Analyzing Nine Teams In Play For The Final NCAA Tournament Bids

The NCAA Tournament bubble tightened considerably Saturday thanks to upsets in a few conference tournaments. As a result, the American Athletic Conference and ASUN Conference and the Big South Conference will now be two-bid leagues, costing a few at-large candidates their spots in the NCAA Tournament.

In the ASUN Tournament, Jacksonville, which went just 3-15 in conference play in the regular season, completed its improbable run to the title. The Dolphins last week won their quarterfinal series against ASUN South Division champion Florida Gulf Coast and then this week swept through the tournament, twice beating Liberty, the North Division champion. Jacksonville (16-32) is headed to regionals for the second time in three seasons.

In the AAC Tournament, Central Florida knocked out East Carolina in the semifinals. ECU was upset by Memphis in the opening game of the tournament and had been trying to fight out of the loser’s bracket. The Pirates just about did so, pushing the Knights to a second semifinal game before losing, 2-1. UCF now faces rival South Florida in Sunday’s championship game with the winner advancing to regionals.

In the Big South Tournament, Presbyterian defeated Campbell, 8-5, in the championship game to advance to regionals for the first time in program history. The Blue Hose swept through the tournament, twice beating Campbell, the regular-season champion.

East Carolina (41-15) is locked into an NCAA Tournament bid and will host a regional. Liberty (39-14) and Campbell (35-16) don’t have as iron-clad NCAA Tournament cases, but both are likely to receive at-large bids. Both won at least 35 games, rank in the top-40 of RPI (Liberty is 37, Campbell is 38), have winning records away from home, won their conference’s regular-season title and can point to several wins against top-50 competition as evidence of their quality. Typically, programs like that receive at-large bids.

Liberty has a better case than Campbell, owing to its 5-3 record against ACC opponents, a road sweep of UCF and a 3-1 record against Virginia Commonwealth, the Atlantic 10 champion. But the two teams played a series on Opening Weekend and Campbell won it. The Camels went 0-3 against ACC competition but do have eight top-50 wins – all against Liberty and South Carolina-Upstate.

To move three teams into the Field of 64, three teams have to go out. Here, the selection committee faces a series of very difficult decisions. In my estimation, if Campbell and Liberty are both in, there are nine teams competing for three spots: Alabama, Ball State, Fairfield, Georgia, Long Beach State, Louisiana State, Louisville, Michigan and San Diego.

As you might expect, those nine teams have very different resumes. Alabama, Georgia and LSU all have the best RPIs (other than Fairfield), a gaudy strength of schedule and plenty of top-50 and top-100 wins. They also all finished below .500 in their conference (though it is the best conference in the country).

Louisville has 13 top-50 wins, more than all but 10 teams in the country. But its RPI is No. 75 and it struggled mightily down the stretch, going just 4-11 over the last five weeks, leaving a poor final impression.

San Diego finished strong, winning a series at Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference champion and outscoring the Zags 19-2 over the last two games. But the Toreros rank 63rd in RPI and their strength of schedule ranks No. 226.

Ball State is likely going to come up just short in the Mid-American Conference and finish a game or two shy of Central Michigan in the standings. The Cardinals rank No. 49 in RPI and while their overall strength of schedule is No. 159, their non-conference strength of schedule ranks 15th, a recognition of how much they challenged themselves early in the season. Ball State owns a series split at Arizona and a series win at Kentucky. But its conference affiliation is weighing it down.

Fairfield, Long Beach and Michigan all present the selection committee with the challenge of evaluating them with no non-conference games (or in Long Beach’s case, just three non-conference games). Most of the committee’s preferred metrics don’t work with such limited inter-conference data, so how they determine what to do with the Stags, Dirtbags and Wolverines is anyone’s guess.

Fairfield ranks second in RPI, an eye-popping number, after dominating Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play. But the MAAC typically ranks in the bottom five of conference RPI and has just two NCAA Tournament wins in the last decade.

Long Beach finished third in the Big West and split its four-game series against both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, the two teams ahead of it in the standings. The Dirtbags rank No. 86 in RPI.

Michigan finished third in the Big Ten and in the last two weeks lost series against Nebraska and Maryland, the two teams that finished ahead of it in the standings. The Wolverines rank No. 90 in RPI.

So, what’s the selection committee to do? As flawed as RPI is this year, it seems unlikely the committee will completely ignore it. That’s good news for Fairfield and the SEC teams and bad news for Louisville, Long Beach and Michigan. Ball State and San Diego fall in the middle ground.

Between RPI and the gaudy strength of schedule numbers Fairfield, Alabama and LSU generated, my latest projection is that those three teams will get the final three spots.

Whether that’s the way it should be is a separate argument. It would be nice to see Ball State rewarded for what it did on the field and not penalized for its conference. It would be nice to see Louisville’s 13 top-50 wins to carry the day instead of its dismal finish. It would be nice for an acknowledgement that San Diego wasn’t able to schedule the kind of challenging slate it typically does or that Long Beach was unable to play fall ball or an early season non-conference slate. It would be nice if Michigan were evaluated for its own merits and not discredited because of its conference’s decision to prohibit non-conference games in all sports but basketball. It would be nice if Jackson State – which went 24-0 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference before getting upset in the SWAC Tournament championship game, but also played in a conference that allowed for non-conference games – got as much consideration as Fairfield.

There’s a case to be made for all nine of these bubble teams. The selection committee has an impossible task before it, caused by the pandemic’s fallout and uneven recovery. Hopefully it can find a happy medium of weighing metrics, the eye test and some simple common sense to make the final few selections for the at-large field.

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