After the Wildcats won their 7th game in a row and moved to 2-0 in Big East play with a victory over the South Florida Bulls, one fan asked me an interesting question on Twitter: "What is Villanova's magic number?"
How about "11," which was the number of turnovers the Wildcats committed in the game? "61" for the percentage of field goals that were the product of an assist?
No, this fan wanted to know what the magic number was for Villanova's 11-4 team to make it to the NCAA tournament this season. I'm no magician. I can, however, produce a few important numbers to keep in mind.
Let's start with "79," the current RPI rating for the Wildcats according to RealTimeRPI.com. Like it or not, the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is a major component of the NCAA tournament selection process, and at the moment the Wildcats don't look poised for an at-large berth. Only 68 teams make it to the NCAA tournament, and about 32 of those spots go to conference champions -- regardless of their RPI rating. A school ideally needs to land in the top-30 RPI to feel confident that they can get an invite to the tournament.
"5" is another number to think about. That's the maximum number of games that the 'Cats might need to win in the Big East tournament. If they finish below 10th in the league standings, they will need to play through five rounds at MSG to win the Big East tournament title -- which is the simplest way for them to make it to the tournament this postseason. Finish a little higher and it could be 4 wins or, if they could climb into the top-4, just three.
A Big East tournament title would lock the Wildcats into an automatic NCAA tournament invitation, which may be their only path to the elite side of the postseason.
"16" is the number of games that Villanova has remaining in the regular season. "6" is the number of those games that are against ranked opponents. If the Wildcats want to look at an at-large bid, those six games are vital for boosting their RPI -- which could use some major upsets to atone for the sins of losing to Columbia (233rd in RPI). A neutral-floor loss to Alabama (79) doesn't help either, but losses to Temple (27) and La Salle (47) aren't nearly as bad. Wins over #3 Louisville (RPI 9) and #7 Syracuse (RPI 13) in particular, would help drag Villanova's RPI out of the gutter and into contention.
There are plenty of opportunities to add good wins to the resume during Big East play, but for Villanova, those wins may need to be big ones to get a serious look from the NCAA tournament committee.
"107" is the defensive efficiency rank given to Villanova by Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free statistics. Final Four caliber teams are usually in the top-25 in the country in that category. Good teams are always ranked higher than triple-digits. The Wildcats need to keep improving on defense to be able to score wins against strong offensive teams like Pittsburgh and Louisville.
"88" is the offensive efficiency rank that Pomeroy has assigned to Villanova. The Wildcats have rarely been a tournament team when they have struggled to score points, and while the 2009 Final Four team was hardly an offensive juggernaut, they were ranked much higher offensively. This team needs to continue to create high-quality looks and make their second-chances.
"21" is the "luck" ranking, given to Villanova, which compares their actual record to what their record should have been based on the offensive and defensive efficiencies given above (and those of their opponents). That rating suggests that Villanova has had some luck this season, winning despite not necessarily being the statistically-better team more often than not. Winning in overtime will normally boost that ranking, for example. Villanova will need to continue it's lucky streak through until March.
"26" is another interesting number. The Wildcats aren't listed in any current projected brackets. Not seeded, not in the first four out, just plain 'out.' The slight good news is that at least one 'bracketologist,' SBNation's Chris Dobbertean, has the Wildcats listed under "also considered," in his latest projection. Based on his chart, Villanova is currently about 26 places out of the NCAA tournament picture -- that's a big gap to cover between now and March. It also isn't so big a gap that the Wildcats are staring at another likely postseason at home -- an NIT bid would be well within reach.
The numbers don't lie; Villanova needs some magic before an NCAA Tournament postseason can truly be in the picture. An NCAA tournament bid won't be on the table without some dramatic upsets or a strong run at Madison Square Garden. The postseason generally is within reach, however, and while an NIT appearance may not satisfy fans who have come to expect Sweet 16's and Elite 8's, it may have to be enough.