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One last look at the big bubble

March 14, 2016 Columns No Comments
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This year, the NCAA Tournament bubble seemed as big as it’s ever been, and also with as little separation from one team to the next as ever. College basketball had a lot of even-ness this season, and it was especially manifest when looking at teams that were hardly locks for the NCAA Tournament. You could make compelling cases for numerous teams compared to others, and as is so often the case, the final bracket showed a gulf in the perception between those on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and those not on it – the latter camp featuring the media and the general public.

It is precisely this even-ness that should ensure a great three weeks to come. In light of how close so many of these teams are, a lot of games will be called “upsets” that won’t really be upsets. It is in that spirit that I hope that term does not get used very liberally.

Arguments have come since the bracket was unveiled, and will continue. That’s good, and also healthy. There’s also a simple reality here: every team had its chances, and every team has a game or two they would love to have back that might have made a difference.

Among the teams thought to be on the bubble, Butler and Temple were solidly in. The case for each is clear, but like all the teams thought to be on the bubble, they should count their blessings – and then get ready for their next game. You could make a compelling case against both, and there were plenty who weren’t sure either team would be in.

One of the more surprising teams to make it is Vanderbilt. The Commodores had work to do when SEC play began, having whiffed on their best chances in non-conference play – they lost to Kansas in the title game of the Maui Invitational, at Baylor, at home to Dayton, at Purdue and at Texas. Their best non-conference win was over Stony Brook in overtime, and they trailed for a lot of that game. In conference play, they beat Texas A&M and Kentucky, but both were at home – and they lost at Mississippi State during the regular season and to Tennessee (sans Kevin Punter) in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. Yes, Vanderbilt was without Luke Kornet for some of non-conference play, but he isn’t exactly an All-American.

The Commodores’ opponent, Wichita State, had to be an interesting case for the committee. The Shockers actually were missing an All-American in Fred VanVleet for several key non-conference games, and they had other personnel miss games as well. They were clearly the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference, and barely lost when they had their entire team. The problem was that they were without VanVleet for most of their quality win opportunities outside of conference – USC, Alabama and Iowa, and they lost to Seton Hall. They were 1-3 in the four games VanVleet missed, beating only Emporia State, and they were without Anton Grady for four games, during which they went 3-1. They did beat Utah, though, so they didn’t whiff entirely, and the home loss to Northern Iowa in February (in addition to the semifinal loss in the conference tournament) doesn’t look so bad now.

Michigan was another of the last four in, and while the Wolverines’ resume at first glance isn’t bad, some further scrutiny shows why they weren’t a lock. Indeed, look closer, and they are like Texas a year ago. They had four top 50 wins and no bad losses, but only once did they lose by single digits. They had some ugly losses – by 24 at SMU and by 17 twice against Purdue – and with the other compelling candidates, you could wonder why the wins would outweigh so many losses where they weren’t very competitive.

The last team in that seems to defy any reasonable explanation is Tulsa. While the Golden Hurricane beat Wichita State, they didn’t do much else in non-conference play, although they beat Iona (which looks better now, but the Gaels struggled in non-conference) and Ohio. They beat UConn, SMU (home) and Cincinnati in conference play, but lost to all three as well, and also lost to Oral Roberts out of conference and lost twice to Memphis by double digits, the latter coming in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. In all, that’s not bad, but the Golden Hurricane did not present the most compelling case.

Syracuse made it despite bowing out in the second round of the ACC Tournament, which implies that they were a lock, or close to it, before last week. They lost at Georgetown and St. John’s, but the committee apparently thought enough of wins over the likes of UConn, Texas A&M, Duke and Notre Dame as being just enough. It worked for Tulsa.

That didn’t work for St. Bonaventure, though. The Bonnies tied for the regular season Atlantic 10 title, but three bad losses – at Duquesne, at La Salle and at Siena – may have been too much to overcome. They beat Saint Joseph’s twice and won at Dayton, and had four other wins over top 100 teams, but they didn’t beat a lock NCAA Tournament team outside the Atlantic 10. In all, that’s not a bad resume, especially compared to others they were up against. In hindsight, a different result in one of those three road losses, or perhaps their home loss to Dayton, the loss at VCU five days later or the conference tournament loss in the quarterfinals might have changed the outcome.

To explain South Carolina’s omission, there is one place to look: their non-conference schedule. The committee has been known to nail teams with light non-conference schedules. Frank Martin and his staff scheduled with winning games to build the team up in mind, although they challenged them a little more late with Clemson and Memphis, neither of whom made it although the Tigers had a shot before giving away their ACC Tournament game against Georgia Tech. The Gamecocks’ non-conference schedule included Hofstra and Tulsa in the Paradise Jam, but there’s no getting around it: their non-conference SOS was near 300. The Gamecocks won, though, and that set them up to have a good SEC run – but not good enough, especially with just one top 50 win (at Texas A&M) and a loss at a Missouri team whose RPI was in the 200s. It’s clear, though, that Martin has this program moving in the right direction.

And with that said, it is interesting that the Gamecocks were left out because of their non-conference schedule while Vanderbilt made it perhaps in part because of theirs. At some point, a team needs to win some of the games against tougher teams, otherwise the committee basically rewards teams for losing. More on that to come.

San Diego State was long thought of as a bubble team, but the Aztecs were borderline even for that designation. The Aztecs beat California, but lost to five other teams in the top 100 out of conference as well as to San Diego, with an RPI around 300. They won 20 games against teams whose RPI had three digits, helped by the Mountain West having a down year. So when the Aztecs lost to Fresno State on Saturday night, an NIT bid was a virtual certainty.

Saint Mary’s simply didn’t beat any top 50 teams other than Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs were a bubble team as well. In fact, Gonzaga probably doesn’t get in without winning the West Coast Conference championship, as they were an 11 seed and the last four teams in were all 11 seeds (every team seeded 12 or lower was an automatic qualifier). Yes, they beat three other teams that were in the top 100 outside of the West Coast Conference, but none made the NCAA Tournament even as an automatic qualifier – or, put another way, they didn’t beat a lock NCAA Tournament team all year.

Valparaiso was talked about on the bubble, but the Crusaders were going to have a tough time from the non-conference schedule. Sure, they won at Oregon State (a perfectly good selection whose seed is a bit high), and had three other top 100 wins out of conference, but they also lost at Ball State and won 12 games against teams whose RPI was 200 or lower. Not helping is something out of their control, which is that Rhode Island, who the Crusaders beat on the road, wasn’t as good as initially projected thanks largely to injuries.

Monmouth will probably be the one talked about the most, and they might have the best case for being snubbed for a reason. Let’s get the Hawks’ gory details over with before elaborating: top 50 wins over Notre Dame and USC (both neutral) another top 100 wins at UCLA (an enigma, and not as good a win as first thought). They also won at Georgetown, though the Hoyas were far from being NCAA Tournament-worthy this season. They had three losses to teams whose RPIs were 200 or lower – all on the road, all in conference. And they had 16 wins against teams with an RPI of 200 or lower. Their 13 road wins and 17 total wins away from home are big pluses.

At the end of the day, with the Hawks the question is whether the good wins, as well as the volume of road wins, outweigh the bad losses compared to other candidates. Here’s what needs to be remembered: all of the bubble teams lost games this season – for that matter, the No. 1 seeds lost games, too, a record 23 between them. For the NCAA Tournament, a team must prove they can beat other tournament teams. In addition, the committee ostensibly wants to punish teams for scheduling down (South Carolina) and reward teams for scheduling tough games (Vanderbilt). Monmouth did both, beating two at-large teams and nearly beating another (a close loss to Dayton, also at a neutral site), while also winning across the country against a team in UCLA that did beat some good teams, though the Bruins had too many losses to make up for that left them not even on the bubble.

So because of the wins they had, Monmouth might have the biggest gripe about being left out of the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they will be a top seed in the NIT.

And like all of the teams who didn’t make it, while they had a good case for making it, they also had games they would love to have back that could have changed the outcome.

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