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Monday, January 16, 2023

The Real NCAA Bid Record

Could the Big 12 send 80% of its teams to the NCAAs?
Photo by Jamie Squire | Getty Images

For a brief moment in December 2019, we had a seemingly unreal projection of 9 of the 10 Big East teams in the field. We came close to that with 8 of the 10 for the Big 12 on New Year's Day of this year. Both of those leagues at the turn of those years were hoping to break the record for teams sent to the NCAA Tournament.

I know what you're thinking. The Big East sent 11 teams in 2011, how could a 10-team Big East or Big 12 break that record? That's because the record that really matters when it comes to bids isn't the 11 the Big East sent in 2011, but the 7 bids the Big East earned in 1991. When the 2011 Big East sent 11/16 teams, that was 68.8% of the league, while the 1991 Big East sent 7/9 teams, a gaudy 77.8%. Since then, no team has sent more than 70% of their teams, done by the 2017 Big East and multiple years by the Big 12.

In a world of advanced analytics, it's hard to justify that the sheer volume of bids is the best measure of conference strength. If the ACC (7 bids) and Mountain West (4 bids) combined, would anyone confuse that 26-team monstrosity with the 2011 Big East? Obviously not, because 42.3% of the conference getting a bid isn't very impressive and they would be at best the fifth best league in NET league standings. Percentage is the better measure and what made the 1991 Big East so special.

With that in mind, let's look at the Big 12. There was early talk about the Big 12 getting all 10 of their teams in. That is virtually impossible because someone has to lose. But could they get to 80% and break that 1991 Big East record? At the moment, it seems unlikely. In order to maximize bids, someone has to lose at the bottom. The 1991 Big East had a 1-15 Boston College team that made everyone else's lives easier. The rest of the league all went 7-9 or better in league play. The 2017 Big East had Georgetown and DePaul going a combined 7-29 to bolster the top of the league while the seven tourney teams went 9-9 or better. The most recent Big 12 season to send seven teams was 2021, with Iowa State going 0-18 while all of the tourney teams finished league play over .500.

The argument is always that leagues don't earn bids, teams do, but neither are really true. Resumes earn bids, and if you can't get to 18 wins, it's almost impossible to earn an at-large bid. Since the field expanded to 68 in 2010, 395 of the 396 at-large bids have gone to teams with 18+ wins in non-shortened seasons, with 2022 Michigan (17-14) the only exception.

The Big 12's top-6 teams are all on the first five seed lines, so they seem safe. To get to 8, they need two of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech to make the field. So far, these teams are 0-14 against the top-6 teams. The best case scenario would be for two of them to go completely in the tank, but the drawback is the target number for the two teams with the lowest conference win targets are the two who have yet to win in conference. First, we'll assume they all win their last non-conference SEC Challenge games on January 28th. Then we look at their current record against the two halves of the league with games remaining in parentheses, the league record they need to be in NCAA consideration, and the record they need the rest of the way.

The problem becomes the math. If any of these teams move up by beating each other, they reduce the number of bottom win opportunities for their cohorts. So if Texas Tech gets into the NCAA picture because they go 5-0 against the other bottom teams, those teams suddenly see their opportunity for bottom wins shrink from 13 to 8, meaning they need to do even better against the top teams that they are collectively 0-10 against to date. Further, with the exception of Oklahoma (after beating Alabama), all of these teams need to be above .500 the rest of the way in a league where they are a collective 3-17 to date.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma needs to go 6-7 the rest of the way, but that means also beating Alabama in the SEC Challenge. If they don't, it's 7-6 or likely miss. We currently have Oklahoma in and they have the easiest path on paper, the question is who can join them? It's worth remembering that at this time last year, Oklahoma was also 12-5 and in our field before ultimately missing the tournament. They finished 7-11 and were an NIT 1-seed. They need to be better this year to cross that finish line.

Oklahoma State: If they split with Oklahoma and sweep the other bottom teams, they would have to go 5-3 against the top tier teams. That's a tough ask, but they do have 5 of those top games at home.

West Virginia: WVU might be the more likely team to be the eighth bid than the Cowboys thanks to better metrics and better Quadrant records. But they already lost at both Oklahoma schools, so they would have to go 4-2 against the bottom and a not-impossible 3-6 against the top. The toughest thing here is they are 0-7 against top-40 NET teams and 10 of their remaining 14 games are against top-25 teams. On paper the path is there, but the Mountaineers need to be better to climb that hill. They were also in our field at this time a year ago and missed the tournament.

Texas Tech: Three of their five conference losses are by a single possession or in overtime, so that would bode well, right? But they also have zero wins over top-140 teams and every team left on their schedule is in the top-110. The hope would be the number of bottom games remaining. If they can sweep the bottom 3 and go 5-0, they only need to go 2-6 against the top of the league. That seems very doable. Even 3-5 with a bottom slip-up seems plausible. They'll need Fardaws Aimaq to be a difference maker to have any hope though as this is a team that has zero Q1+2 wins and no current claim to even be in the bubble discussion.

Ultimately, Oklahoma and one of the others could get there, but if they are all between 2-4 and 4-2 against each other and continue to struggle against the top of the league, it's probably more likely that none of them get in and the Big 12 is a 6-bid league than that two of those bottom four make it to the record setting 8/10.

Enough Big 12, let's look at the S-Curve and bracket:

Last Four Byes: Clemson, Creighton, New Mexico, Northwestern

Last Four In: Penn State, Pittsburgh, Nevada, Memphis

NIT 1-Seeds/First Four Out: UCF, Indiana, USC, Utah State

NIT 2-Seeds/Next Four Out: Kentucky, Mississippi State, Utah, Wake Forest

Multibid Leagues

Big 10: 10

ACC: 7

Big 12: 7

Big East: 5

SEC: 5

Mountain West: 4

Pac-12: 3

American: 2

WCC: 2

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