There has been quite a bit of discussion of late on the basketball message board about UCLA's chances of getting a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and with good reason. UCLA is in the midst of an excellent season, with a top 5 AP ranking and plenty of attention as one of the top teams in the country.
Yet, when the Selection Committee released its as-of-now top 16 teams two weeks ago, UCLA was 15th, pretty firmly ensconced as a four seed. That selection was not intended to be a projection; that was, according to the committee, a snapshot of what the NCAA Tournament would have looked like if the Tournament had started the next day. Notably, the seeding snapshot came out after UCLA had beaten Oregon, so presumably, the committee was taking that win over a top 10 team into account.
Since that unveiling, UCLA has beaten Oregon State and USC, both at home, and, at least according to bracketologists, those two wins haven't had a noticeable effect on UCLA's seeding. The Bruins are still projected as a four seed, with four games remaining in the regular season and as many as three remaining in the Pac-12 Tournament.
So, what gives? Why is UCLA, a top 5 team in the country with just three losses (and likely no more than 5 losses entering the NCAA Tournament), seeded so low?
Fundamentally, in comparing the many different ratings systems, the biggest disparity between UCLA and many of the other teams in contention for the top 8 seeds in the NCAA Tournament is strength of schedule, and more importantly, strength of non-conference schedule. UCLA is 91st in strength of schedule (per CBS), which puts the Bruins behind all of the other potential No. 1 seeds (yes, including Gonzaga, which comes in at 80th). If you look at just non-conference strength of schedule (again, per CBS), UCLA is even worse, coming in at 246th (which is, again, worse than all other major contenders for top two seeds). If you go by KenPom's numbers, it's roughly the same, with UCLA having the 89th best strength of schedule overall, and a dismal 290th best in the non-conference.
UCLA can't do much to control its conference strength of schedule, of course, and the Pac-12 is down this year. But the non-conference is an easier issue to dissect. Heading into the season, UCLA's slate of non-conference opponents looked fairly manageable, but not some sort of cakewalk. There was a tough away game at Kentucky along with potentially difficult match ups with Dayton and Virginia Tech on tap in a preseason tournament. In addition to that, Michigan and Ohio State both projected as potential NCAA Tournament teams, and maybe even legitimate contenders in their league.
Bad luck left UCLA without match ups against Dayton and Virginia Tech (with lesser opponents Texas A&M and Nebraska replacing them), and of Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, only Michigan looks like it has a decent chance of making the Tournament. Kentucky has been excellent, as expected, but it is not enough to buoy the non-conference schedule on its own. Coupled with that, the backside of UCLA's non-conference schedule has been godawful. Pacific, Northridge, San Diego, Long Beach State, Portland, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, and Western Michigan are not just mid-majors, but, largely, very bad mid-majors. Northridge and Long Beach State are the only ones even sort of competing in their leagues, and they both sport sub-.500 records overall. In total, UCLA's 13 non-conference opponents averaged out to a KenPom ranking of 181st. Oregon's averaged 131st, and Arizona's 137th.
And then, in terms of conference strength, the Pac-12 is almost universally regarded as the 6th best conference this year, and is significantly down from even a year ago. Some of that is due to Oregon and Arizona not being at full strength in the non-conference, and some of it is due to the bottom half of the conference dropping off considerably. In any case, the rest of the league really hasn't done UCLA any favors in terms of boosting the Bruins' resume.
So, in other words, we have to figure that strength of schedule is playing a big role in UCLA's somewhat curious lack of respect in the eyes of the Selection Committee and various bracketology pundits. Obviously, UCLA can do nothing about its non-conference schedule now, but there is still some potential for UCLA to boost its profile over the last seven games.
As of now, UCLA only has one marquee matchup remaining: against top 10ish RPI team Arizona on Saturday, on the road. A win there would be a significant boost to UCLA's resume, giving them a bookend for their other big road win over a top 10 team in the non-conference, Kentucky.
But in addition to that, there is also the potential for UCLA to play Oregon and Arizona once more each in the Pac-12 Tournament on a neutral floor. UCLA is likely to be the 3 seed, and the Bruins, if they beat Arizona, will likely be in line to play Arizona again in the 2nd round of the Pac-12 Tournament before a potential championship matchup against Oregon. Obviously, the stars might have to align a bit with no upsets, but since those three teams have pretty clearly been the class of the league this year, it isn't too much of a stretch to expect things to break that way.
If UCLA manages to sweep through the remaining four games of the regular season and then wins the Pac-12 Tournament, with three more wins over Arizona and Oregon, that would almost certainly guarantee UCLA a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and favorable placement in the West Region. But would it be enough to gain consideration for a 1 seed?
Right now, Gonzaga is very likely going to finish undefeated, and since being ranked a 1 seed in the initial bracket, they've gained another top 20 RPI win over St. Mary's. Gonzaga is also regarded as the No. 1 overall team on KenPom's rankings, and the Zags have a higher RPI than UCLA (and might still, even if UCLA finishes 7-0). While it's perhaps not a lock, we feel pretty confident that a Gonzaga team that wins out through its conference tournament will have a 1 seed.
Then, we still think Villanova is a virtual lock for a 1 seed, even with the Wildcats' loss to (very good) Butler last night. In any case, the Wildcats have a better strength of schedule than UCLA, they're in a more well-regarded conference, and they should have a very similar record to the Bruins at the end of the season. Coupled with that, the metrics LOVE Villanova, while they mostly hate UCLA. So, we can say pretty definitively that Villanova is much more likely to get a 1 seed than UCLA.
Kansas, after taking down Baylor last week, has a really good shot at a 1 seed as well, though the Jayhawks are not quite as beloved by the advanced metrics as Villanova or Gonzaga. The RPI, though, has a massive infatuation with Kansas, with the Jayhawks coming in at No. 1, which is likely due to Kansas having the 4th best strength of schedule in the country (per KenPom). Again, unless there's a massive collapse, Kansas looks like it's a much more likely 1 seed than UCLA.
So that leaves one remaining spot, and in fairness to UCLA, there isn't any one obvious team to take ahead of the Bruins. That said, there are a lot of teams who have: better RPI, better advanced metrics, and better strength of schedules. To begin with the most likely of the bunch, North Carolina is 5th in RPI, 4th in KenPom, and has the 15th strongest strength of schedule. Barring a complete collapse, the Tar Heels should win the ACC regular season as well. Even with two wins over Arizona and one over Oregon in the next 7 games, we have a hard time seeing UCLA eclipsing ANY of those numbers, let alone all three. That doesn't mean it's out of the question, but it would require the Committee using the eye test or really emphasizing "the last 12 games" metric over some of the other things that they're already clearly using to make a decision.
Florida is another one to watch out for. The Gators are finishing the season just about as well as UCLA with nine straight wins and a big matchup against Kentucky coming up this weekend. If Florida wins that, they'll almost certainly win the SEC, and they'll have a ton of that "last 12 games" momentum as well. Right now, Florida is 5th in KenPom, 8th in RPI, and they have the 18th best strength of schedule. While we could see a stronger case to be made for picking UCLA over, say, Kentucky, it's harder to make that case against Florida.
Louisville and Baylor might still have claims, but a UCLA team that finishes 7-0 over the next seven games would probably have a reasonable claim to a 1 seed over either of those two teams, especially if neither of them wins a regular season or conference tournament crown.
Basically, there's a non-zero chance that UCLA earns a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but looking at the resumes and potential resumes of the other major contenders, it doesn't look very likely.
Now, that said, being a 1 seed or a 2 seed in the West is basically a negligible difference. Either way, UCLA would very likely be locked into a dance with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, and, with all apologies to the advanced metrics, that might be the best possible scenario for UCLA among the top 8 seeds in the Tournament. And if it's a choice between being a 1 seed in the South with a team like Louisville or Florida as the 2 seed, and or a 2 seed in the West with Gonzaga as the 1, it seems pretty obvious which one you'd want.
The big key at this point is to win out. If UCLA does that, the Bruins basically guarantee that they'll be the hottest team among Arizona, Oregon, and the Bruins at the end of the season, they'll have a conference tournament title, they'll likely (though not certainly) be higher ranked in KenPom than either of the other Pac-12 contenders, and they would have a good shot of eclipsing both in the RPI as well. If UCLA loses just one more game, though, especially to either of those two teams, we have to figure that the Bruins will be shipped out of the region (though still with a first and second round West pod). So, the critical piece at this point is to win out, and if the Bruins do that, they'll earn the kind of favorable placement in the West that has been a prerequisite for basically any title or Final Four run UCLA has made.