Virtually every season as the NCAA Tournament nears, the talk of bracket projections revolves around that season having a “soft bubble,” often as soft as many remember.
It’s often as much of an exaggeration as it is incorrect-you can’t have a soft bubble every year-but this year it’s also not true. This is a season where there are more NCAA-worthy teams than there are spots. Or at least, that’s likely the way it will end up.
The reason for that is the number of conference champions who have lost in their conference tournaments. Teams like Hofstra, Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, Temple, Valparaiso and Wichita State all are deserving of bids, but also all are in danger of missing the field.
A few of them might sneak in, but it’s unlikely so much as a majority will. And that’s too bad.
The teams taking their spots are generally less-than overwhelming. Oregon State has had a nice season, would be a great story and has some nice computer numbers, but the Beavers are just 4-8 vs. the RPI top 50 (per CBSSports.com data) and their record vs. Division I opponents this year is just six games over .500. Syracuse has a better profile than some think, but is hardly spectacular and flubbed down the stretch.
Pittsburgh? Vanderbilt? Ugh.
We touched on it recently, and nothing about the conference tournament results this year made us change our minds: between the sixth or seventh ACC or Pac-12 team and a conference champion from a less-heralded league, we’d take the latter almost every time.
The reasons are George Mason, VCU, Wichita State and LSU.
The last time a BCS conference team made the Final Four with a seed of 9 or lower was 30 years ago-LSU in 1986. That was also the only time in the history of the 64-plus team field. Meanwhile, George Mason, VCU and Wichita State all have taken those seeds to the Final Four just in the last 10 years. Why keep giving the benefit of the doubt to teams that have proven they will rarely take advantage of those bids? There is no good reason to give later at-large bids to these teams when it’s proven the non-BCS schools take better advantage of them.
In this year 2016, voters (on the NCAA selection committee) will have a choice between two distinct ideologies. The choice should be clear, but we’re not confident that the committee sees it that way. We reserve the right to be pleasantly surprised, but we’re not expecting it.
As we have mentioned in the past, we don’t do daily or weekly bracket projections here-there are plenty of others who have covered that for months. This is just one college hoops’ follower’s final guess at the field (with some commentary) on this Sunday morning of Selection Sunday:
The obvious (55 teams total)
Automatics (27 after Saturday, will be 32 total): Austin Peay (OVC), Buffalo (MAC), Cal State Bakersfield (WAC), Fairleigh Dickinson (NEC), Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Fresno State (MWC), Gonzaga (WCC), Hampton (MEAC), Hawaii (Big West), Holy Cross (Patriot), Iona (MAAC), Kansas (Big 12), Middle Tennessee State (C-USA), North Carolina (ACC), UNC Asheville (Big South), UNC Wilmington (CAA), Northern Iowa (MVC), Oregon (Pac-12), Seton Hall (Big East), South Dakota State (Summit), Southern (SWAC), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Stony Brook (America East), Tennessee-Chattanooga (Southern), Weber State (Big Sky), Wisconsin-Green Bay (Horizon), Yale (Ivy)
At-large locks (23):
ACC: Duke, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Virginia
Atlantic 10: Dayton
Big East: Providence, Villanova, Xavier
Big Ten: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan State/Purdue loser
Big 12: Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia
Pac-12: Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah
SEC: Kentucky/Texas A&M loser
Two of the remaining five automatic bids are certain to come out of this pot of at-large locks (Big Ten, SEC). The AAC, Atlantic 10 and Sun Belt all have teams that could lose and still have modest to almost sure-thing chances at an at-large bid.
Near-locks. Suppose there’s some chance could be left out, but highly unlikely (4 teams):
Butler: Looking through the Bulldogs’ initial resume numbers, in particular 4-8 vs. top 50, 6-9 vs. top 100 and a 242 non-conference strength of schedule-and we’re not as comfortable as most calling them a lock. Butler should be ok, though, with wins over Purdue and Seton Hall (twice).
Saint Joseph’s/VCU loser: The Hawks are 9-6 vs. the top 100 and 14-3 in road/neutral games; the Rams are 8-7 vs. the top 100. Both are a little light on marquee wins, though, especially out of conference, so if the committee thoroughly disrespects the Atlantic 10 again, one supposes there’s a chance they could get hosed.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders finished seventh in the Big 12 but are 6-9 vs. the top 50, made a great impression late with wins over Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma, and played a better-than-most-think non-conference schedule. Little reason to worry.
USC: The Trojans stumbled to the finish, are an ok-ish 5-8 vs. the top 50, a not-so-great 9-12 against the top 100 and 5-10 in road/neutral games. It’s far from an airtight case, but wins over Arizona plus a host of bubble or bubble-ish teams like Colorado, Monmouth, Oregon State and Wichita State, though, should seal the deal.
On the fence. In contention for the final 9 spots:
Arkansas-Little Rock, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Florida, George Washington, Hofstra, Michigan, Monmouth, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, South Carolina, Syracuse, Temple, Tulsa, Valparaiso, Vanderbilt, Wichita State.
Bubble-in (9 teams): The predictions here
Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ profile isn’t awesome, but it’s not bad-4-4 vs. top 50, 8-7 road/neutral record, just one sub-100 loss. Cincy played a tough non-conference schedule, and wouldn’t be surprised if a few committee members were swayed by that incredible four-OT game against Connecticut in the AAC quarterfinals.
Connecticut (if needed): AAC foibles aside (how did this team finish sixth in that league??), the Huskies’ name-brand victories over the likes of SMU, Texas and, yes, Michigan and Ohio State, are almost certain to impress the committee. If they beat Memphis today as they should, they don’t have to worry about it.
Monmouth: We know, the Hawks have three sub-200 losses and wins over Georgetown, UCLA and USC diminished as season went on. But you simply have to reward a team that takes on the schedule Monmouth did-23 of 34 games away from home, including numerous road games against major conference teams-and did so well against it.
Oregon State: Some love to blame teams from leagues like the Atlantic 10 or Mountain West for supposedly “gaming the RPI.” It doesn’t happen, but if it did, then what about the Beavers, who are a very-NIT like 18-12 vs. Division I teams and 4-8 vs. the top 50, yet have a total of 11 top 100 wins and a sky-high RPI number? Oregon State would be a great story and will probably get in, but it’s hard to get past that middling overall record.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers deserve to be docked more than they will for consistently choosing to schedule weak out of conference. Just 2-7 vs. the top 50, but 7-2 vs. 51-100 likely equals a bid.
South Carolina: We know, the Gamecocks have just one top 50 win and played a wimpy non-conference schedule. Still, they’re 8-6 vs. the top 100, and not many teams in this grouping can match that.
Syracuse: Orange are a not-terrible 5-6 vs. top 50, and also beat St. Bonaventure at home and Connecticut at neutral site in November. Unfortunately, November was the high mark; Syracuse has not been an NCAA tourney team in months, but we suspect it sneaks in. If Jim Boeheim’s suspension is part of the reason why, then that would be a travesty of the highest order.
Vanderbilt: Commodores played a top-25 non-conference schedule and are loved by so-called “advanced” metrics, which we’re guessing slips them in despite few big wins in many chances and a poor road/neutral mark.
Wichita State: Yes, they’re 4-7 vs. the top 100, but they still won the No. 13 conference with ease, destroying most MVC teams with ease. The injury to Fred VanVleet has to factor in some, but especially since it came at such a bad time-the Shockers didn’t get chances at those teams later. And yes, as people like The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy have wisely noted, their Ken Pomeroy ranking probably locks it up for them.
Temple (if Connecticut wins; out if Huskies lose AAC final): Owls were not great out of conference but won AAC regular season. Did play customary tough OOC schedule. For second straight year, Temple could go either way depending on final conference tourney results.
Arkansas-Little Rock (if lose Sun Belt final): The Trojans have had one heck of a season and also won at San Diego State and Tulsa, which are hardly insignificant results. It’s just hard to imagine the committee holding a spot for them if they are upset by Louisiana-Monroe today.
Florida: The Gators aren’t completely out, but by the end of the season really their only two notable wins were over West Virginia and Saint Joseph’s. 2-7 vs. the top 50 plus 7-13 against the top 100 doesn’t quite cut it.
George Washington: The Colonials deserve a look based on wins over Virginia and Seton Hall. Unfortunately, there’s just not quite enough heft other than that to warrant a bid, evidenced by a 4-7 record vs. the top 100 but also two sub-200 losses.
Hofstra: Our first instinct is the Pride is out, but if there was one team getting little discussion that we wouldn’t be shocked to see show up, it’s this one. Hofstra won at St. Bonaventure and won the No. 9-ranked conference in regular season. Five sub-100 losses are likely the dagger, but you just never know
Michigan: We really want to trust that the committee is wiser than putting in a team that is an unsightly 4-12 vs. the top 100. Wolverines’ four top 50 wins are good ones-all vs. top 26 as of last night-but they just didn’t win enough of those games.
St. Bonaventure: Bonnies would be in better shape if NCAA hadn’t a few years ago foolishly ditched the ‘last 10 games’ from consideration (when comparing two very similar teams, why wouldn’t you pick the hotter one?) This is a team that deserves to be in, but gut instinct/fear is St. Bona will be this year’s Colorado State, made an example of because they aren’t favored by the Pomeroy ratings formula.
Saint Mary’s: The Pomeroy ratings love the Gaels, but their non-conference schedule will likely cost them. The guess here is committee won’t think twice about making an example of SMC for playing all but one OOC game at home, though they then should also be doing it for teams like Pittsburgh.
San Diego State: The Aztecs look the part and have one of the best wins of any bubble team, beating California by 14. Unfortunately, that’s their only top 70 win as of yesterday, and one of just three top 100 wins. Add in a surprising four home losses plus another at a neutral site against sub-300 San Diego, and it’s hard to see a bid unless the committee has mercy on the Mountain West.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane should still be in the conversation even after two ugly losses to Memphis late in the season, including a blowout on Friday in the AAC quarterfinals. For the second straight year, though, their last impressions are likely not good ones, and that likely trumps what otherwise is a decent profile, though not spectacular.
Valparaiso: The Crusaders tried, they really did to play a brutal non-conference schedule. Then, Iona and Rhode Island both suffered major injuries, diminishing what should’ve been major wins. Horizon League champion that was dominant in most games this year, even while fighting injuries.
Bubble-in, but should be out:
Oregon State: We’re fine with the Beavers getting in, as long as Valparaiso does, too. And since the Crusaders probably won’t, then neither should OSU.
Pittsburgh: 2-7 vs. the top 50 is not a record that indicates in any way that this team can consistently beat NCAA tourney caliber opponents. At some point, too, teams like this need to be punished for their intentionally weak non-conference scheduling year after year. Playing in the ACC is no excuse.
Syracuse: Of these four, the Orange really do have the best resume. They’re just not much of a threat whatsoever to make a Final Four run, so give the spot to a conference champion that we’d know more about if only teams like Pittsburgh and Syracuse would play them more.
Vanderbilt: 2-7 record vs. the top 50, 7-10 vs. the top 100, 5-11 in road/neutral games=prime example of 1) that yes, “advanced” metrics have outliers too and 2) a team that is no threat to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament
Bubble-out, but should be in:
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies are a solid 7-5 vs. the top 100 and were clearly one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10 and one of the hottest teams anywhere late. Bona also showed its game travels by winning at Dayton and Saint Joseph’s.
Saint Mary’s: We know the non-conference schedule wasn’t great, but the Gaels are still 27-5, including 6-2 vs. the top 100, and big boys aren’t knocking down their door to play them, either. Exactly how many more games is SMC expected to win?
Temple (if UConn loses): We go back and forth between the Owls or Hofstra for this spot, but Temple won the No. 8 league, while Hofstra won the No. 9. Even though the Owls’ title was with a slightly unbalanced schedule, we give them an ever so slight nod.
Valparaiso: Like Murray State a year ago, teams like Valpo that are at such scheduling disadvantages cannot be evaluated by sheer number of top 50 and top 100 wins. When they got to play what would be considered “name” competition, Crusaders won at Oregon State and took Oregon to the wire on the road. If one is asking who is better between Oregon State and Valparaiso, we already know the answer based on results on the court.
Hofstra (if UConn wins AAC): Should UConn win and Temple gets in, then it’s a tough call between Hofstra and San Diego State, but a champion in this year’s CAA-again, the ninth-best league in the country-deserves a bid if at all possible.
(late note: we didn’t include Arkansas-Little Rock in this, for purposes of simplicity. If UALR loses to Louisiana-Monroe in the Sun Belt final, it definitely can be argued that the Trojans deserve an at-large, though the weakness of the Sun Belt and late unsightly loss to Appalachian State hurt badly)