As expected following its loss in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament final, Murray State has become this year’s “Great Taste, Less Filling” debate of Championship Week, the most hotly discussed team in the lead-up to this year’s NCAA Tournament.
We made a preliminary call already for Murray State’s inclusion in the tourney, and Gary Parrish summed up its case well on CBSSports.com on Wednesday, but the Racers are a complex case that deserves examination.
To some, they’re the team with a mediocre RPI in the 60s, no top 50 wins, two top 100 wins and a low strength of schedule in a weak conference. To others, they’re the 27-5 team that won 25 straight games prior to a heartbreaking one-point loss to Belmont in the OVC final, a game played in Belmont’s home city of Nashville and decided on an off-balance three-pointer going in with two seconds left in the game. They play an exciting, up-tempo style, have one of the best players in the country in sophomore guard Cameron Payne, and anyone who has watched them before and after knows this was not the same team the last 26 games that it was early in the season.
It should be understood by both sides that the Racers do not measure up by the immediate numbers-quality wins, strength of schedule, etc.-that we routinely hear crunched at this time of year. It should also be equally understood that this does not mean there aren’t plenty of good reasons to include them in the NCAA Tournament.
One of the arguments being used most against the Racers is one that shouldn’t even be part of the discussion.
It is true, Murray State has zero top 50 wins and two top 100 wins this year. What is also true is the Racers have only played one top 50 team and four top 100 teams all season.
It is acknowledged: the one top 50 game was not pretty, a 27-point loss at Xavier in November. This was against a Musketeers team that got off to a red-hot 4-0 start at home, while Murray State was nowhere near the same team in its 25-game winning streak that it was in this game. A loss is a loss, though, and this was not a good one.
Regardless, it is 100% unfair to use a one-game sample size to say a team is incapable of beating top teams. Nor should any team be punished and completely dismissed for only having one chance at a top 50 team when it is a basic truth of scheduling that schools like Murray State have a very hard time getting non-conference games against top 50-ish teams.
The truth is, we don’t know how the Racers would do against more top 50 or top 100 teams. What we do know: Murray State played a lot of teams with an RPI below 100 in its 25-game winning streak. The Racers still went 25-0 against those teams, a bigger feat than many are giving them credit for.
Of all the teams that could be even remotely considered on the bubble for an at-large selection to the tourney as of Wednesday, exactly two of those do not have a sub-100 loss: Texas and Texas A&M. Indiana and Illinois have one. Every other team on the fence right now has at least two.
The point is, Murray State’s winning streak is not one that should be taken for granted. Many foolishly suggest that any BCS team or at-large contender would’ve gone 25-0 against that schedule. The numbers indicate that is a bad, bad assumption. In fact, other teams are losing to exactly the type of teams Murray has been beating.
There are three more very good reasons why Murray State should be in the field:
1) George Mason.
3) Wichita State.
Three times in the last nine years we’ve had teams use one of the later or latest at-large bids to reach the Final Four, which we’ll define as a 9 seed or lower. All three of those teams came from outside the BCS (still our favorite term) or major conferences.
Meanwhile, the last time a BCS at-large made the Final Four with a seed of 9 or lower was also the only time it ever happened: 1986, when LSU got there with an 11 seed. This was back when schools were allowed to play at home in first and second round games, and the Tigers benefited from just that provision.
Further than that, since the BCS era started (essentially 1999), five of the six at-large teams seeded ninth or lower to reach the Elite 8 have come from non-BCS conferences. Twelve of the 25 such at-large teams to reach the Sweet 16 were from conferences outside the BCS, and that’s despite those BCS conferences holding an 86-71 advantage in at-large bids in that category from 1999-2014.
The past shows us quite clearly: if you want teams in the NCAA Tournament that are capable of making the Final Four, then Murray State should be in. Because teams just like this Murray State squad-and Buffalo and Stephen F. Austin this year qualify as well-have proven they indeed can advance that far with a late at-large bid. And just as certainly, teams like Indiana, Miami (Fla.) and Texas have proven they cannot.
If anyone is looking closely at the nitty gritty sheets, that last bit should not be a surprise. The top 50 in the RPI is approximately the cut-off for at-large teams, so a team’s record against the RPI top 50 is often a good indicator of whether it is capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. But while many like to trumpet a team’s sheer number of top 50 wins, what should get far more play is a team’s winning percentage in such games when they get plenty of chances in them.
Frequently, those schools from BCS conferences that receive later at-large bids have top 50 records such as Nebraska or North Carolina State last year. The Cornhuskers were 4-8 against the RPI top 50; the Wolfpack 4-10. In other words, both teams proved that, given ample opportunities against top 50 teams, they will lose to them at least two out of every three times.
Entering Thursday, this year Texas is 3-11 against the RPI top 50. Illinois is 3-6. Indiana is 4-8. Miami is 2-6. Temple is 2-7. Texas A&M is 2-6. Every single one of them has lost between 66.7% and 78.6% of the time when they face top 50 teams.
When teams lose 67% of the time when playing top 50 teams eight, nine, 10 or more times in the regular season, it’s sheer foolishness to expect they will suddenly find a different form in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve proven quite forcefully that they cannot defeat NCAA at-large caliber teams on a regular basis. There is no reason to suspect they will do differently in the tourney.
At-large spots are supposed to go to teams that are most capable of winning the national championship. George Mason was very close to winning it all. VCU was. Wichita State was. No low-seeded at-large from a BCS conference has been since 1986. It is beyond time to stop giving those teams the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the final spots in the field.
Is it possible that Murray State could go out in its first game? Of course it is. It’s also entirely possible the Racers could make a run at the Final Four. Again: we don’t know.
What we do know, without exception from 1987 on, is that a middling team taking one of those final at-large spots from the major conferences is not going to make the Final Four. Overall, teams like Illinois, Miami or Texas have a lower ceiling than a Murray State, and history proves it. Given the choice between the team we know is middling or the one that was excellent against a lesser schedule, the choice should consistently be the latter.