It’s almost our favorite time of year. Six weeks out from Selection Sunday, we can start arguing about which teams deserve NCAA Tournament at-large bids, which deserve higher seeds, and which are in great position to host a game in the NIT.
One of the most popular discussion points about the 36 available NCAA at-large bids is that the vast majority will go to schools from the major seven conferences.
This might not make me popular among readers of this website, but I think that’s OK! Because, you see, most of the good teams play in those conferences. They have the biggest budgets, get the most exposure, and, logically, get the best players.
That isn’t changing overnight.
But, giving credit where it is due, the NCAA has put itself in position to change a perceived problem with the selection process: the bias toward mediocre major conference teams over the few mid-majors who might actually be better.
The NET rankings replaced the RPI this year as a supposedly better metric for evaluating teams. We covered their rocky rollout earlier this season, but as expected, they have stabilized and become a reasonable ranking of the nation’s best teams.
That doesn’t mean I think the rankings are perfect. We haven’t even had a full season with them — I have no idea! But we do know that the NCAA has decided to use this metric, so...it should use this metric.
The mid-major benefit here: in addition to strength of schedule (which mid-majors have little control over), the NET factors in efficiency numbers and scoring margin. It’s a way to better compare teams that play in different leagues.
Is the NET meant to be the be-all-end-all evaluation tool? No. Otherwise the committee would just take the 36 best at-larges in the NET and call it a day.
This year, however, could be a real test case to see if the committee is serious about using its new tool to accurately select them. Chris Schutte had a great write-up on potential mid-major at-large candidates earlier in the week. Gonzaga, Nevada, and Buffalo all seem pretty safe, even if they slip up in their conference tournaments. The other schools listed: Wofford, San Francisco, Lipscomb, VCU, Hofstra, and Murray State are on shakier ground. Each of those schools (except maybe the Dons) has a realistic shot at claiming its conference’s automatic bid. But, as it happens every year, there are sure to be some upsets. One or more will probably get knocked off. Whoever it is will immediately become a committee room nightmare.
Let’s use Lipscomb as an example because the Bisons have strong competition in conference (Liberty), a couple solid wins (including at TCU), and play in a league that is NEVER in contention for multiple bids. Assuming they win out until getting knocked off in the ASUN Tournament, this would be their resume:
- 25-4 overall, 16-0 in conference, plus maybe a win and a loss in the conference tournament
- 2-3 (.400) vs. Q1 (wins at Liberty and TCU)
- 3-1 (.750) vs. Q2 (wins vs. Liberty, Vermont, and at SMU)
- No losses in Q3 or Q4
- A NET no worse than 36 (where the Bisons are today)
KenPom, by the way, projects Lipscomb to win each of its remaining regular season games, so the above resume is perfectly reasonable.
Now compare that to Texas, a team that SB Nation bracketologist Chris Dobbertean projects as one of the last into the field. Let’s assume, again, that the Longhorns finish the season true to KenPom’s projection and pick up neither any notable wins nor a bad loss in the Big 12 Tournament. Here’s that resume, using the NET and the quadrant system:
- 17-14 overall, 9-9 in conference, plus maybe a win and a loss in the conference tournament
- 5-10 (.333) vs. Q1 (wins over North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas, at Kansas State, TCU)
- 6-3 (.666) vs. Q2 (wins over Oklahoma, Arkansas, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, at West Virginia)
- One Q3 loss (Radford), no Q4 losses
- A NET probably worse than 40 (where the Longhorns are today)
On one hand, Lipscomb has slightly better winning percentages across the first two quadrants and no loss as bad as Texas’s worst. The Bisons are also slightly ahead in the NET. On the other, Texas has beaten the brand-name teams: UNC, Kansas, Purdue, etc. That advantage for Texas is entirely out of Lipscomb’s control. The Bisons don’t play in the Big 12. They’re limited in who they can schedule out-of-conference, and even did their job in snagging wins at SMU and TCU.
Again, the NET is not and should not be the be-all-end-all. But if two resumes are close and tough to compare, it should make a difference. Because that is the metric the committee is using. The formula that factors in schedule strength but also uses efficiency metrics and margin of victory (to an extent) says that Lipscomb is better. Right now, only by four spots, but on Selection Sunday, it’s reasonable to project that difference will be greater.
That doesn’t mean that Lipscomb HAS to get in over Texas. But if the NCAA wants us to take the NET seriously, then its ranking needs to at least get the Bisons some consideration. Otherwise, what was the point of all this?