The 2023 NCAA Tournament is approaching, and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “Making the Case” series examines the Utah State Aggies.
No conference in America has flirted with the bubble more than the Mountain West.
San Diego State has remained safely in the projected field throughout the year, but four other teams in the league have constantly been applying deodorant in conference play. Even New Mexico, the last remaining undefeated team in the country (14-0) earlier in the year, has played itself onto the wrong side of the cutline. Nevada and Boise State have also been discussed plenty but remain in projected fields for now.
Utah State, though, has been an ever-present dark horse on the bubble. The Aggies have been unable to get over the hump and into the consensus projected field, but they have always been in the mix. Coming into the season’s final two weeks, they remain in the thick of the conversation. Utah State boasts a 21-7 overall record and presents a conflicting argument regarding how valuable metrics should be.
With a closing schedule against UNLV (road) and Boise State (home), Utah State has opportunities to shore up some of its resume deficiencies. Before diving into those last two regular-season games, let’s examine Utah State’s resume, where it stands on the bubble and what it needs to do to earn an at-large bid.
How much weight does the NET hold?
Just how much weight does a team’s individual NET carry? That ongoing, unanswered question could play a huge role in Utah State’s bubble case.
Looking back at the “Last Four In” and “First Four Out” of the past three NCAA Tournament fields, there isn’t a great deal of evidence that a team’s own NET ranking carries much weight. Teams with NET rankings in the 70s have been selected for at-large bids over teams in the 40s, for instance.
The “Last Four In” over the last three fields has averaged a NET of 57.42, whereas the “First Four Out” averaged a 51.08 NET — not a ringing endorsement for the value of a team’s NET:
However, one NET-related note stands out in favor of the Aggies: Nobody has missed the NCAA Tournament with a NET of 32 or better. Utah State currently sits at precisely No. 32.
With a strong finish, Utah State can put the pressure on the NCAA selection committee to make a decision: Will it leave out a team that its own metric placed in its top 30?
Diving deeper into the metrics
Utah State’s at-large case does not rest solely on its NET ranking. Other metrics are also kind to the Aggies.
For instance, they rank 25th in KPI, one of the two resume metrics on teamsheets. Playing — and winning — a multitude of games in Quad 3 rather than Quad 4 contributes to a higher ranking in these metrics. Utah State has not, and will not, play a single team in the bottom 130 of the NET; that has value.
Head coach Ryan Odom’s group also grades out well on KenPom. The Aggies are 36th in the sport’s most preeminent quality metric, though they are lower in the SOR (51st), Sagarin (55th) and BPI (59th) rankings.
As of Sunday, Utah State had an average ranking of 38.0 in the two resume metrics, and 50.3 across the three quality metrics. Using a weighted average of 50 percent resume and 50 percent quality, Utah State’s overall profile ranks 45th nationwide (equivalent to a First Four No. 11 seed). Here is a look at some of their closest peers from the past three seasons:
Generally speaking, resume metrics correlate strongly with selection, while quality metrics correlate more with seeding. If that trend continues, it will bode well for Utah State. Only one team — 2021 Louisville — since 2019 has missed the field with average resume metrics of 38 or better.
Investigating the quadrant records
Utah State’s quadrant records paint a tricky picture. The Aggies have won in quantity, earning 18 victories over the upper three quadrants. Albeit with more games in Quad 3 than Quad 1+2 combined, that is still more wins over the upper three quadrants than the vast majority of bubble teams.
As was the case with my previous Bubble Babble on UNT, piling wins in Quadrant 3 should matter. Houston, Gonzaga, UConn, Virginia, Miami (FL), Xavier and Saint Mary’s — all projected top-5 seeds — have each suffered at least one Quad 3 loss this season.
If some of the best teams in the country have struggled against Quad 3 opponents, shouldn’t Utah State be rewarded for going 11-1 in those games? That is a much higher win percentage than many others have.
And yes, the Quad 4 loss also sticks out, but the same can be said about Texas A&M, Miami FL, Iowa, USC, New Mexico, Pittsburgh and many others in the NCAA Tournament conversation; all of them also have Quad 4 losses.
As much as USU’s Quad 3 wins command respect, the Aggies have only one Quad 1 win for the year — far fewer than many other teams in bubble consideration.
Additionally, Utah State’s Quad 1 win is barely within the quadrant, with a home win over Nevada (NET 30) riding perilously close to Q2 territory. The Aggies need that game to stay in the upper quadrant, and also hope to take advantage of a lingering Quad 1 opportunity against Boise State in their season finale. If Nevada falls from the top 30, USU could finish with zero Q1 wins, making a bid much harder to justify.
Other notes around the quadrants
On the bright side, Nevada is helping Utah State; the Wolf Pack are up seven spots in the NET over the last month. If that trend continues, Utah State’s win will stay in Quad 1. Nevada finishes its schedule against Wyoming and UNLV; the Aggies are big fans of the Wolf Pack in those games.
Additionally, Utah State’s collection of five Quad 2 victories is a tad underrated. The Aggies defeated San Francisco at a “neutral site” in December, a victory which falls under Quad 3. But is playing San Francisco in San Francisco really a “neutral” site? The game was at the Chase Center, four miles from USF’s campus.
San Francisco, which ranks 121st in the NET, qualifies as a Quad 2 opponent for visiting teams. If treated as a road game for USU, the Aggies’ win over the Dons would give them a 6-1 record in Q2. The Aggies have to hope the committee looks at games such as this one under a further microscope.
What ABOUT “wins over the field?”
“Wins over the field” can be a valuable feather in a team’s cap for Selection Sunday. But how far do those wins extend? Are they just wins over at-large teams, or should prospective automatic bids also be taken into account? Utah State hopes that it means the latter from this particular committee.
The Aggies only have one win over a projected at-large team this season, a win over Nevada at home. That compares poorly with fellow bubble teams like Michigan (six), Wisconsin (five), West Virginia (five), and Oklahoma State (four), among others.
However, diving deeper into Utah State’s nonconference schedule reveals underrated victories. The Aggies boast wins over the Summit League regular-season champion (Oral Roberts), the Missouri Valley regular-season champion (Bradley), and the WAC leader (Utah Valley). Those teams aren’t just winners of bottom-tier leagues, either; they are all projected to land No. 12 and 13 seeds should they make the field.
Will those wins carry more weight for USU than the regular Quad 2 or 3 win? We’ll have to find out if this committee gives them any extra significance, but Utah State certainly hopes they will.
Recent historical comparisons for USU
Holding just one Quad 1 win makes finding historical comparisons for Utah State rather difficult. Only five teams in the NET era have earned at-large bids with only one Quad 1 win (none have ever made it in with zero Q1 wins). All five of those teams — 2022 Houston, 2021 San Diego State, 2021 Syracuse, 2021 Drake and 2019 Nevada — carried metrics or records too different from USU to call them true comparisons.
All of the examples below had two Quad 1 wins, which USU aspires to match with a home game against Boise State coming up. Still, these teams were all in the same ballpark the Aggies find themselves in now:
Of note: I did not remove similar resumes that missed the NCAA Tournament. It just so happens that the five teams with the most similar bracketology profiles to USU all reached the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies have one fewer Quad 1 win than these compadres — and that lingering Quad 4 loss — but it does have a higher quantity of Quad 3 victories. They are all similar metrics-wise.
Given Utah State’s current numbers and quadrant records, these historical comparisons indicate that the team would be primed to dance with a second Quad 1 win. Can the Aggies get it done?
The overall outlook for Utah State
Utah State was one of the winners of a wild weekend of college basketball from Feb. 24-26.
The Aggies did not play, but Nevada leapt into the NET top 30 to provide them a Quad 1 win. Three teams in the Bracket Matrix’s Last Five In — Wisconsin, West Virginia and Oklahoma State — lost games, while fellow outside-looking-in squads Penn State and Texas Tech also suffered defeats.
Indeed, Utah State made up ground without lifting a finger.
The Aggies close with a road game at UNLV and a home game against Boise State. The former will be a difficult Quad 2 game, and the former represents the chance to earn a second Quad 1 victory. KenPom projects USU to win both games (57 percent vs. UNLV, 60 percent vs. Boise).
Life on the bubble is never easy, but the Aggies are in a position to make a case. When the committee meets to finalize the field, there are a few areas Utah State hopes are prioritized: teams’ own NET rankings, as well as their resume metrics, Quad 3 victories and wins over mid-major conference champions.
Finishing the regular season with wins over UNLV and Boise State could turn USU from a bubble dark horse to a team solidly in the field heading into conference tournaments. It’s easier said than done, but the path is there for the Aggies.