There is no prohibition on such teams playing their way into the field, and there isn’t going to be anytime soon. Nonconference play counts, too, though its proportional influence is waning as leagues expand their conference schedules. The Big Ten is already at 20 games, and the ACC will be there next season.
Nonetheless, one of the selection committee’s primary tasks is to identify the 36 teams worthy of earning at-large bids. Theoretically, their mandate is to pick the 36 best teams. In reality, they’re choosing the 36 best résumés. There is a distinction.
In the tournament’s history, only 44 teams have earned at-large berths without a conference record of .500 or better. For more than a quarter-century, the record for the most in a year was three (in 1991) — a stretch that covered seven seasons of a 68-team field. Which meant there usually there wasn’t too many gripes.
Then last year, five teams with 8-10 conference records — Alabama, Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Texas — found their way into the field. That was enough to get a lot of attention, not all of it good.
The same might be true of next month’s unveiling of the tournament field. Not all of these teams will finish below .500 in their respective conferences, but some probably will. And at this moment, all are very much in the conversation for an at-large spot, and some probably need only avoid a total collapse to land an NCAA bid.
N.C. State (18-7, 6-6): Included for the sake of thoroughness, the Wolfpack has four games left against teams on pace to play on the first day of the ACC tournament (Boston College twice, plus Georgia Tech and Wake Forest). Win even three, and they’ll get to .500 and probably not sweat things on Selection Sunday.
Clemson (15-9, 5-6): The Tigers didn’t help themselves with a loss at Miami on Wednesday, but the schedule largely turns in their favor after Saturday’s trip to Louisville. They close with four of six at home, and three games against the league’s bottom tier. Clemson would be wise to get to 9-9, but 8-10 might not be disqualifying this season.
St. John’s (18-7, 6-6): The Red Storm has already swept Marquette and is done with Villanova after Sunday, so it shouldn’t have much trouble getting to 9-9. Then again, since starting 12-0, it hasn’t won or lost more than two in a row. It’s anyone’s guess which version of Chris Mullin’s team will show up on a given night.
Seton Hall (15-9, 6-6): The Pirates have a pair of high-end nonconference wins (Kentucky in New York and Maryland on the road) to fall back on. And they’ve stabilized with three triumphs in four tries since a four-game skid. But the schedule is unkind from here out, with three of the next four on the road, making the Hall a prime candidate to be part of this group to the end of the season.
Butler (14-11, 5-7): Not particularly likely to either catch fire or collapse (no winning or losing streaks of more than three this season), the Bulldogs are teetering at the edge of the field. A split of the next six games would leave them under .500 in the Big East but probably still in the postseason picture.
Ohio State (16-8, 6-7): The Buckeyes are 0-5 against the six teams ahead of them in the Big Ten standings and have five more games against that group. They also possess a solid postseason resume. They could end up one of the less controversial teams below .500 in league play to make the tournament this season.
Minnesota (16-9, 6-8): The Golden Gophers are 0-for-February, dropping four in a row to make their situation a bit more tenuous. Still, they would remain in the picture with an even split the rest of the way.
Indiana (13-11, 4-9): The continued inclusion of the Hoosiers, losers of nine of their last 10, in bracket-related conversations is quite the indictment for the edge of the field. Credit victories against Louisville, Marquette and Michigan State for their staying power, but the .500 record Indiana needs to worry about first is its overall mark.
Nebraska (14-11, 4-10): The Cornhuskers finally ended a seven-game slide with Wednesday’s defeat of Minnesota, so they can still get to .500 in the Big Ten. Nebraska also has the problem of forward Isaac Copeland’s season-ending injury and their 1-4 record without him.
Texas (14-11, 6-6): No team with such an average-looking record has more high-end victories. The Longhorns have defeated Kansas, Kansas State, North Carolina and Purdue — including K-State on the road and North Carolina on a neutral site — so they check a meaningful box with the committee. The record would be unsightly if they drop four of the next six, but Texas would still be very much in the hunt.
Oklahoma (15-10, 3-9): A five-game losing streak has the Sooners just dangling in the field. Last year, they had the nation’s most hyped player and (more importantly) a deeper pool of quality victories. Given the way they’ve played over the last month, the Sooners could easily just fade from the conversation.
Auburn (16-8, 5-6): A quietly disappointing team, the Tigers haven’t done anything bad, nor have they accomplished much outside their own arena besides beating teams having down years (Arizona, Texas A&M and Xavier). They might get to .500 in the SEC; if they don’t, they’ll be close and still in the NCAA tournament conversation because of their lack of obvious negatives.
Mississippi State (17-7, 5-6): Probably shouldn’t finish any worse than 9-9. Six of the Bulldogs’ remaining seven games are against teams below .500 in SEC play.
Florida (13-11, 5-6): Advanced-metrics darlings thanks to their stingy defense, the Gators would be 16-15 at best going into the SEC tournament if they can’t get to .500 in the league. Without a boatload of elite victories (their best are home defeats of Butler and Mississippi), they probably wouldn’t find their way into the field without a bigger late-season push.
That’s a lot of teams flirting with both a sub-. 500 conference record and an at-large bid. Those teams are usually heard about plenty in February but not as much in the final weeks of March. Virginia made the Final Four in 1984 after going 6-8 in the ACC, and LSU was a region finalist in 1987 after posting an 8-10 record in the SEC.
But when Syracuse made its run to the Sweet 16 last year, it was the first at-large with a losing conference record to reach the second weekend since N.C. State in 2005. Two Big Ten teams (1999 Purdue and 2001 Penn State) also managed to do so around the turn of the century.
All of which is to say teams that can’t go .500 over the final two-months-and-change of the regular season probably aren’t great bets to do so against amplified competition in a single week. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even in a time when teams that spin their wheels down the stretch might enjoy some more wiggle room, the realities of the postseason will usually sweep them aside quickly.