My first post last season was arguing that Belmont was the most important game of the season. While I didn’t expect most to agree then, and can see why they wouldn’t now, I do have to say that claim held up fairly well.
Losing to Belmont wasn’t a season-ending loss by any means, it didn’t inhibit Marquette from winning the rest (or any) of its remaining games. It wasn’t a “horrible” loss, even with the hindsight that Belmont wasn’t as good as the models projected it be. However, it severely lowered the ceiling for Marquette from an RPI standpoint and did some damage to the floor, which meant there was little to no room for error with the rest of the non-conference schedule, due to the poor cupcakes lined up, if going dancing was the objective.
In real terms, playing around with RPIWizard before this season started, they projected that one loss alone cost Marquette 15 spots in the RPI rankings. That could have been the difference between the NIT and staying home for the third consecutive season. Even with Marquette going an improbable at the time 3-1 with the remainder of its quality non-con opponents (Iowa, LSU, ASU, UW), the Belmont (and DePaul) home losses, on top of the ridiculously high-fat cupcakes, made the metrics frown on that team. So that game mattered. A lot.
Enter Sunday. I will once again go out on a limb and say Georgia will turn out to be the most important game on the schedule. (The one difference here is that this is only the case because Marquette gagged up a double-digit lead against Pitt.) Let’s break down why.
RPI is an awful metric that should be benched and never put in play again. However, for the 2017 postseason tournaments, RPI is still the most important metric. It’s not the only one, as advanced metrics are now routinely introduced and put to good use, but every top 25/50/100/200 breakdown that becomes so vital at the cut-line only uses RPI as the gauge. (In real terms, Marquette was a top-100 team in KenPom last year, but sub-100 in RPI, so when the committee measured Big East resumes, it gave every Tourney team Marquette beat a “bad” loss, and deprived the teams Marquette lost to of a “quality” win.) So no matter how many times the committee and pundits tell you RPI isn’t overtly more important than any other measure, it’s a lie.
Doing a little gaming out on RPIForecast, Marquette is expected to go 19-11 this season. If you turn the projected Georgia win to an actual win, the new projections spit out an RPI rank of 50. If you change that to an actual loss, the forecast has the RPI rank at 58. Obvioulsy there are a ton of other variables to take into account, so one forecast 7 games into the season isn’t etched in stone by any means. The bottom could drop out on Vandy or Georgia or Marquette for that matter. MU could lose to DePaul at home again. It could take a pair from top-10 teams. The possibilities are too numerous to use this as a set figure. But should this represent an 8-point RPI swing come March, that could be the difference between a return to recent normalcy or a descent to a normalcy not seen since before Al arrived.
Still, you don’t need a fancy RPI projection to gauge the importance. Marquette had 5 high-major opponents on its schedule. It dispatched Vandy, but lost to Michigan and Pitt. Vandy is looking like a bottom feeder in the SEC, so while the computers may still see that win as a quality one, it won’t move the meter much on Selection Sunday. Michigan and Pitt are both top-50 in KenPom and project as ok losses. However, both of those teams have quality high major wins, should they be around the bubble. Michigan topped MU and SMU while Pitt beat MU and took it to Maryland on the road.
So far, Marquette has 0 wins that look to stand the test of time in the non-con and only has two games left to make an impact. Wisconsin is a veteran-laden, top-10 KenPom team. Even having the home-court advantage, I would say beating the Badgers would be a surprise and I wouldn’t count on it. That leaves one game: Georgia.
Georgia hasn’t been that impressive, isn’t top-50 and probably won’t make the tournament this year. But a top-100 game on the road checks off a lot of boxes for both RPI and advanced metrics. Beating Georgia on the road gives this team margin for error. Wisconsin isn’t a do or die game any more. And with the Big East being loaded once more, it means you don’t have to go something like 12-6 in conference to sniff a bid.
One more time for those Twitter fingers ready to fire back. Georgia is the most important not because it’s the last chance or a loss automatically removes Marquette from consideration, but because it gives you house money to play with and is much more winnable than Wisconsin at home. If Marquette holds on against Pitt, you are saved these 900 words, as that would mean it already had a “good” win in its pocket. But it didn’t, so here we are.
(For more discussion and some contrasting thoughts about the importance of the Georgia game, I would recommend a listen to the Scrambled Eggs Podcast.)
A loss on Sunday won’t end the season and wouldn’t even hurt the RPI that much, but it will mean needing a great conference season rather than a good one. I’m still high on this Marquette team, but am also realistic in my Big East projections. They are not sweeping Nova, X, BU and CU at home. They are not taking 2 out of 4 on the road from that group.
A win on Sunday means even a bumpy road can lead to the NCAA Tournament. A loss would probably require some smooth sailing. If we’ve watched the same Marquette team this season, we can all agree there will be nothing smooth about it. Georgia is the most important game this season. I’m sticking to it.