Should SMU Have Been Left Out of the Dance?Posted by CD Bradley on March 18th, 2014
One of the biggest stories of Selection Sunday was SMU missing the field. The Mustangs, which hadn’t made the Tournament in two long decades, were widely considered a lock for the field in the closing weeks of the regular season, particularly since winning at UConn on February 23. And yet they’ll be hosting an NIT game versus UC Irvine on Wednesday night. Did Larry Browns’ team deserve its unkind bracket fate?
Selection committee Chairman Ron Wellman said that SMU was the last team out of the tournament. “As we looked at SMU, they certainly passed the eye test,” he told a conference call of reporters on Sunday night. “They’re a very good team, had a very good year.” Wellman continued:
When you’re making these selections, you’re looking for differentiators. Is there anything that stands out, on the positive side or negative side of the ledger, that will cause you to absolutely take that team or really look at prioritizing and selecting other teams? In SMU’s case their downfall, their weakness, was their schedule. Their non-conference strength of schedule was ranked number 302 out of 350 teams eligible for the tournament. It’s one of the worst non-conference strengths of schedule. Their overall strength of schedule was ranked 129. One-twenty-nine would have been by far the worst at large strength of schedule going into the tournament. The next worst at large strength of schedule was 91. Really the glaring weakness about SMU was their schedule.
The weak schedule, of course, was foreseeable. We talked about it here before the season began, lumping SMU’s non-conference schedule in the ugly group and saying that, aside from their game with Virginia, “the only other team they play projected to finish above seventh in its conference is from the SWAC, so good luck against the Cavaliers!” No such luck; they cut a seven-point lead to one in the last minute versus UVA but fell short, 76-73. They had only one other RPI top 100 foe before conference play started, and they lost that one too — at Arkansas. In his conference call, Wellman said that N.C. State, the last team in, stood out because of it had three RPI top-50 wins away from home (SMU had one: the win at UConn). SMU had road troubles, posting an 8-8 road/neutral record with three losses outside the RPI top 140. Ultimately, four RPI top 50 wins, even three in the top 25, wasn’t enough.
All of this goes to show what the committee says and does are two different things. “The committee selects the 36 best teams not otherwise automatic qualifiers for their conference to fill the at-large berths,” according to the NCAA’s own principles and procedures (emphasis appears in original). Best is never defined, but it’s hard to stretch the word to encompass the quality of other teams. But the committee’s track record presents strong evidence that it cares very much about factors that have nothing to do with how good a team is, foremost among them how good a team’s opponents are. Rankings that account for opponent quality – such as KenPom – indicate that SMU was better than several teams picked over the Mustangs for at-large bids; SMU is in fact the highest ranked team left out of the field, according to KenPom.
Patrick Stevens (@d1scourse on Twitter) was one of the very, very few bracketologists who correctly predicted the whole field, and he explained the rationale for leaving out SMU hours before the committee did just that. “The committee routinely punishes teams that don’t play difficult non-conference schedules, and SMU probably will be no different,” he wrote Sunday morning. Who a team plays, of course, has nothing to do with how good a team is; whether SMU was playing the Miami Heat or Miami of Ohio, they would still be SMU. All the indications we have suggest that SMU was one of the 36 best teams but played one of the worst schedules. Given the relative importance of the latter factor in determining a team’s fate, it will be fascinating to see who the Mustangs choose to play next fall before conference season begins.