Losing basketball games is bad. That may seem obvious on its face, but it needs to be said. Xavier is now 4-3. They are 32nd in the KenPom, they have dropped 10 places to 29th in the Torvik, they were 35th in the BPI before losing to Gonzaga. Wash the preseason numbers and Xavier is 49th. This time last year they were 27th. X has a Q2 win and three Q4 wins. They have three losses other than that. 4-3 thus far is impressing no one.
A weirdly vocal chunk of Xavier Nation seems to think that “But losing in the matter we did actually will help the resume” or “Is it bad? Not at all. In fact keeping it close actually will make it good for us.” That’s demonstrably wrong. For starters it looks at the outcomes of the games all wrong. Yes, metrics like the KPI do take into account who you are playing. That’s good, they should. Part of the problem with the RPI was gaming it so hammering bad teams mattered more.
But just playing good teams isn’t a panacea. KenPom, Torvik, and the BPI don’t award a team for losing to a tough team, even in a neutral site game, they just don’t penalize them as much. Had Xavier lost to Portland instead of Duke, they’d be down near Villanova in the rankings. They didn’t though, so the computer doesn’t damage them as much. It is, after all, understandable that a team might lose to a top 10 squad.
However, that’s not better than winning. Even Xavier had beaten lesser opponents like Iowa St and Oregon (to stick with the Villanova parallel) their ranking would have moved up, not down. Had they even beaten Portland or simply waxed Fairfield again, their metrics would have moved up. KenPom rewarded Xavier six positions for beating Fairfield at home. That’s better than holding steady for losing to Gonzaga.
So that’s how the metrics react to a close loss. It’s worse than a win, not as bad as a loss to a bad team. That’s just one part of it, though. The NET is compiled by more than just metrics. Per the NCAA: “It takes into account game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses.”
That makes it seem like a close loss matter, right? Well, let’s quote the NCAA for some further clarity since that first description of NET was put out. “the NET will no longer use winning percentage, adjusted winning percentage and scoring margin... [now] It considers opponent strength and site of each game, assigning each game a difficulty score. Aggregating these across all games results in an overall expected win percentage versus a team’s schedule, which can be ranked to get a better measure of the strength of schedule.”
In short, that close loss doesn’t matter at all. That close loss doesn’t matter at all. The NET looks at the game, decides who should win based on the above, and assigns a value. Almost winning that game doesn’t matter one whit. Nearly beating Indiana, Duke, or Gonzaga all just look like losses to the NET.
The Selection Committee has been consistent on this as well. When Bleacher Report “noted that the [BYU] Cougars had not been beaten by more than seven points in the entire season and that several of their losses were decided in overtime. One of the NCAA folks immediately interjected, ‘What you just said would never actually be discussed.’”
So where does that leave Xavier now? First the good news. If you have to lose three games, losing them to three trendy Final Four picks isn’t a bad way to go. Those losses aren’t going to damage Xavier down the stretch the same way Villanova crapping the bed against Portland will hurt the Wildcats. But there is also bad news. Those losses won’t help Xavier at all come Selection Sunday. They will simply be three Q1 losses. There’s not a special category for losing by single digits, or almost winning, or not having Adam Kunkel. Those games are losses. Losses never help.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which Greg Christopher gives Travis Steele one more chance. His team wins their cupcake games, but then drops a Gavitt game to Indiana in which they give up 30 to an opposing big without ever developing a counter to him. They then beat a mediocre Florida team, before watching Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle shoot the ball 19 times to score nine points against Duke. That same Steele coached team gets one more bite at the cherry and responds by rather spectacularly blowing a six point lead late against Gonzaga. Can you imagine the clamor for the coaches job at that point?
That hypothetical didn’t happen, but those results did. The fact there is a new man, one we all fully trust to eventually get the job done, at the helm doesn’t change the fact that this Xavier team has yet to do anything to compile a good resume. You can spin losses and lie to yourself all you’d like, but for this team to be playing come March they’ll have to start turning close losses into tough wins.