Take a look at the at-large selections with double digit seeds in the projected bracket below:
Miami. Oklahoma State. Kansas State. Clemson. Texas Christian. Then there’s the likes of Michigan and Seton Hall just on the outside of the field.
All of those teams have had their moments this season. All are also under .500 in conference play.
That isn’t a selection criterion, and nor should it be. Non-conference play counts, too, but it also occupies a smaller percentage of a team’s resume as the season progresses. There have been 38 at-large selections in tournament history with losing league records, most recently Oklahoma State and Texas in 2015.
Of course, there’s also only one year (1991) when three such teams earned at-large bids. That looks as though it may soon change.
There’s a few reasons why the so-called “soft bubble” (already a tired phrase) exists. The uneven nature of conference play in many bloated leagues can be even starker at this stage of a season. The bracket projection process slots conference leaders as automatic qualifiers, which removes the best teams from the at-large pool.
But there’s something else in play this season, and that’s regression from next-tier leagues beyond the power conferences. No one should call the Atlantic 10 or American Athletic Conference mid-majors, and the Mountain West historically doesn’t warrant that label, either. The Missouri Valley, more often than not, is also a multi-bid league. Combined, however, they’re offering up an uncharacteristically lackluster crop of tournament contestants.
This week’s projection scatters eight bids among those four leagues. In both 2015 and 2016, they combined for 10. And in 2014, they totaled 13 (with one going to Louisville, which is now in the ACC).
It’s time for the regular reminder that leagues don’t earn bids; teams do. But the truth is, it’s the teams that are collectively weaker.
The Atlantic 10 and the American entered Thursday with three top-75 RPI teams apiece according to CBSSports.com, with the Missouri Valley and Mountain West each claiming two.
For those who consider the RPI borderline blasphemous, the KenPom.com rankings have four schools from both the Atlantic 10 and American, two from the Missouri Valley and one from the Mountain West in the top 75. Not much better.
The lack of tournament-worthy profiles in these leagues is a factor that’s helped make the edge of this year’s field look so dubious. It’s terribly timed, since the direction the selection committee has skewed in recent years (rewarding quantity of high-end victories no matter how many chances a team had to get them) clearly benefits power conference mediocrities the most.
Put both elements together, and there might be a larger group of at-large picks with losing conference records next month than ever before.
Here’s how the bracket projects right now:
Kansas makes a fine top overall seed after a stellar five-day stretch in which it beat both Kentucky and Baylor. … Irony Alert, Part I: Southern Methodist coach Tim Jankovich left Illinois State to become Larry Brown’s top assistant (and eventual successor) in Dallas. … Duke is the last of the No. 4 seeds, but it’s not difficult to envision the Blue Devils eventually winding up at an East Coast site.
Oklahoma State and its ultra-efficient offense jumped into the field this week after blasting Arkansas and then edging Oklahoma on the road. It’s still early enough that teams can substantially change their profiles in a few games. … Tennessee’s another team that looks better and better by the game. Its victory over Kentucky could prove quite useful if it can find some consistency down the stretch.
Irony Alert, Part II: Iowa State star Deonte Burton began his career at … Marquette. … Monmouth didn’t snag the high-end victories it did last year, but it is still extremely capable of being a nuisance (or worse) next month. Consider the Hawks something of a post-hype candidate.
Maryland can improve its seeding over the next three weeks when it faces Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin. … Clemson clearly has work still to do, but its profile holds up fairly well in comparison with the other teams on the edge of the field. That might not being saying much, though. … Xavier is surprisingly unaccomplished to this point, with only two victories over teams in this field (Clemson and North Dakota State). A big test awaits Saturday at Creighton.
A round of 32 game with UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac would be filled with all sorts of likely one-and-done fun. … Arkansas State, with a veteran backcourt, might just be this year’s Arkansas-Little Rock — a team with a first-year coach imported from Texas (in the Red Wolves’ case, former Baylor assistant Grant McCasland) who put the pieces together in the right way almost immediately.
West Virginia/Notre Dame would be a fine contrast in styles. West Virginia/UNC Wilmington would be a pairing of very similar philosophies (and, thus, a setting for tons of turnovers). … Even with the loss to Purdue, Northwestern looks like it is solidly in the field.
Middle Tennessee might be a top-30 team and warrant home jerseys for the first round, but it seems a little unlikely the committee will see it that way unless the Blue Raiders win out. … Miami slipped down to a play-in game with its loss to Florida State on Wednesday.
Irony Alert, Part III: The prospect of Frank Martin finally getting South Carolina to the tournament, only to find Kansas State waiting in the round of 64, is simply tremendous. … Dayton/Michigan State — the matchup Syracuse and Middle Tennessee denied us last March.
Final Four pairings: MIDWEST vs. WEST | EAST vs. SOUTH
Last four in: Rhode Island, Miami, Clemson, Texas Christian
First four on the outside: Michigan, Indiana, Seton Hall, Wake Forest
Next four on the outside: Utah, Georgetown, Houston, Georgia
Conference call: Atlantic Coast (9), Big 12 (7), Big Ten (6), Big East (5), Pac-12 (5), Southeastern (5), Atlantic 10 (3), American Athletic (2), Missouri Valley (2), West Coast (2)