Bubble Watch: Upset Puts Fairfield Back Under Microscope

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament is not typically on the radar for NCAA Tournament bubble watchers. It’s typically a one-bid conference where a conference tournament championship is needed to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

But this is no typical year. The MAAC went to a conference-only schedule for 2021 to account for the effects of the pandemic and Fairfield blew through the conference, going 33-1 in the regular season. The combination of that otherworldly record and no non-conference data to feed into the computers pushed the Stags into the top-five of the RPI. That has made Fairfield a curiosity all season long and a serious challenge for everyone tasked with evaluating them.

That challenge on Wednesday got even harder and all the more relevant for bubble discussions. Canisius upset Fairfield, 4-1, in the MAAC Tournament championship round and advanced in the winner’s bracket. The Stags, meanwhile, fell into the loser’s bracket and – after another upset – will on Thursday play No. 2 seed Monmouth in an elimination game.

Fairfield still has a viable path to winning the tournament. It’s playing at home this week and this is the same team that went 33-1 in conference play during the regular season. If any team in the country this week can come through the loser’s bracket it’s the Stags.

But what if Fairfield doesn’t? What if Fairfield loses one more time? Can the Stags reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, turning the MAAC into a two-bid league and shrinking the bubble?

Fairfield entered Wednesday at No. 2 in RPI. Its loss briefly dropped it to No. 4, but it finished the day No. 3, following West Virginia’s upset of Texas. So, losing another game – especially with all three other teams still alive in the MAAC Tournament ranked in the top-100 of RPI – isn’t going to tank the Stags’ RPI. They are on Selection Monday going to have a top-10 RPI.

A top-10 RPI and a record of 35-3 (at worst) sure sounds like an NCAA Tournament team. The trouble for the selection committee is that RPI is not designed to evaluate teams that are playing conference-only schedules. The selection committee has other tools to evaluate teams, including the regional advisory committee, which ranks teams based on the input of area coaches. Still, will the committee completely ignore such a prominent metric?

Further complicating Fairfield’s situation is Jackson State’s similar but disparate resume. The Tigers went undefeated in regular-season Southwestern Athletic Conference play (24-0) and reached the championship game of the SWAC Tournament before being upset by Southern. But unlike Fairfield, Jackson State and the rest of the SWAC played non-conference games.

The Tigers went 33-9 on the season and rank No. 121 in RPI – well outside the range that is considered for at-large bids. But their poor RPI largely isn’t due to their own results but that of their conference foes which did not fare well in non-conference play. Jackson State’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks ninth in the nation and their non-conference RPI is No. 79.

Had the SWAC, like the MAAC, opted not to play non-conference games, Jackson State would have an RPI similar to Fairfield’s. So, if the selection committee rewards Fairfield with an at-large berth but does not also give one to Jackson State, it effectively is saying that the SWAC should not have played non-conference games. By grouping Fairfield and Jackson State and either putting both in the tournament or leaving both out, the selection committee would acknowledge the flaws of RPI this year – something that shouldn’t be controversial but might complicate decisions elsewhere in forming the field.

Unless Fairfield comes back to win the MAAC Tournament, the selection committee will be forced to make a difficult decision that is guaranteed to make it unpopular in some quarters. For now, all eyes are on Fairfield, Conn., Thursday at 11 a.m. ET.

Notes From The Bubble

  • Alabama on Wednesday beat Tennessee, 3-2, in 11 innings to advance in the winner’s bracket of the SEC Tournament. The win was significant for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA Tournament hopes, as they improved to 14-17 in SEC play. They’re sitting astride the bubble now with an RPI of 31, a 12-9 record away from home and a 16-18 record vs. top 100 RPI teams (though they are just 8-15 vs. top 50 teams). Alabama likely needs one more win to feel secure in its standing and will get that chance Thursday against Florida.
  • Baylor and Oklahoma, the two Big 12 teams closest to the bubble, both took tough losses Wednesday in Oklahoma City. Baylor lost, 11-4, to Texas Tech and Oklahoma lost, 9-5, to rival Oklahoma State. Both the Bears and Sooners are now 11-14 in Big 12 play and rank outside the top 40 of RPI (Baylor is 41, Oklahoma is 56). Baylor faces Kansas State in an elimination game Thursday, while Oklahoma gets Texas. Both the Bears and Sooners likely need a win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
  • Florida Atlantic lost, 11-2, to Old Dominion to open the Conference USA Tournament. That loss doesn’t torpedo the Owls’ NCAA Tournament hopes, but it makes them that much bleaker as they will now need to make a run from the loser’s bracket. FAU now faces a must-win game Thursday against Charlotte.
  • Speaking of Charlotte, the 49ers are safely in the NCAA Tournament, but their chances of hosting a regional as a No. 1 seed took a hit Wednesday with a 7-2 loss to Middle Tennessee State. Charlotte’s RPI plunged out of the top-20 to No. 24, and it will now need to fight out of the loser’s bracket in the CUSA Tournament, making Thursday’s game against FAU a crucial one.

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