NCAA Tournament debate: With so many teams on the bubble, should spots go to mid-major standouts or mediocre power programs?
The conference tournaments are underway, and that means there will be near-constant college basketball being played from now until April.
It’s a great time of year, but for some teams, it’s a nerve-wracking time, as they’re waiting to see if they’ll make the field of 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament. There is a big bubble again this year, and it includes a few SEC teams (Florida, Alabama and Arkansas, to name the three big ones).
Every year, it seems I have an argument with my friend Robert (who went to Mizzou with me), as he is a Big Ten fan and a staunch supporter of mid-major programs. Much like the debate surrounding the UCF football team, I’m a firm believer that power conference teams are much more battle-tested, and even a mediocre team from one of those conferences could win a series against some of these top mid-major squads.
We had our usual debate this year, and it was a really good one, so I compiled the various texts and emails here. We weighed in on Florida, UNC-Greensboro, Belmont, Ohio State, Lipscomb and TCU. Here’s what we ended up deciding (and we’ll see if the Selection Committee agrees with us Sunday):
Belmont vs. Ohio State
ADAM: Alright, since you’re a Big Ten homer and a defender of mid-major programs, I figure we’ll start with one of the toughest comparisons for you — Ohio State vs. Belmont.
Belmont lost to the Ja Morant-led Murray State Racers in the Ohio Valley Conference final, but at 26-5, the Bruins still have a compelling case for the NCAA Tournament. Their worst loss was at Green Bay in nonconference play and their best wins include at UCLA and at home against Murray State during OVC action.
Ohio State enters the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 8 seed, with an overall record of 18-13 and a miserable 8-12 record in B1G action. The Buckeyes’ worst loss was at home against Illinois. Their best win was at home vs. No. 22 Iowa.
My best defense of the Buckeyes is that their worst loss was against the No. 78 team in the KenPom rankings, while 7 of their 13 losses came to ranked squads. Meanwhile, Belmont didn’t play a single ranked team all year. That has to count for something, especially if the Buckeyes win a couple of games in Chicago.
ROBERT: First of all, guilty as charged regarding my Big Ten homerism. But that good will does not extend to Ohio State in general, nor the 2018-19 Buckeyes basketball team. While the B1G made a big rebound this season (it ranks as a consensus top 3 conference), the Buckeyes (and their sub-.500 brethren in Bloomington) do not deserve at-large bids for several reasons, chief among them their putrid conference records. And it wasn’t just a paltry win total that hurts Ohio State. Of their already underwhelming 8 conference wins, only one came against no-doubt NCAA tournament competition. The committee has said conference affiliation does not matter in the selection process, which will work against the Buckeyes when their conference schedule is more closely scrutinized. Wins against Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State, Illinois, Rutgers, Indiana and Minnesota don’t have the same cache as beating Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin or Maryland.
In fact, it’s the strength of the Buckeyes’ nonconference victories that even merits them consideration for an at-large bid. An opening night win at Cincinnati, a victory over fellow bubble dweller Creighton in Omaha, and a 2-point home win over Patriot League co-champs Bucknell salvage OSU’s subpar Big Ten season. Those November and December games factor heavily into Ohio State’s solid NET ranking despite losing 60 percent of their conference games.
ADAM: I think the Buckeyes were actually No. 1 in the first NET rankings, somehow.
ROBERT: Belmont, meanwhile, ranks 45th in the NCAA’s debut NET rankings, 10 spots ahead of OSU. The Bruins finished 16-2 in conference play. And while the Ohio Valley is certainly not the Big Ten, it’s quite conceivable Belmont could finish somewhere in the conference’s soft middle, or at least within 8 games of the B1G lead.
In terms of common opponents, the Bruins and the Buckeyes defeated UCLA and lost to Purdue. Beating UCLA doesn’t move the needle as it would in past seasons, but the Purdue result is telling. Belmont lost in West Lafayette by 11. Ohio State lost at home to Purdue by 12 before losing by 25 at Mackey Arena. At one point, the Bruins rattled off 14 consecutive wins, including Murray State (NET No. 43). Are you telling me they couldn’t knock off Northwestern in Evanston or defend their home court against Nebraska if the Cornhuskers had to travel to Nashville?
ADAM: Are you telling me that’s where we’re at in terms of NCAA Tournament worthiness?
ROBERT: For what it’s worth, Belmont also defeated fellow Nashville inhabitant and bubble team Lipscomb twice. Lipscomb (25-7, NET No. 48), co-champions of the Atlantic Sun, also merit at-large consideration. Perhaps it would worth arguing their worth against a Power 5 conference bubble team. Maybe one from the Big 12? Maybe one they beat by 9 in Texas?
Lipscomb vs. TCU
ADAM: Ah, you mean TCU?
ROBERT: The bulk of TCU’s victories came in the nonconference. They loaded up on weak foes, mostly at home, to inflate their win total. The one occasion they challenged themselves, they were beaten by Lipscomb in Fort Worth. With nothing approaching a quality win before Big 12 play (they did sweep Iowa State and Texas), is that something you really want to reward?
ADAM: This might be the only debate where I agree with you. The Big 12 only has 10 teams and TCU finished eighth. Yes, it is a talented conference, but the biggest thing for me is that, like you said, they lost head-to-head to Lipscomb and also lost to the two teams below them in the Big 12 standings, going 1-1 against both Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
Give me Lipscomb all day in this debate, unless the Horned Frogs win a couple of games in the Big 12 tourney. Then, it’d become a more realistic discussion to me.
ROBERT: Yeah, bay-bee! The debate shouldn’t be Lipscomb vs. TCU for a spot in the First Four next week, it should be TCU vs. Oklahoma, with Lipscomb getting a chance to prove itself in Dayton.
UNC-Greensboro vs. Florida
ADAM: You mentioned that TCU didn’t have any strong nonconference wins, but I’d argue their win in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge vs. Florida was a pretty solid one. However, Florida finds itself with some work to do entering the SEC Tournament (17-14 overall, 9-9 in SEC play). The Gators have lost 3 consecutive games and I don’t think they’ll make it in unless they win twice in Nashville.
They need to beat Arkansas and then take down No. 1 seed LSU. That’s not impossible, though, as they’ve played two overtime games with the Tigers, going 1-1. That TCU loss is the worst one on their resume, and since we’re sitting here talking about the Horned Frogs as a possible tournament team, it doesn’t seem that bad.
Meanwhile, UNC-Greensboro lost by 10 at Furman. Furman is a tough team, sure, but not one that will make the field of 68.
ROBERT: UNC-Greensboro has 6 losses, 3 of which are to Wofford (NET No. 14). The also lost at Kentucky and at LSU (by 6). This makes them a good comp to an SEC team like Florida. I’m not saying UNCG challenges for an SEC title, but I think they finish close to .500, which seems to guarantee Power 5 teams an at-large bid, right?
ADAM: I agree that the Spartans are a very good team with a solid resume, but the problem goes back, if I may, to my problem with UCF football. Sure, you can beat a top team here and there (or in UNCG’s case, lose close games to top teams), but the problem is whether you can do it on a consistent basis. The Spartans had 2 wins over VMI (No. 283 in KenPom’s rankings) and only beat them by 2 on the road. They also needed overtime to beat Western Carolina at home (No. 273). I just don’t think they could hold up in the SEC without those cupcakes to beat up on.
ROBERT: OK, I could see Greensboro being on the wrong side of the bubble. But if we agree Lipscomb belongs on the strength of their record and road victory over TCU (which beat Florida), then what should we make of Belmont’s home-and-home sweep of Lipscomb? Those victories should put them ahead in Nashville’s pecking order (with Vanderbilt a very distant third).
I’m not even sure where we are anymore. Pro Lipscomb, anti-UNCG and split on Belmont/Ohio State (with the possibility they both make it)?
ADAM: Yeah, I think we have our answers to our debate — Belmont and Ohio State should both get in (assuming Ohio State beats Indiana), Lipscomb should be in with TCU out and Florida should be in over UNCG. Do we need to have a Clemson/Furman debate after the Tigers just blew a 16-point lead in the ACC Tournament against N.C. State?
ROBERT: I like Furman, but to me, UNCG is the better Southern Conference team (two games ahead in the standings, 2-1 head-to-head). And there’s no way the SoCon gets three teams in.
ADAM: Yeah, I agree. That would be crazy if the SoCon got more teams in than the Pac-12.
ROBERT: They still might! I’m firmly against Arizona State making it.
ADAM: Well, we’ll see on Sunday. Thanks for the debate, and I’ll see you at Christmas!
The Selection Show will air on CBS on Sunday, March 17, at 6 p.m. Eastern time.