"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mid-Major Madness?

Nothing seems to get people debating more consistently about college basketball than the definition of mid-major. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to make it simple: any league outside the top-7. That includes the traditional football powers (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC) and the two leagues formed by the 2014 Big East fracture (American, Big East). Since that break, all of those leagues have averaged over 3 bids per year and sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament every season.

Leagues with a chance of placing multiple teams but not fitting the above power structure are mid-majors, regardless of individual program ability. Gonzaga, San Diego State, and Dayton are national title contenders but the leagues they come from are definitionally mid-majors. The above three are locks, so we'll discuss the rest of the teams hunting at-large bids from those mid-majors.

To start, let's look back at the resumes from last year of mid-majors that both made the field and missed out. The teams in green were included, the teams in red were in the NIT:

Team NET Record Comp Avg SOS Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Nevada 23 29-4 24.8 116 1-1 7-2 11-2 10-0
VCU 34 25-7 39.4 53 2-2 3-2 9-3 11-0
Furman 41 22-7 65.0 189 1-5 3-1 2-1 16-0
Belmont 47 25-5 52.2 195 2-2 3-1 3-2 17-0
Lipscomb 49 23-7 53.8 212 2-3 2-3 2-1 17-0
UNC-Greensboro 60 26-6 68.6 103 2-6 2-0 7-0 15-0

What do we learn from the above? The three teams that made the field all had a record above .500 in Q1+2 games. Even though they had more losses outside the first two quadrants than any of the teams left out, they were included seemingly because of strong Q1+2 performance and strong computer numbers. Furman was the highest team left out, but had a losing Q1+2 record and their computer average was one of the worst. Bottom line, you can have some bad losses, but you better show you can compete in your toughest games if you want to get in. Let's look at the 2020 resumes:

Team NET Record Comp Avg SOS Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
BYU 14 22-7 27.4 28 3-4 4-3 8-0 7-0
St. Mary's 32 22-6 37.4 82 3-3 4-1 6-2 9-0
Rhode Island 37 19-7 41.8 54 1-4 5-2 7-1 6-0
Utah State 38 20-7 42.8 101 2-4 2-2 6-1 10-0
ETSU 39 22-4 46.6 149 2-1 1-1 7-1 12-1
Northern Iowa 46 21-5 54.2 98 1-1 4-2 9-2 7-0
Richmond 49 20-7 48.6 78 2-4 2-2 6-1 10-0
Liberty 50 24-3 67.2 298 0-1 1-0 3-1 20-1
UNC-Greensboro 62 21-6 58.6 146 1-2 2-2 6-1 12-1
Stephen F Austin 87 21-3 100.2 342 1-2 0-0 2-0 18-1

BYU: At this point, the Cougars are a lock. Any doubt was removed when they beat Gonzaga. Their remaining schedule includes a Quadrant 2 game at Pepperdine and the West Coast Conference Tournament. Nothing there would damage them enough to take them out of the field. While their Q1+2 record is just 7-7, the quality of wins and computer numbers are simply too good to leave them out.

St. Mary's: The Gaels are close to sealing a three-bid WCC, but aren't there yet. They still have a Q3 game at Santa Clara before their season-ending showdown at Gonzaga. As we saw last year, the Selection Committee will accept multiple Q3 losses if you have a winning Q1+2 record, which the Gaels do.

Rhode Island: The Atlantic 10 has been regularly getting multiple bids, but last year only got a second bid because St. Louis won the A-10 tournament. It's a far cry from the 6 bids they landed in 2014. The Rams' loss at Davidson hurt because it was their strong Q2 record propping up shaky Q1 numbers. The Rams resume looks a lot like VCU's last year, but I definitely think they need to keep that Q1+2 record at .500 or better if they want to get in.

Utah State: The Aggies' case is helped significantly by those two wins over SEC teams at the top of their resume. This team really unnerves me because their Quadrant numbers look a lot like the resumes that got left out last year. The losses aren't terrible, but I'm not sure the Q1+2 record is good enough to offset it. For now, we have them in, but my confidence level in Utah State is not high.

East Tennessee State: This is where we get to full-on mid-major territory. No one that made last year's field had a Q4 loss like the Buccaneers, but they check all the other inclusion boxes. Strong computer numbers, winning Q1+2 record, and they have a Q1A win at LSU. What will be interesting is if North Dakota State, who they lost to on the road, is able to improve to a Q2 loss and whether that helps or hurts ETSU. While it would be a better loss, it would take their winning Q1+2 record to .500 and I'm not sure that works in their favor when the Selection Committee has shown in the past a willingness to look past Q3 losses if you have a winning Q1+2 record. That said, the cutoff for a Q2 road win is NET 135, and ETSU has three games that are a whisker away from qualifying: NDSU at 136 (L), Little Rock at 138 (W), and Western Carolina at 140 (W). I think the best case scenario for them is if UALR and WCU get to the top-135 while NDSU stays right where they're at.

Northern Iowa: I really like their chances at this point. Their profile looks very similar to last year's Belmont team. As long as they don't take any bad losses (one remaining game in Q3 & Q4 each) they should be able to get in even if they don't win Arch Madness.

Richmond: The Spiders remind me of last year's Lipscomb. Not a ton of bad, but not enough good to bolster their chances. If they win out, the overall weakness of the bubble will give them a chance (1 Q2, 3 Q3 games remaining) but this team's resume does not inspire confidence.

Liberty: They're like last year's Lipscomb, only worse. When your entire resume is essentially one Quadrant 2 win over Akron, I don't see an at-large. The Flames will be favored in the Atlantic Sun Tournament, but if they don't win, I expect them to get left out. There's just no real substance to offset the reality that 83% of their wins are Q4 games.

UNC-Greensboro: I felt the Spartans were one of the biggest snubs last year due to having zero losses outside Q1. If 4-6 a year ago wasn't good enough despite zero sub-Q1 losses, 3-4 with two sub-Q1 losses and only marginally better computer numbers doesn't seem like it will be good enough either. This is a team that likely needs to win the auto-bid, which would make a 2-bid SoCon more likely due to ETSU's stronger resume.

Stephen F Austin: The conversation that started this was Ken Pomeroy defending SFA as an at-large team on Twitter. This is largely predicated on their overwhelming record and the Strength of Record metric. SOR is one of the computer rankings used by the Selection Committee and has the Lumberjacks ranked 48th. While I get the argument, the reality is SOR is just one of the computer numbers and the rest overwhelmingly hurt the 'Jacks case. The Duke win was one of the moments of the season, but there just isn't enough in the rest of the resume to justify an at-large bid, especially when teams that do have more substance, both in terms of raw resume and computer numbers have similar or better SOR scores (Utah State 42, Northern Iowa 43, Richmond 44, UNCG 49). If the Selection Committee is looking to add mid-majors, SFA simply doesn't have the overall substance to the resume. Essentially, they would be included because of a turnover in overtime. If Duke scores on their final possession instead of turning it over, this isn't even a discussion point. One fortuitous possession is simply not enough to warrant at-large inclusion that will come not just at the expense of stronger high-major resumes, but stronger resumes on this list.

Let's dig into the full S-Curve:

2-Seeds: 8-Creighton 7-Duke 6-MARYLAND 5-DAYTON
3-Seeds: 9-Villanova 10-FLORIDA STATE 11-SETON HALL 12-KENTUCKY
4-Seeds: 16-Michigan 17-Auburn 18-Oregon 19-Louisville
5-Seeds: 17-Iowa 18-Michigan State 19-Butler 20-Penn State
6-Seeds: 24-Marquette 23-Byu 22-West Virginia 21-Ohio State
7-Seeds: 25-Wisconsin 26-Illinois 27-Colorado 28-Texas Tech
8-Seeds: 32-Houston 31-ARIZONA STATE 30-Lsu 29-Arizona
9-Seeds: 33-St. Mary's 34-Xavier 35-Florida 36-Virginia
10-Seeds: 40-Indiana 39-Rutgers 38-Rhode Island 37-Wichita State
11-Seeds: 41-EAST TENNESSEE STATE 42-NORTHERN IOWA 43-Georgetown 44-Stanford/45-Utah State
12-Seeds: 50-VERMONT 49-YALE 48-CINCINNATI 47-Usc/46-Providence

Last Four Byes: Rhode Island, Rutgers, Indiana, Georgetown
Last Four In: Stanford, Utah State, Providence, USC

NIT 1-Seeds: Oklahoma, NC State, Richmond, UNC-Greensboro
NIT 2-Seeds: Memphis, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi State

Multibid Leagues
Big 10: 10
Big East: 8
Pac 12: 6
ACC: 4
Big 12: 4
SEC: 4
American: 3
WCC: 3
Atlantic 10: 2
Mountain West: 2

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