When the NCAA tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday evening, there was one pleasant surprise.
The committee actually awarded a deserving mid-major instead of allowing bubble teams from the big conferences to gobble up all the available spots.
Belmont defied projections that it would be one of top teams left out of the NCAA tournament, snagging one of this year’s final at-large bids. The Ohio Valley Conference co-champs are an 11 seed in the East Region and will meet fellow bubble team Temple in the First Four.
The inclusion of Belmont bucks a troubling trend that has emerged in recent years. The committee has valued the number of top 50 or quadrant 1 wins above all else, inherently hindering mid-majors and favoring power-conference teams who have many more opportunities in those types of games.
Of the 36 NCAA tournament bids awarded to at-large teams in 2018, all but three went to programs hailing from the five football power leagues, the Big East and the American Athletic Conference. Same with the year before. And the year before that.
This March, teams from outside college basketball’s top seven leagues landed four at-large bids, incremental progress, albeit not cause for celebration. Joining Belmont in the field were Gonzaga, Nevada and VCU.
Of course, not every bubble team received good news on Sunday like Belmont. Here’s a look at the five biggest snubs from this year’s NCAA tournament:
1. TCU (20-13, 7-11, NET 52, KenPom 48)
Q1 record: 3-9
Q2 record: 6-4
Best wins: Iowa State (2), Florida, Baylor, Texas (2)
Q3, Q4 losses: 0
TCU would have been a poster child for power-conference mediocrity had it landed one of the final at-large bids. The Horned Frogs had numerous opportunities to notch meaningful victories and capitalized just enough times to remain NCAA tournament relevant. They swept two games from Iowa State, won single games against Baylor and Florida and avoided damaging losses, but overall they went 7-11 in the Big 12 and 3-9 in Quadrant 1 games. Ultimately, not holding a second-half lead against Dean Wade-less Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals might have doomed TCU to the NIT. The Horned Frogs badly needed a conference tournament run to solidify their shaky resume.
2. NC STATE (22-11, 9-9, NET 33, KenPom: 32)
Q1 record: 3-9
Q2 record: 5-0
Best wins: Auburn, Syracuse, Clemson (2)
Q3, Q4 losses: 2 (Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest)
To say that North Carolina State scheduled poorly this season is a gross understatement. The Wolfpack's non-conference schedule was dead last out of 353 Division I teams, a product of a remarkable eight games against teams 275th or worse in the NET rankings. Given the committee's longtime emphasis on teams challenging themselves out of conference, NC State left itself vulnerable to being snubbed unless it did something special in the rest of its games. That didn't happen. The Wolfpack went a pedestrian 9-9 in the ACC and beat only two projected NCAA tournament teams — Auburn and Syracuse. The omission of NC State is evidence the committee did not just blindly follow the NET rankings, the new metric that replaced the RPI as the primary tool for gauging the strength of teams. The Wolfpack's No. 33 NET ranking suggested they were good enough to make the field, but close inspection of their resume indicated otherwise.
3. INDIANA (17-15, 8-12, NET 54, KenPom 42)
Q1 record: 6-9
Q2 record: 2-6
Best wins: Michigan State (2), Wisconsin, Louisville Marquette
Q3, Q4 losses: 0
For a team that was only 17-15 overall, Indiana had a decent argument to make the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers boasted the most Quadrant 1 wins of any bubble team including a season sweep of Big Ten champion Michigan State and three other victories over opponents projected to be seeded seventh or better in the NCAA tournament. Archie Miller’s second season in Bloomington was a year of wild swings as Indiana leaped out of the starting blocks 12-2, then endured a rash of injuries and dropped 12 of its next 13. They nearly salvaged their season with a late winning streak before a crushing loss to Ohio State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. Ultimately, the committee decided Indiana’s uneven overall body of work wasn’t good enough even though there was precedent for teams similar to the Hoosiers being selected. Alabama snagged an at-large bid last March with 15 losses, as did Vanderbilt the previous season. Villanova and Georgia also both received at-large bids at 16-14 in 1991 and 2001, respectively.
4. UNC GREENSBORO (28-6, 15-3 NET 60, KenPom 81)
Q1 record: 2-6
Q2 record: 2-0
Best wins: Furman (2), East Tennessee State (2)
Q3, Q4 losses: 0
Some bubble teams on this list had more than a dozen chances against power-conference foes bound for the NCAA tournament. UNC Greensboro, on the other hand, only had two, both on the road against top 10 opponents. The Spartans lost by six to LSU in Baton Rouge and pushed Kentucky for 35 minutes in Lexington. UNC Greensboro’s margin for error for an at-large bid was miniscule after those losses, and the Spartans couldn’t quite do enough to thread that needle. In a top-heavy Southern Conference featuring four of the nation’s best mid-majors, UNC Greensboro went 4-1 against Furman and East Tennessee State but lost to eventual league champ Wofford all three times they played. Only one of their six losses came against a team outside the NET top 15, but they also lacked noteworthy wins.
5. TEXAS (16-16, 8-10, NET 38, KenPom 30)
Q1 record: 5-10
Q2 record: 4-5
Best wins: North Carolina, Purdue, at Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State
Q3, Q4 losses: 1 (Radford)
Never before had a team earned an at-large bid with a .500 record or 16 losses, but Texas had reason to maintain hope of being the first. A ridiculous 19 of Texas’ 32 games came against opponents in the NET top 50 this season and the Longhorns won seven of those, notching victories over North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma. They were also top 40 in the NET and top 30 in KenPom, which compared favorably to other bubble teams. It was always a long shot that Texas would make the NCAA tournament because of the precedent it would set, but the committee had incentive to give the Longhorns a hard look. Including them would have sent the message that the committee rewards a tough non-conference schedule, something that is good for the health of the sport.
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