NCAA basketball committee members come and go. Emphasized criteria evolve over time. Changes are gradual, but there is change. One thing, though, has remained constant for the past decade or so: A team with a dreadful nonconference strength of schedule perched at the edge of the field is going to get punished for not challenging itself.
There’s often a team or two feeling great heading into Selection Sunday, only for a comically poor nonconference schedule to scuttle its NCAA tournament hopes. Think 2010 Virginia Tech, 2011 Alabama, 2014 Southern Methodist or 2016 South Carolina. That could be cause for concern this season for teams such as North Carolina State, Nebraska, Kansas State, Virginia Tech and Houston. (More on all of them later.)
Since the still-befuddling inclusion of Air Force (nonconference strength of schedule: 273rd) in 2006 as a No. 13 seed, no team with a nonconference schedule ranked 250th or worse (per the CollegeRPI.com archive) has earned a double-digit seed as an at-large team — the traditional landing spot for the last few teams to be given a bid.
It’s not a barrier to inclusion. In the past 11 tournaments, 14 teams with such poor nonconference schedules have earned at-large bids. Three of them came last season. But none of those 14 teams earned worse than a No. 9 seed (Virginia Tech last season).
Here are all the power-conference teams since 2007 that finished above .500 in conference play after playing a nonconference schedule ranked 250th or worse nationally, and where (if they made it) they were seeded in the NCAA tournament:
|Team||Year||Rec. (Conf.)||RPI||NCSOS||NCAA seed|
|Virginia Tech||2017||22-10 (10-8)||48||286||9|
|South Carolina||2016||23-8 (11-7)||65||271||—|
|Virginia Tech||2016||19-14 (10-8)||89||273||—|
|Notre Dame||2015||29-5 (14-4)||16||319||3*|
|Notre Dame||2013||25-9 (11-7)||35||265||7|
|Virginia Tech||2010||23-8 (10-6)||59||339||—|
|Wake Forest||2009||24-6 (11-5)||16||268||4|
|South Carolina||2009||21-9 (10-6)||58||279||—|
|Penn State||2009||22-11 (10-8)||70||307||—|
|Kansas State||2009||20-11 (9-7)||81||308||—|
|Notre Dame||2008||24-7 (14-4)||26||279||5|
|Washington State||2007||25-7 (13-5)||25||312||3|
|Notre Dame||2007||24-7 (11-5)||31||311||6|
|West Virginia||2007||21-9 (9-7)||57||271||—|
* — earned automatic bid as conference tournament champion
The committee consistently punishes programs anywhere near the edge of the field with soft out-of-conference schedules. But it’s a philosophy poised to face a challenge this season, given the plethora of borderline teams who played lousy nonconference slates.
There’s N.C. State (No. 269), which owns victories over Arizona, Clemson, Duke and North Carolina. And Nebraska (No. 277), which isn’t getting much help from its own league this season. Houston sits at No. 281, Virginia Tech at No. 317 and Kansas State at a ghastly No. 339. This doesn’t include the likes of Michigan (No. 248), Creighton (No. 266) and Florida State (No. 293), which could face similar questions if one hits a two-week rough patch.
This is not to impugn most of these programs. In particular, Kevin Keatts and N.C. State faced a rebuilding year and tried to find victories early. That the weak pre-league slate is even an issue is a pleasant problem in Raleigh. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s Tim Miles scheduled like a coach who was facing a make-or-break season and needed to show progress in the win column. No shame in that, either.
History suggests all of these teams will have to do a little more than the average outfit at the edge of the field to secure inclusion. Put another way, they need to create separation between themselves and the at-large teams likely to occupy the Nos. 10, 11 and 12 lines come March.
If they do, they’ll probably end up run-of-the-mill Nos. 8 or 9 seeds. And if they don’t, the committee has consistently relegated such teams to the NIT. The only issue this year is whether there are so many teams with poor nonconference schedules in contention for the last 10 at-large slots that there will be little choice but to allow a few of them passage into the field of 68.
It’s strictly a guess, but emphasizing playing a challenging schedule is such a consistent committee mantra that it is unlikely to change quickly, if at all. A Kansas State or an N.C. State holds its fate in its own hands for now; they and others with shaky nonconference slates would be wise to do what’s needed and then some, rather than hope they’re on the right side of things come March 11.
Last four included: N.C. State, Kansas State, Houston, Southern Methodist
First four on the outside: South Carolina, St. Bonaventure, UCLA, Virginia Tech
Next four on the outside: Notre Dame, Washington, Maryland, Boise State
Moving in: Harvard, North Carolina A&T, N.C. State, Northeastern, Rider, UC Santa Barbara, UNC Asheville
Moving out: Bethune-Cookman, Canisius, Hawaii, Notre Dame, Penn, Radford, William & Mary
Conference call: ACC (9), Southeastern (8), Big East (7), Big 12 (7), American Athletic (4), Big Ten (4), Pac-12 (3), West Coast (2)
Latest bracket projection
(1) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (16) ATLANTIC SUN/Florida Gulf Coast – IVY/Harvard winner
(8) Southern California vs. (9) Florida State
(5) Clemson vs. (12) Missouri
(4) Texas Tech vs. (13) AMERICA EAST/Vermont
(3) Michigan State vs. (14) HORIZON/Wright State
(6) Seton Hall vs. (11) Houston/Kansas State winner
(7) Creighton vs. (10) Syracuse
(2) SOUTHEASTERN/Auburn vs. (15) BIG WEST/UC Santa Barbara
Villanova is still the top overall seed by a hair over Virginia. … Southern Cal has won eight of its past nine, with the loss coming on a 50-footer at the buzzer at Stanford. However, the Trojans get five of their next seven on the road. … Missouri is trending in the wrong direction, and the suspension of Terrence Phillips doesn’t help. …
The top of Michigan State’s profile isn’t super, which only amplifies the significance of games with Ohio State and Purdue — at least in terms of a chase for a No. 1 seed. … Kansas State takes a dip because of a reevaluation of its nonconference schedule. … Whatever the skepticism is about Auburn, the numbers suggest the Tigers would warrant a No. 3 seed at minimum at this point.
(1) ACC/Virginia vs. (16) BIG SOUTH/UNC Asheville – SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC/Arkansas-Pine Bluff winner
(8) Texas vs. (9) Butler
(5) Ohio State vs. (12) MISSOURI VALLEY/Loyola of Chicago
(4) Tennessee vs. (13) SUMMIT/South Dakota State
(3) Oklahoma vs. (14) SOUTHERN/East Tennessee State
(6) ATLANTIC 10/Rhode Island vs. (11) N.C. State/Southern Methodist winner
(7) WEST COAST/Saint Mary’s vs. (10) Alabama
(2) Xavier vs. (15) PATRIOT/Bucknell
Virginia takes Duke’s spot atop the South bracket, with the Blue Devils shifted to the West regional after the Cavaliers’ victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. … Loyola of Chicago was originally paired with Florida, but the preference is against regular season rematches in the first round. The Ramblers won in Gainesville in December. …
Rhode Island, which just survived a scare from Duquesne at home, is three games clear of the field in the Atlantic 10. The A-10’s nightmare scenario — a one-bid season thanks to the Rams’ dominance — isn’t looking too far-fetched. … The top of Saint Mary’s portfolio isn’t overwhelming, so the Gaels’ ceiling might be as a No. 5 seed or so.
(1) BIG TEN/Purdue vs. (16) NORTHEAST/Wagner
(8) MOUNTAIN WEST/Nevada vs. (9) Arkansas
(5) Louisville vs. (12) WESTERN ATHLETIC/New Mexico State
(4) West Virginia vs. (13) SUN BELT/UL Lafayette
(3) North Carolina vs. (14) METRO ATLANTIC/Rider
(6) Wichita State vs. (11) Providence
(7) Gonzaga vs. (10) Texas A&M
(2) PAC-12/Arizona vs. (15) BIG SKY/Montana
The definition of a tournament lock is a team that could lose all of its remaining games and still make the field of 68. The weakness of the Big Ten means Purdue isn’t there quite yet, but it may well get there by this time next week. … There’s so much fluidity between the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 lines, West Virginia dropped a couple seeds with its recent struggles. For now, it’s the difference between playing in Pittsburgh and playing in Boise. …
North Carolina to Pittsburgh? Why not? It’s an ACC market these days. … Wichita State’s seeding has the potential to be confounding right up until the last second. Even in a new league, the Shockers may well end up underseeded. … Even if it runs the table, here’s guessing Arizona won’t land the top overall seed. (The underlying assumption: Purdue, Villanova and Virginia are going to win a bunch down the stretch.) But the No. 1 seed in the West isn’t out of reach.
(1) Duke vs. (16) MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC/North Carolina A&T
(8) Arizona State vs. (9) Texas Christian
(5) Florida vs. (12) MID-AMERICAN/Buffalo
(4) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Cincinnati vs. (13) OHIO VALLEY/Belmont
(3) Kentucky vs. (14) COLONIAL/Northeastern
(6) Miami vs. (11) CONFERENCE USA/Middle Tennessee
(7) Michigan vs. (10) Marquette
(2) BIG 12/Kansas vs. (15) SOUTHLAND/Stephen F. Austin
Coach K vs. Bobby Hurley in the second round? Not if Jamie Dixon has a say in the matter. … Buffalo is torching the MAC and is already looking like it could be a chic pick to pull a surprise in March. . . . Kentucky couldn’t get into the Nashville subregional at this stage, but here’s guessing the Music City is where Big Blue Nation ultimately descends upon for the first weekend of the tournament. … Michigan vs. Marquette would have a shot at being every bit as entertaining as last year’s Michigan-Oklahoma State first-round game.
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