WHITROCK: Does being in first matter?

Last night’s men’s basketball game at Vermont was hailed as the most important basketball game of the entire season. The Terriers went into Patrick Gymnasium in a position to all but remove the rival Catamounts from regular season title contention. Boston University’s eight-game winning streak was on the line. If the America East season has had a marquee matchup, this was it.

Right now, I’m not concerning myself with the outcome. There’s a specific reason for me to ignore the score of last night’s game, and it has everything to do with context. At 9-2 in conference play before last night, the Terriers were (and are) serious contenders for regular season and postseason titles. It’s mid-February. Thinking about an NCAA berth is admittedly thinking big, but at this point, it’s well within reason.

With a trip to the NCAA Tournament as the goal, the importance of any contest should be measured in terms of its ability to help a team reach that goal. Who won last night’s game isn’t my focus right now. I’m strictly focused on the significance of the game’s result. Not to suggest the result itself isn’t of great importance ‘-‘- wins and losses do matter, of course. But is being the top seed important?

Last night’s game had a significant impact on how the regular season standings will look come March. In the race for the number one seed, every game matters. Games between top contenders matter even more. Every team wants to secure home court for the conference championship game ‘-‘- the difficult part is getting home court and then surviving the first weekend in Albany.

If last night’s game impacted seeding, how important is seeding? The regular season champion is granted an NIT berth in case the NCAA Tournament isn’t in the cards, but since playing in the NIT isn’t the goal, we’ll ignore that option for now. What does seeding mean in the conference tournament? Is a number one seed a fast track to the NCAAs? History may have an answer for us.

Over the past 25 years ‘-‘- 25 being chosen to grant us a large enough data set as well as being relevant for BU (it excludes the Rick Pitino era) ‘-‘- there have been 218 possible tournament winners and 193 tournament games played. In those games, higher seeds have won 151 times with just 42 losses, compiling a winning percentage of .782. Top-seeded teams have done even better, winning nearly 90 percent of their games.

Only five number one seeds have failed to reach the tournament’s title game. Perhaps more significantly, when the top seed reaches the America East championship game, it prevails 90 percent of the time. It pays to be number one.

It’s not always cut-and-dry, though. This year’s tournament is in Albany. With the Great Danes highly likely to be fourth or fifth in the standings come season’s end, the prospect of having to play the Danes in the semifinals on their home floor is less than appetizing for whoever ends up with the one seed.

Should BU, Vermont and Binghamton occupy the top three slots in any order, two of those teams will avoid playing what amounts to a road game in the semifinals. That doesn’t guarantee an easy draw. The two and three seeds, should they reach the semifinals, would draw each other. It takes more than a little bit of luck to avoid the top competition in any tournament.

At some point, you have to beat the best in order to be the best. Finishing outside the top spot also opens up the possibility of traveling to the opponent’s school to fight for the title. History favors the home team in that scenario.

Besides, while playing Albany at Albany isn’t a great option, the Danes aren’t invincible on their home floor. When the Terriers visited New York’s capital region in early January, it took a late run for the Danes to escape, and only by the slimmest of margins. Corey Lowe was on the bench that day; it’s not certain his on-court presence would have reversed the outcome, but it’s not a stretch to say BU has more than a fighting chance against the Danes on any floor.

In the end, the gameplan is simple: win. Win in the regular season, win during the tournament weekend, win the championship game, and then try to win a game ‘-‘- or more ‘-‘- in the NCAAs. The top of America East is quality this year. If the Terriers want to take home the title, they need to beat quality opposition because that will be the requirement come next month.

Of course, the Terriers lost last night by 28. Should the Terriers run into Vermont again, it will be for the third time, and it will be loser go home. There are two strikes on BU right now, and while this isn’t baseball, the same rule still applies.

Three strikes, you’re out.

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