Teel Time: ESPN's Bilas bullish on Virginia's NCAA tournament chances

As Virginia prepares for a home game Thursday against Duke that convention suggests is crucial to its NCAA tournament prospects, one of college basketball’s most-visible analysts disagrees.

“They’re in,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said of the Cavaliers. “I guess they could lose the rest of their games, but otherwise, they should be in.”

Bilas and I spoke Friday, primarily for Sunday’s profile of tempo-free stats maven Ken Pomeroy. But as usual, the conversation veered in several directions, including Virginia's.

Bilas’ certainty regarding the Cavaliers surprised me, and I mentioned that their Rating Percentage Index number indicates they have work to do in securing a bid to the 68-team field. Virginia was 77th at last check, and the only at-large selections from the 70s on the RPI were No. 74 New Mexico in 1999 and No. 70 Air Force in 2004.

Dragging down the Cavaliers’ RPI are a weak non-conference schedule and six losses to teams outside the top 100: Old Dominion, Delaware, George Mason, Clemson, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.

“I don’t care if a team loses to a (lousy) team,” Bilas said. “Everybody has a hiccup, and you’re not going to play (lousy) teams in the NCAA tournament. Can they beat other really good teams? …

“I don’t see how you can beat teams like N.C. State and Maryland and Wisconsin and North Carolina and not get in. The only subjective measure in sports is winning.”

As I’ve mentioned several times, Virginia’s resume defines peculiar. The Cavaliers are 3-2 versus the RPI’s top 50, 6-2 against the top 100, and the setbacks were on the road to North Carolina and Miami.

But those six other defeats and the non-conference schedule ranking of 319 will be red flags to the 10-member NCAA selection committee.

Bilas considers Pomeroy’s digital rankings more accurate than the RPI, and Pomeroy certainly likes Virginia (19-8), rating the Cavaliers 17th after Sunday’s 82-54 home thrashing of Georgia Tech.

Last season, the highest-ranked Pomeroy team excluded from the NCAA field was No. 32 Stanford. In the last five years, his highest-ranked teams bypassed were Wichita State in 2011 and Dayton in 2010, both 26th.

Bilas went a step further, saying the Cavaliers’ combination of suffocating defense and efficient offense would make them a threat to higher seeds in the NCAA tournament. In that regard, he compared them to Atlantic 10-leading Saint Louis, coached by Bob Knight disciple Jim Crews.

“They both can slow you down and beat you with their defense,” Bilas said.

The Billikens have won nine straight, most recently over VCU and Butler. Moreover, at 21-5 and with an RPI of 34, they appear far better positioned than Virginia.

Considering the NCAA panel’s history of excluding teams over non-conference schedules, I think the Cavaliers need to beat No. 6 Duke to counter their negatives and preclude a nervous Selection Sunday.   

But as Bilas reminded during our conversation, the committee’s collective preferences can be baffling. The case he referenced was 2011’s choice of UAB instead of Virginia Tech.

It was, indeed, an odd call, the Blazers’ superior RPI (31 to 62) notwithstanding.

UAB had lost its only encounter with a top-25 opponent, at No. 4 Duke, by 21 points. Tech had defeated Duke at home and lost to the Blue Devils by 14 in the ACC tournament.

The Blazers were 1-4 against the top 50, their lone victory at home over No. 49 VCU. The Hokies were 2-5 versus the top 50, with a home conquest of No. 39 Penn State to complement their upset of Duke.

Perhaps most jarring: UAB was 1-4 against teams in the field – VCU was the one -- and lost its opening game in the Conference USA tournament, to No. 96 East Carolina.

Conversely, Tech was 4-6 against the field, the wins over Duke, Penn State and Florida State twice, the latter in the ACC tournament.

And no, this wasn’t another case of the Hokies’ non-conference schedule nipping them in the hindquarters. Tech’s non-league strength-of-schedule was 159th, UAB’s 172nd.

“Robbed, no excuse,” Bilas texted me on that Selection Sunday.

His reaction will be interesting it a similar fate befalls Virginia on March 17.

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