It will be here before we know it: Selection Sunday is just over three months away.
Sure, there are about 40 Division-I teams that haven’t even taken the floor yet as of Friday. But in a strange campaign like this one, it’s never too soon to talk about what college basketball’s future may hold.
An annual subtopic during “bubble” talk is what should happen with teams maintaining sub-.500 conference records. According to an excellent Washington Post article published last year, 44 teams in March Madness history received at-large bids with sub-.500 conference records through 2018.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi is the most outspoken national voice on this topic, consistently urging the NCAA to make .500 league records a requirement for at-large consideration. Whether you agree or not, the premise is simple: If you aren’t one of the best six or seven teams in your conference, you shouldn’t receive an at-large bid.
With opening day pushed back to Nov. 25 and teams constantly dealing with postponements and cancellations, conference games now make up the bulk of teams’ schedules.
An extreme example, sure, but DePaul has had nonconference games canceled against Western Illinois, Chicago State, Alcorn State and Iowa State and another postponed vs. Northern Illinois. The Blue Demons’ first two Big East games at Seton Hall and Villanova have also been postponed, and their current schedule features zero nonconference games. DePaul has yet to take the floor this season.
The Blue Demons aren’t on the national tournament radar, to be clear. Instead, take Duke and Kentucky, a combined 3-5 on the year with plenty of looming question marks. These “blue bloods” might evolve into top-10 or top-15 teams come March, but could a 14-10 record, for example, justify that claim? How would a mid-major coach with a 21-3 record react to this situation? What if Duke and Kentucky’s noteworthy games are canceled and their best wins are against bubble teams? Gaudy win-loss records thanks to November home blowouts aren’t a luxury this season.
In 2017, Vanderbilt became the first 15-loss team to receive an at-large bid. The Commodores not only made the field but did so comfortably as a No. 9 seed, facing a Northwestern team making its first-ever tournament appearance. Bryce Drew’s group actually finished 10-8 in SEC play after a challenging nonconference slate.
We won’t see 15-loss squads in March’s bracket, but we will certainly see teams just a sliver above .500 overall make the Big Dance. In fact, with several teams playing limited nonconference schedules — especially cutting out “guarantee games” against weak opponents — we might even see sub.-500 teams in the mix.
It isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Kentucky is 1-3 and projected to finish 14-12 overall and 11-7 in SEC play, per KenPom. Let me reiterate: John Calipari’s group started the season ranked No. 10 nationally and could be comfortably in the field despite a 14-12 record.
Some other notable teams appear to be headed in the same direction:
- No. 30 Purdue (3-2); projected record: 15-12 (10-10 Big Ten)
- No. 41 Oklahoma (2-1); projected record: 13-10 (9-9 Big 12)
- No. 52 Penn State (3-1); projected record: 12-12 (9-11 Big Ten)
- No. 74 Rhode Island (3-3); projected record: 14-11 (11-7 A10)
What would the committee do in this situation? What happens if the final at-large bid comes down to a high-major team we think is good but is just a game above .500 vs. a mid-major that might pass the “eye test” but is 15 games above .500? And what if one team has played 26 games against mostly weak opposition and the other team has played just 15 games against strong opposition?
The selection committee’s job regarding at-large bids is remarkably simple: select the best teams. Is a 10-3 Kentucky team with wins over nine teams out of the OVC, Horizon and Summit any better than a 1-3 Kentucky team without those cupcake wins? If none of those victories are considered “quality wins,” then I can’t see how it could suggest the Wildcats are any better or worse than we initially thought. It’s reasonable to believe that a team below .500 is one of the strongest 37 at-large candidates in America this season.
In normal years, fielding a 68-team bracket is an impossible task. It has long been my opinion that the selection committee doesn’t receive the praise it deserves. But the backlash figures to be even more incendiary this March than in prior years, even though there has never been a bigger challenge in the sport. Your guess is as good as mine as to how it will all play out.