Here’s the thing about being a fan of a mid-major team. You’ve always got a chance.
Sure, the non-conference record may be ugly, and the start to league play may be lackluster. But for most schools, the conference tournament is always there (if you can qualify for it). Even the Ivy League is in on the fun now.
Most fans can always hold on to some hope of being happy on Selection Sunday because a concrete road to an automatic bid is there. But how realistic is that hope?
We’ve seen sub-.500 teams get hot before. Holy Cross slogged through 13 Patriot League losses in 2016 before winning the conference tournament. The Crusaders didn’t stop there, winning a First Four game against Southern.
And we’ve also seen less dramatic surprises, like last year’s South Dakota State team. The Jacks used a late season surge to finish 8-8 in league play, and then won the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed. For many, cutting down the nets in Sioux Falls probably didn’t seem likely when the Jacks sat at 8-13 on Jan. 18.
Over the dull exercise that is the offseason, we’ll look at each 2016-17 conference tournament champion, and see how probable (or improbable) it was that they ended up playing on the sport’s grandest stage.
We’ll look at these four factors:
- Record (because it has to mean something, right?)
- Trends (because being “hot” would seem to help)
- Health (because with your team’s best player sidelined, how can there be hope?)
- Metrics (because this is 2017)
Each factor will get a number assigned to it between one and five, with a five suggesting you’re looking at a tournament lock, and one meaning you’re just biding your time until the offseason. A perfect 20 would be a team with a great record, riding a hot streak, without any injuries and that is beloved by KenPom. It would also be a team that fans couldn’t point to for hope when their team is struggling midseason.
We’ll call this the Hope Index, but because that’s a terrible name we reserve the right to change it.
To start things off, let’s look at a team that was considered an overwhelming league favorite that made good on that expectation: Texas Southern.
- 2016-17 SWAC regular season and tournament champion
- No. 16 seed, South Regional
- Lost 103-64 to North Carolina in First Round
At 20-11 heading into the SWAC tourmament, it was no surprise the Tigers ended up with the trophy. They were the only league team with 20 wins, and easily won the regular season title with a 16-2 record. Texas Southern put together two separate six-game winning streaks in SWAC play. Mike Davis’ typically brutal non-conference schedule led to an eight-game losing streak that began in late November, but the Tigers still came away with quality wins at La Salle and Rice before it was over.
One of those six-game winning streaks was active when the SWAC tournament began. An overtime win at home against a quality Alcorn State team was the closet thing to a hiccup the Tigers went through in the month leading up to their March 7 opener. Their offense was humming too, scoring over 1.11 points per possession in all six of those wins.
This does come with a big asterisk, sort of. The Tigers lost their best player when Derrick Griffin (11.3 PPG, 10.8 RPG) left the team after the non-con to focus on the NFL draft. He was gone, but Davis did have the entire conference season to retool his rotation. By the time the conference tournament rolled around, the players he relied on most — Demontrae Jefferson, Zach Lofton, Kevin Scott — were all healthy and playing well.
Jefferson and Lofton fueled the SWAC’s most efficient offense during league play, while Marvin Jones’ anchored its most efficient defense. The Tigers took great care of the ball against SWAC opponents (best TO%) and defended without fouling (best defensive FTA/FGA). The competition had little margin for error at the Toyota Center.
Hope Index: 19
Texas Southern was simply the class of the SWAC, and that was never seriously in doubt. The tournament championship game was fitting in a way. Alcorn State, with its budding star in coach Montez Robinson, had a great season and was a legitimate challenger. But Texas Southern had its bid no matter happened in the final, since the Braves were under an APR-related postseason ban. They won nonetheless, and if you’re looking for an inspiration for an improbable upstart, it didn’t live in the SWAC in 2016-17.