances.
This team has flipped that script. The Irish went 7-2 on the road in the ACC, the best mark ever achieved by an Irish squad. This fleet of victories included wins at notoriously tough venues like the Dean Dome and the KFC Yum! Center.
This past week, of course, the Irish showed they weren't done with their "road dog" mentality. In Greensboro, the heart of vaunted ACC powerhouses Duke and UNC, the Irish rallied to win on 3 consecutive nights. After their victory over Miami, the Irish triumphed over Duke and North Carolina in the midst of atmospheres that were (at least) 95% supporting the opposition. These Irish do not blink in tough environments.
Who Can You Beat?
Another aspect that the tournament committee stresses in evaluating teams is their ability to beat top-quality opposition. The Irish have repeatedly shown that they can take on elite opposition.
In the ACC/Big 10 challenge, the Irish faced a Michigan State team that was favored despite the game being played in South Bend. The Irish knocked off the Spartans for their first quality win of the season. The same Spartans are playing tonight for the Big 10 championship.
When Notre Dame entered ACC play, they continued to defeat elite opposition with great consistency. The Irish beat Duke and North Carolina twice each, something that very few schools have ever been able to claim. The Blue Devils are still tipped by Lunardi to obtain a #1 seed, and many consider them the best non-Kentucky team in the nation. After beating them twice, the Irish have proved they can take on anyone.
In their outside-of-Tobacco-Road exploits, the Irish also handled the 14th ranked Louisville Cardinals on the road. Finally, the Irish have shown the ability to take care of possible tournament teams NC State and Miami, going 3-0 against the ‘Pack and ‘Canes.
Strength of Schedule
The biggest knock against the Irish's résumé has consistently echoed one complaint—strength of schedule. In the longest section of this article, I will try to convince you that the Irish's schedule has not been as crippling as some bracketologists believe.
One commonly cited statistic used in comparing tournament teams is record versus RPI top 50. I dislike this comparison for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the arbitrary nature of the 50 cutoff point.
To illustrate this example, let's compare Notre Dame's RPI top 50 record with that of 2-seed-projected Kansas. Notre Dame comes in at 7-3, compared to Kansas's 12-7. Pretty even, huh? Many might even say that this favors the Jayhawks, as they have a fantastic 12 wins against RPI top-50 opponents.
But, let's shift the goalposts just a bit, shall we? What if we looked at record versus RPI top 40? While the Irish still stand at 7-3, the Jayhawks slump to 9-6. Three of the Jayhawks' "quality wins" are at the hands of conference nonfactors Texas and Oklahoma State, who just sneak into the top 50.
What if we look at RPI top 65? This is another completely arbitrary point, but now the Irish stand at 10-3 to Kansas's 12-7. Yet again, a frame shift of the arbitrary endpoints makes the Irish's record against top opponents look much more impressive.
Finally, the reason many analysts are hesitant to raise the Irish to a top-2 seed is their atrocious non-conference schedule. And boy, was it horrific. Ken Pom ranks the Irish as facing the 347th best non-conference schedule of the 351 Division I teams. There is no denying the fact that the Irish had a cakewalk of a non-conference schedule.
My counterargument to this point is twofold. First, our non-conference ranking was destroyed via the fact that our "cupcake" opponents sucked more than everyone else's. Grambling is literally dead last among Division I schools according to Ken Pom. Other awful opponents include Binghamton (326th), Coppin State (323rd), Chicago State (336th), Fairleigh Dickinson (320th), etc. These wins, no matter how convincing, did nothing but destroy metrics like our RPI, which heavily factor quality of opponent.
My question is, does scheduling great teams and losing to them prove anything more than scheduling bad teams and beating them? On November 18th, Kansas played Kentucky and was slaughtered by 32 points. A day later, Notre Dame dropped 104 points on Coppin St. Which performance was more impressive? Despite Kansas's embarrassment at the hands of Kentucky, this loss greatly improved their RPI. Meanwhile, the Irish's suffered greatly due to Coppin State's incompetence. To quote Grantland's Mark Titus in a recent Reddit AMA:
"The idea of having a quality loss is batsh** insane. Like, I can schedule Duke, Kentucky, Virginia, and Wisconsin, get blown out by all of them, but my RPI goes up because they're good. Likewise, if you schedule a team with an RPI of like 300, you're worse off than if you schedule a team with an RPI of 225, even though both of those games are gimmies. It's so dumb."
My second defense of our non-conference schedule asks the committee this question: should the results of games played months ago factor so greatly into the evaluation of teams' résumés? I can understand why it is good for college basketball for good teams to beef up their schedules by scheduling tough non-conference matchups. These early season marquee matchups are fun, although the results of matchups between still-gelling teams are not always relevant to their fates come March.
Was Notre Dame's non-conference slate so appallingly bad that we must be placed behind teams with worse records than us, despite the fact that we have relevant, recent results against elite members of perhaps the best conference in America?
Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see how the committee judges this Irish team. Regardless of what they decide, I think we can all agree that this has been a special season. The Irish have won the first conference title in school history, defying many expectations along the way. Whatever seed the committe awards the Irish, we know they will battle like hell to make it as far as possible.
Selection Sunday airs at 6:00 ET on CBS.