How Much Does A Winning Conference Record Mean In The NCAA Tournament Debate?


Image credit: Jac Caglianone (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

If you’ve watched an SEC game in the last few weeks, you’ve seen the graphic. And even if you haven’t caught an SEC game on TV lately, you might’ve seen ESPN’s graphic on social media.

Laid out on a chalkboard, it shows the percentage of SEC teams that were NCAA Tournament eligible that received at-large bids in the 64-team era (since 1999), broken down by the number of SEC wins. The graphic illustrates a pretty straightforward story: win at least 16 SEC games and you’re guaranteed a tournament bid. Win 14 or 15 and there’s a very strong likelihood of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Win 13 and you might get in. Anything less than that is probably not happening.

That presentation is a little rudimentary, but it’s a good graphic for TV. If you add in some RPI qualifiers and limit it to the last 10 seasons—since the conference’s expansion to 14 teams and the period the SEC has truly separated from the field as the best conference in the sport—you see that 13-win teams with strong RPIs (under 30) are effectively a sure thing, as all five teams that meet that criteria have gotten in.

The only 12-win SEC team to make the NCAA Tournament in the last 10 seasons was 2021 Alabama, which notably went 12-17 because of a rainout, won two games in the SEC Tournament and did it during a year when the pandemic dramatically affected college baseball schedules around the country.

Overarchingly, these are the same benchmarks SEC teams have eyed for years. But this year I’ve looked at those benchmarks and wondered, why? Why is an SEC team with 12 conference wins dead in the water but one with 13 has a fighting chance? What’s so special about 13?

The NCAA lays out a set of criteria the selection committee is to use when picking at-large teams and seeding the tournament field. The selection process is meant to be subjective, and the data is interpreted by every person a little differently due to their personal perspective and bias. The 10-person committee itself changes from year to year as committee members serve on four-year terms. All of that is what makes predicting the selections so difficult.

Among the criteria the selection committee is instructed to consider is conference regular-season record. Typically, this has meant the selection committee wants to see teams with winning records against conference foes. It’s not a firm rule—especially for SEC teams—but it has been used as justification for keeping teams out of the tournament (2022 NC State, for example).

Conference record is a criterion in most other sports, as the NCAA has some basic, overall guidelines for selection committees across all sports. Some sports stick to it relatively closely, men’s basketball this year, for instance, had just one team with a losing regular-season conference record selected to the NCAA Tournament. Other sports do not. In softball, all 13 SEC teams this year made the NCAA Tournament. I’m not an expert on the selection process in any sport other than baseball, so some sports’ selections may be coincidence or outliers of their typical process. But it’s fair to say that each selection committee can interpret conference records as they see fit and as best fit their sports.

SportTeamConference RecordConference Winning Percentage
Men’s lacrosseVirginia1-3.250
Field hockeySyracuse2-4.333
Women’s basketballTexas A&M6-10.375
Men’s basketballMississippi State8-10.444
Worst conference winning percentage this academic year among at-large NCAA Tournament teams in select sports.

Dave Heeke served two terms on the baseball committee and chaired it in 2014-15, when he was athletic director at Central Michigan. He also served on the men’s basketball committee. He said the selection process between the two sports is similar but there are differences, including how conference records are weighted.

“There’s always that conversation, ‘Wait, what were they in the league? They finished 11th or 10th, what does that mean?” he said. “Then you really have to dig deeper on those teams. In a way it was similar, but didn’t think it was as prevalent in the basketball process.”

So, that’s the root of the conference record discussion. But we have to go deeper to understand why there’s a difference between an SEC team with 12 conference wins vs. one with 13 or 14.

The SEC—and most major conferences—plays 30 conference baseball games, split into three-game series over 10 consecutive weekends. Because there are 14 teams in the SEC and just 10 weeks of conference play, every team misses three opponents around the league. That’s also true in the ACC, while every Big 12 team this year misses two opponents.

Scott Sidwell, who chaired the baseball committee in 2016-17 when he was athletic director of San Francisco, said the discussion around teams is never as black and white as their conference affiliation and conference record.

“The categorization of it being a broad-based brush of they’re in the SEC, which is traditionally a very strong baseball conference—that doesn’t mean you take it in and of itself,” he said. “It’s not, they’re two games under, four games under or two or four above, it’s who did they play, how did they do?

“You have to take it year by year and take the brand name off of it. There’s a different makeup, different things happen within a season that changes the dynamic. If you take it on the surface, take conference record and don’t look deeper than that, you haven’t done a great job of analysis.”

There’s clear evidence of that happening in the committee room. That’s part of the reason why there’s a difference between the outcomes of a 13-win SEC team with a sub-30 RPI (five-for-five have made the tournament in the last 10 seasons) and 13-win SEC teams with 30+ RPIs (none have made the tournament without winning multiple games in the SEC Tournament).

The selection committee is not given the information on the historical precedent of cut lines within a conference. That’s a matter of us looking at outcomes and reverse engineering the process. So, again, what makes 12 SEC wins so different from 13?

It is difficult to produce a top-30 RPI with fewer than 13 SEC wins. In fact, it hasn’t happened in the last 10 seasons. 2016 Georgia, which went 11-19 in the SEC, was the closest at No. 37.

But the SEC’s dominance in the sport has accelerated. As it stands today, there are five SEC teams with top-35 RPIs and less than 13 conference wins. Some of those teams might reach 13 conference wins and we’ll see where their RPIs land on Selection Monday. Still, it is increasingly likely that some team with fewer than 13 SEC wins will break 2016 Georgia’s high-water mark.

The question then becomes how would such a team be treated? And even if it winds up taking care of itself this year, what happens next year when the Big Ten has 17 teams, the SEC has 16, the ACC has 15 and the Big 12 has 14? Schedule imbalance is only going to grow and more teams are likely to end up with losing conference records.

We’ll worry about 2025 some other time. This season, I would suggest there are SEC teams that might end up with fewer than 13 or 14 SEC wins during the regular season that deserve serious consideration for NCAA Tournament bids, even if they go one-and-done in the SEC Tournament (the first round is single elimination).

Florida and Mississippi have excellent tournament cases due to their elite strength of schedule (Florida is No. 2, Ole Miss is No. 1), RPIs (Florida is 30, Ole Miss is 24) and number of quadrant 1 wins (Florida has 11, Ole Miss has 12; only Kentucky and Tennessee have more than 12 nationally). Unfortunately for the Gators and Rebels, they are both flirting with .500 overall records (Ole Miss is 27-25 and Florida is 26-25) and a series loss this weekend would mean they must reach the SEC Tournament semifinals to have a winning overall record, a prerequisite for at-large teams. Both teams are playing less than 56 regular-season games (Florida has 54, Ole Miss 55), a decision that could come back to haunt them. I would suggest that if either team gets bounced from Hoover early, it would be worth exploring adding a non-conference game on the fly, though the logistics of such a play might be next to impossible.

Alabama (12-15) would also be a great test case for a team with fewer than 13 regular-season SEC wins owing to their RPI (11), strength of schedule (3) and quad 1 wins (12), but the Crimson Tide are playing last-place Auburn this weekend and are unlikely to be swept.

That leaves LSU (33-20, 10-17) and Vanderbilt (34-18, 12-15). Neither has as strong a case as their counterparts but they have metrics that stack up pretty well as compared to other bubble teams.

TeamRecordConference RecordRPISOSQuad 1 Record
James Madison30-2015-1247354-7
Virginia Tech32-1714-13541053-10
Bubble comparison

Some around the game would disagree. They would say that winning 40% (or less) of your conference games is grounds for elimination from postseason consideration. Reasonable people can disagree on the importance of conference records.

But no matter what you believe about the importance of conference records, I think the hyper-fixation on 13 SEC wins is a mistake, at least this year. The way the season has gone, there should be an opening for a 12 SEC–win (or maybe even fewer) team in the NCAA Tournament conversation. The perfect storm may not come to pass due to the overall records of Florida and Ole Miss, but as strong as the historical precedent appears to be, it should not be regarded as iron clad. A 12-win SEC team should not be regarded as dead on arrival in the at-large discussion.

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