Editor’s note: This is one of five posts in a series tackling the seemingly eternal debate in college basketball involving at-large bids: mid-major vs. middling major.
For argument’s sake, let’s label the “major” conferences as the following: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-10, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and Conference USA (even though it might end up being a one-bid league). Gonzaga and Butler are in that group too, since each school has graduated toward this tier in scheduling. Even Saint Mary’s should probably be lumped in with this crew since the Gaels were able to parlay their Sweet 16 into some nonconference scheduling respect.
It's from that group, some would argue, that every opportunity to impress the committee is gobbled up and not shared with the rest.
Sorry, but I’m not buying it.
The teams outside of the major conferences have had plenty of opportunities to prove they belong in the field of 37 at-large schools. Almost all of the early season tournaments have caught on to the need to have a presence from outside this list with Wichita State in the Maui Invitational to Old Dominion in the Paradise Jam.
The Monarchs won the Paradise Jam. Wichita State lost to Connecticut in the Maui first round, putting the Shockers in the consolation bracket. And while WSU beat Virginia, the Cavs are down and the loss to the Huskies really prevented the Shockers from getting any kind of bump out of being in the field.
The chances were there for a number of other teams, from the Valley to the Southern Conference (Charleston did beat Tennessee but lost to Maryland earlier in the season) to the Horizon (Cleveland State lost at West Virginia) to the WAC (Utah State lost at BYU and at Georgetown).
And while there are plenty of warts among high-profile teams from the power six, the NCAA tournament selection committee will likely lean in the direction of a middling major over a mid-major that fails to win its conference tournament.
The three added at-large spots won’t suddenly be gift-wrapped opportunities.
If you were to strip down Wichita State against, say, West Virginia, the nod as of Wednesday would go to the Mountaineers, and it wouldn’t even be close. The Shockers have a 22-5 record, 13-3 in the MVC, with three games left to play in the regular season, including Friday’s BracketBusters game against VCU and a Valley showdown to end the season at Missouri State.
But so far the Shockers don’t own a win in the RPI top 50, and the only victories against the top 100 are over so-so teams Tulsa and Northern Iowa.
West Virginia has a so-so Big East record of 7-6 heading into Saturday’s game against Notre Dame. But look closer at the Mountaineers and you’ll find a nonconference strength of schedule of four with five top-50 wins. The selection committee won’t put Big East next to any of the wins. They will simply look at who they beat and see wins at Georgetown, against Vanderbilt on a neutral court and Purdue at home. Even the “worst” losses by power-rating, at Miami (64) and against Marquette (65), are hardly egregious.
The choice isn’t close if the committee were to compare these teams for one spot as of Wednesday: West Virginia would be in and Wichita State would be out.
The comparison between even erratic Michigan State and WAC leader Utah State wouldn’t be a contest for a final spot, either.
Michigan State has a nonconference strength of schedule of 19, top-50 wins against Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and while the Spartans did lose a slew of top-50 games (eight in total), all of the defeats are against teams likely to be in the field, with the only question being Illinois. The worst rating loss came at No. 148 Iowa, and it did sting since the Hawkeyes beat the Spartans by 20.
But a below-.500 MSU team in the Big Ten (6-7 after losing at Ohio State on Tuesday) with a middling 13-11 overall record would get in over Utah State if I was given the choice.
Of course the Spartans could be in a different discussion if they lose three of their next five remaining Big Ten games, but that’s not the question at this juncture.
The snapshot is Wednesday, and Utah State wouldn’t get in over Michigan State. The Aggies, despite being 12-1 in the WAC and 23-3 overall, have zero wins against the top 100. Two of the three losses were against top four teams at BYU (No. 2) and at Georgetown (No. 4). But the other loss was to No. 154 Idaho.
The only remaining game against a team better than 125 is Saturday at Saint Mary’s (32) in BracketBusters. If you were to judge Michigan State versus Utah State right now, how could the choice be the Aggies? The numbers don’t add up for Utah State, even with a Spartans resume that is incredibly average.
Fair or not, a team like Utah State has a slim margin for error. And the committee has some tough choices with teams from the major conferences that failed to stand out consistently. But a number of the middling majors didn’t differentiate themselves either, and that adds up to more bids for the power six when given the choice.
The slipper might not fit nicely around that story, but that’s the harsh reality.