Think debates over bubble teams in the NCAA Tournament are a fairly recent, internet-fueled phenomenon? Nope.
The year was 1995, still several years before bubble watches or bracketology. Joe Lunardi was an editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, not yet on ESPN providing his affable insight seemingly every 10 minutes. It was only 10 years into the Tournament’s run as a 64-team event, though it had been 20 years since it was entirely a tournament of champions.
Though there was no widespread internet yet, plenty of discussion and grousing over the tourney’s final at-large bids was every bit as heated then as it is now. That year’s hot topic was at-large spots given to Manhattan, Miami (Ohio), Santa Clara and Xavier, at the expense of teams like George Washington, Georgia Tech and Iowa.
All four won conference regular season titles but lost in their league tournaments-Manhattan in the Metro Atlantic, Miami in the Mid-American, Santa Clara in the WCC and Xavier in the Midwestern Collegiate, now known as the Horizon League. Selection committee chairman Bob Frederick-athletic director at Kansas at the time-noted that year the committee was proud to give these teams a good look, saying ”it’s fair to say the last couple of years we’ve looked very hard at (regular-season) conference champions,” while also noting ”still, those teams had to meet the same scrutiny that the other teams had to meet.”
This year’s NCAA selection committee could have a chance to do something very similar. And although they almost certainly wouldn’t, they should.
Arkansas-Little Rock, San Diego State, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Valparaiso, Wichita State. Presented in alphabetical order, all five share a lot in common as teams that are highly questionable to receive bids to this year’s NCAA tourney if they don’t win their conference tournaments.
Wichita State is likely the best bet; the other four are maybe 50/50 picks at absolute best. And if all four somehow lost in their conference tournament, it’s almost a certainty that several of them-if not all-would be left out.
Those five also share something else in common, though: all will finish the regular season as sole, undisputed champions of conferences that play a double round-robin schedule.
When their regular seasons are over, all of these teams will have played everyone in their league home and away and emerged as clearly the best of their lot. And more than any special considerations there may or may not be for injuries or teams whose coaches presided over programs going on probation, that accomplishment should be weighed heavily by the selection committee as it attempts to parse the final at-large spots in the field.
Understand: this isn’t an argument for pseudo-automatic qualification for these teams. Each school’s conference has chosen to award its automatic berth to the NCAAs via a conference tournament, and for that TV exposure there’s sometimes a trade-off.
On the other hand, when it comes to the final 8-10 at-large spots in the field, there is rarely much difference in teams. Bigger-name schools often have more “quality” wins but also far more losses to those same teams, and the odds of these teams actually advancing deep in the tournament has been proven time and again to be less than miniscule. The so-called “mid-major”, meanwhile, has less for glitzy wins, but also has a gaudy record while almost always competing at a real scheduling disadvantage not of their own doing.
None of these teams is a slam-dunk inclusion for the field, which is precisely why they’re on the fence. When that’s the case, winning should be emphasized as much as possible, and there’s no better way to reward that than to choose conference champions.
If two teams are close, and one has a conference championship and the other finished, say, seventh in its league? The choice should be clear. At the bare minimum, an undisputed regular season champion in the top half of all 32 Division I conferences deserves very heavy consideration, but every one of them deserves at least a look.
(A note: along with the five teams mentioned above, Monmouth also falls into this category. Frankly, the Hawks’ NCAA Tournament qualifications-quality wins, road wins, attempting to schedule tough-should not even be in question right now, but if they are, then absolutely they should get a serious boost from their league title.)
Current selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione recently caused a little bit of a stir when he said “this year I could make a case for 14 leagues to get multiple bids if a team doesn’t win the automatic berth,” as opposed to how, as he noted, “usually there are between nine and 11 conferences that could send multiple teams to the tournament.”
Yet history tells us this is something the committee used to do much better than it has of late. From 1985-96, a span of 12 years, a total of 157 conferences (including independents, since there were many at this time) received multiple bids-an average of 13.25 per year. Fifteen conferences received multiple bids in 1995, and the number of two-bid leagues was fewer than 12 only once in that period (11 in 1992). Whether looking at the info in retrospect or when following the event at that time, it was very clear that, if a league was in the top half of all conferences-even if in that 10-16 range-it had a realistic chance at more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Since 1997, that average has shrunk to exactly 11.0 conferences per year, with 176 conferences receiving multiple bids over the past 16 years. Never in that period have so much as 13 conferences received more than one bid, and there have been as many as 12 on only one occasion since 2007. The number bottomed out in 1997 and again in 2009, when only nine conferences received multiple bids.
The committee will say it still pays particular attention to regular season champions; the numbers say otherwise. And the expansion of the field from 65 to 68 hasn’t helped a lick, either-the average since 2011 is 10.8 conferences receiving bids.
Some will make the case that a river running north has caused this, with league expansion allowing more teams to join better conferences and those better teams leaving making their previous leagues weaker. Yet that explains little; it doesn’t preclude the “new” conference champions in those old leagues from having great results in limited opportunities out of conference (see: Chattanooga and Valparaiso rising in place of Davidson and Butler in their respective leagues).
There should be some caveats to rewarding conference titles, though, and they are in the words mentioned above: “sole, undisputed champions of conferences that play a double round-robin schedule.” Which means exactly that-it requires a sole championship (not shared) and must come against a double round-robin schedule.
Conference “titles” in leagues that have unbalanced schedules are the participation trophy of today’s era of college sports, worth about as much as the paper a certificate for them could be printed on. That’s plenty enough reason for the selection committee to not reward them.
Is this fair to conferences that don’t play double round-robin schedules? Well, they made a choice to expand to their current sizes. If they don’t like it, then they can 1) play double round-robin, even if it costs them a few non-league games or 2) shrink.
It may require a choice: is football or basketball a league’s main sport? Or perhaps, is football so important that it’s worth mortgaging a periodic better chance at an at-large bid in basketball? If it somehow got more conferences back down to 10 teams or less where they should be, all the better.
Of the five mentioned, were it up to us and the bubble looked as it does today, we’d have at least four-and likely all five-in the NCAAs, win or lose in the league tourneys.
Wichita State of the Missouri Valley was clearly a top 25 team when it was healthy. Valparaiso owned the Horizon League, attempted to schedule tough out of conference (only to have some of its toughest opponents underperform, some due to injury) and has a road win at Oregon State, which is purportedly competing for an at-large spot.
Little Rock (Sun Belt) won at San Diego State and at Tulsa-both bubble teams-and won at DePaul by 20. Ask George Washington and Providence how easy that is to do. Chattanooga (Southern Conference) won at Dayton, Georgia and Illinois, and weathered a brutal conference travel schedule, though a decisive late home loss to UNC Greensboro was not good.
San Diego State is maybe the most questionable for us, and even that may be punishing the Aztecs more for their conference’s perceived lack of performance than its reality. The Mountain West has had a lousy year by its standards, yet still sits 12th in conference RPI, better than the leagues of any of these other four teams. SDSU also handled California by 14 on a neutral court. There are reasons to keep the Aztecs out-four home losses is not a good sign-but a conference champion from the 12th-ranked conference absolutely deserves a long look for an at-large berth, if needed.
All of these teams made very reasonable attempts to schedule well and earned quality wins out of conference. All dominated their conferences. It really doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.
The odds are at least a couple of these teams-and perhaps all of them-will win their conference tournaments. And that’s good, because indeed there would be a pecking order for which to take first.
For those of us who argue the merits of more teams like these in the field, it’s never been about wanting the tourney to be filled with them. We’re simply talking in most cases 2-3 more bids going to teams that have been excellent over the mediocre 19-13ish teams that add neither charm nor legitimate Final Four threats to the event.
By the way, circling back to 1995: despite all four of those teams being seeded no better than 11th, two them won first round games-13 seed Manhattan knocking off Oklahoma and No. 12 Miami beating Arizona-while Santa Clara and Xavier lost by seven and five points, respectively.
As has been shown time and again over the years, these teams will not embarrass anyone if they are selected-in fact, there’s a good chance they will do some damage. As long as they are allowed to.