The strength of the Big Ten and the Big 12 this season is creating some extremely odd scenarios for bracketologists around the country. It seems likely at this point that Oklahoma, which currently sports a 5-10 record in conference play, is going to make the NCAA Tournament.
Curmudgeons see this issue and want special nonsensical rules implemented for teams that fall below .500 in conference play. This would obviously help some mid-majors that are sitting right on the NCAA bubble, but it would also be a hollow victory.
Towards the end of the NIT bubble, a similar-yet-different fight about .500 records is playing out. There is no explicit requirement that a team needs to have more wins than losses to participate in the NIT, but no team below the .500 threshold has made the bracket in its current format (which has existed as a 32-team seeded tournament since the 2006-07 season). The only team to make the NIT with an exactly .500 record during that time period is 16-16 North Carolina in 2010.
Penn State, though, presents an intriguing case for how it could happen. It might seem weird that we’re talking about the Nittany Lions considering they’re 12-16 overall at the moment, but the defending NIT champions just beat Maryland by 17 points on Wednesday night and are one of the hottest teams in the country. In fact, KenPom currently rates PSU as the nation’s 45th-best team overall and T-Rank thinks that the Nittany Lions have been the seventh best team in the country since Feb. 1.
If PSU were to win its final three regular season games (at Wisconsin, at Illinois, vs. Rutgers) then Patrick Chambers’ team would present the best case for an at-large for an under .500 squad since 2015 Florida. The Gators went 16-17 and 8-10 in the SEC. The final at-large bid went to their conference mate Alabama, which was also 8-10 in the SEC, but 19-15 overall. It apparently didn’t matter to the committee that Florida had just beaten Alabama in the SEC tournament.
The same thing might happen to the Nittany Lions this season. Indiana and Nebraska are two Big Ten teams that are hanging right around .500. If Nebraska finishes the regular season 16-15 with the same Big Ten record as PSU, it seems much more likely that the Cornhuskers will be representing the conference as an at-large in the NIT. Indiana — when it has been above .500 — has been mentioned as an outside NCAA bubble contender. The Hoosiers might not get to .500 either, but if they did, they’d almost assuredly bump PSU from the field.
But keep an eye out. If things break right, an under .500 PSU could come crashing through that door.
Final NCAA At-Large (In Order): Alabama, Utah St., Minnesota, Clemson, TCU, UCF, Temple, Seton Hall
NIT Projection, March 1:
1. Arizona St.
8. Utah Valley
2. Saint Mary’s
7. Fresno St.
4. East Tennessee St.
3. San Francisco
7. South Florida
4. Oregon St.
1. UNC Greensboro
Next bracket: March 11