Washington State travels to Charlotte as a number four seed to face UNC, the number one seed in a Sweet 16 match-up that pits virtually the fastest playing squad in college basketball against the Cougars, who are near the bottom in tempo among college teams.
Thus far in the tournament, both teams have won their games easily, leading some to pick WSU as an upset possiblity, while a few others (very few), such as Ken Pomeroy, see the game as a virtual pick 'em match-up.
Let's look a few things about this game to get an idea of some of the factors. First, of all, neither team has defeated many top twenty-five teams. Carolina has four or five such wins, if you count the Tar Heels win at Davidson, while Washington State beat USC twice and won at Gonzaga, and now Notre Dame, three teams sort of on the fringe of the top twenty of the various polls and rating organizations.
In terms of elite wins, say among the top 15, Carolina won at Duke, while WSU doesn't have any elite wins, having lost 3 times to Stanford, and twice to UCLA. Of these games, only their loss to Stanford at home was close, coming in over-time. They also lost to Cal and barely beat rival UW at home. They also have beaten Baylor, Oregon, Winthrop and ASU.
Surprisingly, Pomeroy believes that Washington State is better than Stanford. I know that styles make match-ups and all that, but Stanford has beaten them 3 times, the last 2 convincingly, and finished two games ahead of them in conference and also went farther in the Pac Ten tournament, so once again this year, Pomeroy's ratings have some rankings that make very little sense. One wonders exactly what Stanford would have to do to be ranked ahead of WSU by Pomeroy if beating them 3 times and finishing two games ahead of them in a conference where everyone plays each other twice, is not enough!
Sagarin's ratings are much more likely to be in line with reality this year than Pomeroy's. Why this is so, I do not know, but something has gone badly askew this year with the Pomeroy ratings. While no one knows his exact ranking formula, there appears to be some system bias in favor of teams that play in conferences in which the play is slower, in that he has the two fastest-paced teams in the tournament rated far more lowly than other ratings services, while UMass, another team that plays at lightning pace is also rated less highly. On the other hand, plodding teams, such as WSU, Wisconsin and Illinois, all of whom play at a snail's pace, are rated more highly by Pomeroy than by fans and the experts in the field.
While his data collection is still top-notch, Pomeroy probably needs to tinker a bit more with his ratings. He truly may be the only single person in the entire United States who believes that Washington State is better than Stanford and essentially as good as UNC.
In terms of defense, Pomeroy has WSU slated as a far better defensive squad. In terms of offense, he has UNC as the better squad. However, there may be some other clues as to why UNC is more likely to win.
First of all, UNC has much better talent. Almost everyone agrees that for WSU to have any chance, it probably needs to be a game in the 50's or 60's, to keep Carolina from having extra possession and a fast game in which it can exploit its depth. This is a fancy way of saying that Washington State doesn't have all that many good players so they have to try to take the air out of the ball to have any chance to win.
I have to admit that I am a bit more biased against this team than perhaps against other foes, because they pride themselves on their plodding way of playing. They are pretty much the slowest-playing team in the entire NCAA Division I, brandishing a style of basketball that, if further adopted, could be a new non-narcotic form of sleep aid. Their coach is already trying to turn this into some sort of grudge match against Roy Williams, who he claims, was disrespectful to his father back in the 1990's, and apparently, said father also taught players to play as though they had on muddy workboots.
Well, as pathetic and boring as WSU's style of play might be, it is still within the rules, so let's look at some other factors.
Looking at something Pomeroy calls consistency rating, we see that UNC is the 59th most consistent team, which is pretty good--only Memphis and Western Kentucky are ranked ahead of them among teams still in the tourney. WSU is 311th, which is very poor--only West Virginia is less consistent among tourney teams.
Now, I suppose consistency can cut both ways when looking at a one game match-up, as opposed to winning the entire tournament, where it is essential to be consistent. We can expect North Carolina to be pretty good, just like they have been all season. But WSU, will it be the team that beat Notre Dame badly, or the team that lost badly to a mediocre Arizona team twice.
Pomeroy also has a figure called luck rating in which he rates UNC as being one of the luckier teams left in the tournament, which is most likely due to a slew of close games they had while Ty Lawson was hurt. He also has WSU as being relatively unlucky this year, which is truly puzzling. A glance at their results indicates that they split two overtime games this year and that most of their losses have been by more than three points. Their schedules appear to be relatively even, with UNC playing tougher defensive teams and WSU playing tougher offensive teams.
There have recently been some articles published that state that Vegas uses the Pomeroy ratings to set its lines. Vegas is currently predicting a 142.5 over/under, which is 2.5 points higher than the Pomeroy prediction, so that could possibly be the case here.
However, if Vegas used the Pomeroy predictions to set its points plus or minus, then the public immediately moved the line far away from the Pomeroy setting.
Pomeroy predicts that UNC will only win 71-69, which seems frankly amazing. His system predicts that WSU will be playing in a site three time zones away, on a highly partisan "neutral" court, against a team that everyone agrees has far more talent and that UNC, with all those advantages, is only a 2-point favorite.
This is ludicrous and indicates something deeply wrong with the manner in which he is currently rating teams. WSU has an excellent shot at winning. In a one game and out tournament, unlikely events occur somewhat frequently. Davidson beat Georgetown, albeit while playing in Davidson's home state. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between a team winning an upset and being deemed essentially an equally good team, which is what Pomeroy would have you believe is the case in the WSU-UNC match-up.
It is difficult to perceive how Pomeroy's system could predict such a thing, about as difficult as figuring out why he ranks them above Stanford. The current Vegas odds are Carolina by 8 points, which seems about right given that WSU will try to hold down the score as much as they possibly can.
Everyone seems to agree that Washington State is a very unselfish team that maximizes their chances to win, given the talent at their disposal. But is that likely to be enough? Pomeroy says almost, and he means this in general, seeing them beating Carolina 43 times out of 100.
While I am definitely not neutral in terms of my rooting interests, I am not sure any other neutral observer can agree with Ken Pomeroy.
Washington State has not beaten any of the supremely talented teams that they have faced this year, losing all 7 games against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona, a disappointing team with injuries, but top-notch talent. They may finally achieve that break-through win Thursday night in Charlotte, but if they do, it will be a huge, overachieving upset, not a battle between two even teams.
I have to believe that WSU has not shown much ability to beat teams that exceed them in talent. They have beaten decent squads like Arizona State, Baylor, Winthrop, Oregon and now Notre Dame. They have not, however, beaten anyone that would surprise you while reading your morning newspaper. With virtually all the intangibles leaning UNC's way, it's hard to see them doing that now.