Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — As conference play gets underway, a consensus has developed that among the top conferences in the west, the West Coast Conference will get the most NCAA Tournament bids this season. But I'll offer this spicy prediction: The Pac-12 will get the most NCAA Tournament bids and the WCC will get the least.
To put it in a less spicy way, there's a better chance of that than you think.
First, the facts. The Mountain West has passed the WCC in most ratings systems. It's not quite unanimous, but it's close. If you're a WCC fan, hitch yourself to Evan Miyakawa's very fine system, which is one of the last holdouts that has the WCC over the MWC.
Part of the MWC's sneaky power is that they have a bunch of good teams. Colorado State has earned some press for winning its first 13 games and jumping into the Associated Press Top 25. But San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State, Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming are all potential top 100 teams. That's seven of the league's 11 teams.
What there is total unanimity on is that the Pac-12 is better than both. Sure, the bottom of the Pac-12 has been quite bad, but it's still better than the bottom of the WCC or Mountain West. And the top of the league has three of the best teams in the country in Arizona, UCLA and USC.
But the national perception is that the WCC is the best of these three. Mostly that's due to bracketology. If you look at the composite predictions of bracketologists at bracketmatrix.com, four teams from the WCC would make the tournament if the season ended today compared to three for the Pac-12 and two for the Mountain West.
The problem is that almost all bracketologists abide by the standard of "if the season ended today." And, well, the season doesn't end today or for quite a while. However, based on how a team has played and their upcoming schedule, it's possible to project a team's chance of making the NCAA tournament. And to me, that information is far more useful than evaluating a team's resume on its first 10 games or so.
For this exercise, we'll use the tournament probabilities posted at teamrakings.com. They basically do what I described — simulate the rest of the season 10,000 times based on how each team has played so far. Then, for the teams that didn't win their conference tournament, they use each team's simulated resume to predict their chance of selection.
For instance, TeamRankings gives Gonzaga a 99.8% of making the tourney. I'm not sure what circumstances would involve the Zags missing the tournament altogether. They're a consensus one or two seed if the season ended today and could take on a few conference losses and still make the tournament. And they've lost a combined four games to WCC teams (conference tournament included) over the past five seasons, so that scenario seems far-fetched.
But humans tend to overestimate the certainty of things and so it gives me some comfort that there's an allowance for some tiny possibility of an unthinkable disaster scenario.
As conference play begins, which conference in the west will end with more NCAA Tournament bids?— KSL.com Sports (@KSLcomSports) December 30, 2021
Anyway, the fun part of this exercise is not imagining Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren suffering season-ending injuries and Gonzaga somehow losing games to sub-top 200 competition, it's looking at all of the predictions for each conference in aggregate and getting a better idea of how many bids we should expect from each league.
Here are the chances for the top teams in the WCC:
Saint Mary's: .630
San Francisco: .369
Santa Clara: .016
Add those up and you get 2.58. That's the number of bids we'd expect the league to get as a whole from this method.
Here's what it looks like for the Mountain West:
Colorado State: .756
San Diego State: .674
Boise State: .530
Utah State: .401
That group adds up to 2.86. So even though the league doesn't have a lock like Gonzaga, it has four solid possibilities and then two others — Nevada and Wyoming — that could get there either with a high conference finish or by winning the conference tournament. And that's within the realm of possibility.
What about the Pac-12? That conference has been maligned for a poor start, but while the bottom of the league has disappointed, the top of the league has been on fire. Arizona, USC and UCLA are projected as top three seeds at bracketmatrix.com, and they have near lock status in the TeamRankings sims.
While there isn't an obvious fourth team to join that trio in the tournament, Washington State, Arizona State, Stanford and Utah, all have enough of a chance that as a whole the league projects to 3.44 bids — more than the other two multi-bid western leagues. Remember that it just takes one team outside the top three to win the Pac-12 Tournament for the league to be guaranteed a fourth bid.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that all of this assumes all games will be played, and sadly, that doesn't seem possible. So a season-ends-today approach has a little bit of merit in a year like this. Nobody's season is going to really end today, but the end of the season is closer than it looks on the calendar. Still, I don't think it changes much for many of these teams. The locks are still locks, and the longshots are mostly banking on winning their conference tournament anyway.
And that's how we get to a place where it's way too early to assume that the WCC gets the most bids of these three leagues. A lot of things will have to go right for that to happen. Based on this analysis, we shouldn't be surprised if the Pac-12 and Mountain West end up with as many bids as the WCC.