The Other 26: Week 15Posted by IRenko on March 9th, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
We are at roughly the midway mark of TO26 conference championship games. Fifteen invites to the Big Dance were handed out during a frenzy of activity from Saturday through Wednesday, while another nine will be delivered on Saturday. Some of the teams who earned the honor are no surprise, but proving that the madness starts early in March, several conference tournaments upended expectations. As a result, several strong TO26 teams are now contemplating trips to the NIT instead of the NCAAs.
After the updated top 15, we consider the fallout from these developments, exploring the idea of awarding auto bids based on regular season performance and making the at-large case for two regular season conference champions: Iona and Oral Roberts.
Time for a Programming Change?
The big story over the first half of Championship Week was the early demise of several TO26 teams who ruled their conferences during the regular season. Iona, Oral Roberts, and Middle Tennessee State all looked like very strong teams who would have been real upset threats had they made the NCAA tournament. But none of them may have that chance after being upset before even reaching their respective tournament finals. This is not a new phenomenon. Last year, there were 11 conferences whose regular season champion or co-champions were denied an NCAA tournament bid. The NIT’s recently-adopted policy of awarding automatic bids to regular season conference champions provides a safety net that mitigates the heartbreak, but just a bit.
More generally, the frequency with which this happens raises the question of whether more TO26 conferences should adopt the Ivy League’s practice of awarding their auto bid to the regular season champion. While BCS conferences can be sure that their regular season champion will pick up an at-large bid (well, mostly sure; as I argue later, this year’s Pac-12 should be an exception), most TO26 do not have that fallback luxury. So one has to ask whether mid-major conferences are doing themselves a disservice by not sending their best teams to represent them in the NCAA Tournament. Not just for the potential loss of money that the conference gets for every Tournament win (which might be cancelled out by the loss of conference tourney proceeds), but for the potential loss of exposure and conference brand recognition. Nothing breeds success like success.
As a threshold matter, it’s important to note that this scheme would only work for conferences that play balanced, round-robin regular season schedules. So this would not apply, for example, to the CAA, which Drexel won in part based on the strength of a favorable schedule. That issue aside, the most legitimate argument against this idea from a competitiveness standpoint is that allocating a bid via the conference tournament system rewards teams who are playing their best basketball when it counts — at the end of the season. Indeed, it’s arguable that Detroit really was the best team in the Horizon League by season’s end, after starting league play with a 1-4 record. Further, sometimes a one or two game difference in regular season standings can mask a much closer, even undetectable, difference in the actual quality of the top teams in the conference. Oral Roberts won the Summit League by two games, but they have a much lower Pomeroy rating than South Dakota State, which won the auto bid and split its two regular season games against ORU.
These counter-arguments have some merit, so at the end of the day, I don’t have a strongly-held view that mid-major conferences should shift to an Ivy-style system. Maybe the answer can be found in some kind of hybrid system that involves playoffs only for those teams at the very top of the standings. But I do think it’s important that TO26 conferences give this issue serious thought and that their focus be on selecting the best, most competitive entry for Big Dance.
So what happened to all those auto bids that eluded conference champions? Well some of them didn’t fall too far, going to teams that finished close to the top of the regular season standings — VCU, Loyola (MD), South Dakota State, and Lehigh. But one bid tumbled all the way down the standings to a team that was a 7 seed in its conference tournament. That’s right, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers did not even finish in the top half of the Sun Belt regular season standings. They were 7-9 in league play and even after winning 4 games in 4 days, will enter the NCAA Tournament with a 15-18 record and an RPI over 180. In fact, on February 19, they stood at 9-18. The flip side of denying Tournament berths to regular season champions are the little Cinderella stories like this, in which teams whose seasons looked completely meaningless just two weeks ago suddenly find themselves Dancing on the biggest stage in the game. (Well, so long as you consider a First Four appearance, where the Hilltoppers are surely headed, to be the big stage.)
The Case for TO26 At-Large Bids
Several TO26 teams are locks for at-large bids should they need it (e.g., UNLV, Temple, Wichita State, Memphis, St. Mary’s, San Diego State, New Mexico), and others have a strong chance of making the cut (Southern Mississippi, St. Louis, BYU, Colorado State). But I’d like to take up the banner for two other teams who are barely in the Bubble conversation and make a genuine argument that they ought to make the field of 68: Iona and Oral Roberts.
First, using Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology, let’s take a look at the vital statistics of the last seven teams in his at-large field, along with his “first four out”:
- South Florida: RPI 40 / SOS 27 / 1-9 vs RPI 1-50, 5-1 vs 51-100, 13-3 vs 100+ / 8-4 last 12
- Xavier: RPI 58 / SOS 52 / 2-7 vs 1-50, 4-3 vs 51-100, 13-1 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- Texas: RPI 52 / SOS 21 / 4-8 vs 1-50, 1-1 vs 51-100, 15-3 vs 100+ / 7-5 last 12
- Washington: RPI 54 / SOS 81 / 1-7 vs 1-50, 3-1 vs 51-100, 17-2 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- Mississippi State: RPI 65 / SOS 66 / 2-4 vs 1-50, 5-3 vs 51-100, 15-4 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- Drexel: RPI 70 / SOS 222 / 1-2 vs 1-50, 2-1 vs 51-100, 23-3 vs 100+ / 11-1 last 12
- Seton Hall: RPI 62 / SOS 44 / 3-8 vs 1-50, 4-1 vs 51-100, 13-3 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- Tennessee: RPI 76 / SOS 31 / 4-7 vs 1-50, 2-2 vs 51-100, 11-4 vs 100+ / 9-3 last 12
- Northwestern: RPI 47 / SOS 12 / 1-10 vs 1-50, 4-3 vs 51-100, 13-0 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- NC State: RPI 53 / SOS 26 / 0-8 vs 1-50, 5-1 vs 51-100, 16-2 vs 100+ / 6-6 last 12
- Miami: RPI 55 / SOS 41 / 2-7 vs 1-50, 1-4 vs 51-100, 16-1 vs 100+ / 8-4 last 12
Now let’s take a look at the resumes of Iona and Oral Roberts:
- Iona: RPI 41 / SOS 144 / 1-1 vs 1-50, 4-2 vs 51-100, 20-4 vs 100+ / 10-2 last 12
- Oral Roberts: RPI 49 / SOS 188 / 1-2 vs 1-50, 2-1 vs 51-100, 24-3 vs 100+ / 10-2 last 12
At-large selection isn’t based on a rigid formula, so this is as much art as science. But the only teams on the above list that I’d definitively take over Iona and Oral Roberts are Texas, Mississippi State, Seton Hall, and Tennessee.
The first thing you notice about the Iona and Oral Roberts resumes relative to the ones above are the highly competitive RPIs. The second thing you notice are the number of wins against top 50 teams, which are equal to or just one shy of all teams other than the four just mentioned. What you may not notice initially is that the number of top 50 wins is comparable even though the number of opportunities was much less. South Florida had 1 win in 10 chances, Northwestern 1 in 11, Washington 1 in 8, Xavier 2 in 9, NC State 0 in 8, and Miami 2 in 9. Giving these teams the nod over Iona and ORU would confirm the worst fears of mid-major proponents: that the committee’s selection process unduly favors BCS conference teams who get as many as a dozen chances to get top 50 wins, while disadvantaging mid-majors who are hampered by scheduling constraints. (Yes, I recognize that Xavier is not a BCS conference team, but such a trend would generally favor BCS teams.)
And there’s nothing else in the resumes of the teams that have made Lunardi’s field that really justifies leapfrogging them over Iona and ORU, who have generally stronger RPIs, comparable top 50 win numbers, and similar records against teams ranked 51-100 and 100+. Sure, South Florida’s top 50 win was better — at Louisville — as compared to Iona’s win over Nevada and ORU’s win over South Dakota State. But it took Bulls eleven tries to get that win, an opportunity that wasn’t available to Iona or ORU. That South Florida is seeded as high as 10th in Lunardi’s bracket is mystifying.
As for the other teams? Washington’s top 50 win is a pedestrian victory over Oregon. And several of the top 50 games that they lost were certainly winnable, as they dropped contests against St. Louis, Nevada, South Dakota State, Oregon, and Cal. All the Huskies have going for them is the meaningless fact that they won the regular season title in a Pac-12 that is having a down year to top all down years.
Xavier is a fellow TO26 team, but I have a hard time arguing their case against Iona and ORU. Sure, they have two top 50 wins, but they were way back before December 3 (against Purdue and Vanderbilt). We’ve all seen what’s happened to this team since the Cintas brawl, and it hasn’t been pretty. They’ve stumbled badly down the stretch, going 1-6 against the top 100 in their last 7 games against them.
Drexel is another TO26 team that I’d love to see make the tournament, but I can’t understand why they’re getting so much more hype than Iona. I suppose it’s due to a few factors: the change in their season’s fortunes, from starting off 2-4 to finishing 24-2; the reputation of the CAA, despite its having a relatively mediocre year; and maybe just Joe Lunardi’s Philly roots. But the RPI and SOS tell the story here. The Dragons have played a miserable schedule, and the few top 100 wins they can boast (3 as compared to Iona’s 5) were all notched at home.
Drexel’s resume actually bears a lot of similarities to Oral Roberts’. Like Drexel, ORU closed out its season with a very strong run, going 20-2 over their final 22 games. They dropped just one conference game — to South Dakota State, ranked 50th in the RPI — and also scored wins over Xavier and Akron. On the whole, this set of wins compares favorably with Drexel’ set of top 100 wins (over VCU, George Mason, and Princeton). So why does Drexel make the cut, while Oral Roberts falls well short?
At the end of the day, I’m not confident that either the Gaels or Golden Eagles will be dancing this year. Nor can I even say with 100 percent certainty that they’ll be robbed if they’re not. But I’m supremely confident that they have strong cases to make, and that there’s no clear basis for excluding them for the teams that others think should make the cut. Indeed, given the challenges that mid-major teams face — fewer opportunities for quality wins, more opportunities for bad losses — I think the deserve the benefit of the doubt over teams like Washington and South Florida.
Schedule of TO26 Conference Tournament Championship Games
Finally, here’s your viewer’s guide to the nine remaining TO26 conference tournament championship games:
- Saturday, 3/10 (1 PM, ESPN2): MEAC
- Saturday, 3/10 (3 PM, ESPN2): Southland
- Saturday, 3/10 (7 PM, NBC Sports): Mountain West
- Saturday, 3/10 (8 PM, ESPN2): MAC
- Saturday, 3/10 (8 PM, ESPNU): SWAC
- Saturday, 3/10 (10 PM, ESPN2): Big West
- Saturday, 3/10 (11 AM, ESPN2): America East
- Saturday, 3/10 (10 PM, ESPN2): WAC
- Sunday, 3/11 (1 PM, CBS): Atlantic 10