How to solve the ‘Stephen F. Austin problem’

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 02/19/2020

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Stephen F. Austin is 22-3, owns a win against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, is 13-1 in Southland play and boasts a top-10 national rank in offensive rebounding percentage, free-throw rate, 3-point percentage and opponent turnover rate.

Seems like a pretty worthy tournament team, right?

Well, here’s the thing: Stephen F. Austin is nowhere near even remote bubble conversation. The Lumberjacks are 87th in NET and 17 of their 22 games have been against Quad-4 opponents.

Once you see those metrics and are assessing at-large likelihood, there really isn’t a point in looking further.

SFA must win the Southland tournament to receive a tournament ticket next month.

This doesn’t need to be the case, though.

Even if SFA’s resume isn’t at-large worthy, it certainly doesn’t mean Stephen F. Austin isn’t capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. We run into teams like 2020 SFA almost every season and each team — unless it wins its conference tournament — is forgotten once the selection show begins.

I have given quite a bit of thought into this conundrum in recent years. My solution calls for a bigger emphasis on regular-season success. My tournament selection process reform proposal is below.

The Method

Here’s a quick guide of how I would change tournament team selection:

  • 32 automatic bids are awarded to conference tournament winners, guaranteeing a spot in the round of 64
  • 32 at-large bids are awarded, guaranteeing either a play-in game or a spot in the round of 64
  • “Hybrid bids” are awarded to regular season champions (conference tournament No. 1 seeds in the case of ties) not among the committee’s 32 at-large bid selections
  • “Hybrid bids” will play the lowest-ranked at-large bids in play-in games for a spot in the round of 64

Let’s use the 2019 season as an example of how it would work.

There were 11 teams not among the selection committee’s first 32 at-large selections that failed to win their conference tournaments as a No. 1 seed: Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun), Hofstra (Colonial), Harvard (Ivy), South Dakota State (Summit), Loyola Chicago (Missouri Valley), Wright State (Horizon), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Sam Houston State (Southland), Campbell (Big South), St. Francis PA (Northeast) and Norfolk State (MEAC). These teams are what we will refer to as “hybrid bids.” As a result, the field would expand to 75 teams for the 2019 tournament (32 autobids + 32 at-large selections + 11 “hybrid bids”).

These 11 teams recorded a combined 79.6 win percentage in their conference games, yet only one team, Belmont, would have received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament under the current format due to its seed list ranking.

Maybe some of these teams don’t deserve at-large status, and that’s fully understandable. After all, most power-conference bubble teams would likely blow through a league schedule of one of these “hybrid bid” teams. But if a team goes, say, 16-2 in their league and loses on a last-second basket in its league’s title game, is it fair to not even give this team another chance to prove itself?

Allowing regular season champions into the field, even for a play-in game, will grant these dominant mid- and low-major teams a chance to show whether they belong. Additionally, granting conference tournament champions an automatic spot in the field of 64 wouldn’t devalue league tournaments and also wouldn’t incentivize tanking in an attempt to receive multiple tournament bids.

Below you will find the potential 2019 play-in matchups with the lowest-ranked seed list teams taking on the “hybrid bids.” Matchups are ordered by the highest-ranked of the at-large teams taking on the lowest-ranked “hybrid bids” based on NET ranking. For example, Syracuse is the highest on the committee’s seed list so they will have the benefit of taking on the lowest-ranked team of the “hybrid bids” in Norfolk State.

  • No. 8 Syracuse vs. Norfolk State
  • No. 8 Ole Miss vs. St. Francis PA
  • No. 9 Washington vs. Campbell
  • No. 9 UCF vs. Sam Houston State
  • No. 9 Baylor vs. Wright State
  • No. 9 Oklahoma vs. Harvard
  • No. 10 Iowa vs. Loyola Chicago
  • No. 10 Seton Hall vs. South Dakota State
  • No. 10 Minnesota vs. Hofstra
  • No. 10 Florida vs. Lipscomb
  • No. 11 Ohio State vs. Belmont

This is what the new bracket will look like, including the play-in games with “hybrid bids.”

EAST SOUTH
1) Duke Columbia, SC Columbia, SC 1) Virginia
16) No. Dakota State 16) NC Central
8) VCU 8) Ole Miss vs.
St. Francis PA
9) UCF vs.
Sam Houston State
9) Oklahoma vs.
Harvard
5) Mississippi State San Jose, CA San Jose, CA 5) Wisconsin
12) UC Irvine 12) New Mexico St.
4) Virginia Tech 4) Kansas State
13) Yale 13) Old Dominion
6) Maryland Jacksonville, FL Hartford, CT 6) Villanova
11) Murray State 11) Saint Mary’s
3) LSU 3) Purdue
14) Georgia State 14) Colgate
7) Louisville Des Moines, IA Columbus, OH 7) Cincinnati
10) Minnesota vs. Hofstra 10) Iowa vs.
Loyola Chicago
2) Michigan State 2) Tennessee
15) Bradley 15) Iona
WEST MIDWEST
1) Gonzaga Salt Lake City, UT Columbus, OH 1) North Carolina
16) Prairie View 16) FDU
8) Syracuse vs.
Norfolk State
8) Utah State
9) Baylor vs.
Wright State
9) Washington vs.
Campbell
5) Marquette Hartford, CT Salt Lake City, UT 5) Auburn
12) Liberty 12) Vermont
4) Florida State 4) Kansas
13) Saint Louis 13) Northeastern
6) Buffalo Tulsa, OK Tulsa, OK 6 Iowa State
11) Oregon 11) Ohio State vs.
Belmont
3) Texas Tech 3) Houston
14) Northern Ky. 14) Montana
7) Nevada Des Moines, IA Jacksonville, FL 7) Wofford
10) Florida vs.
Lipscomb
10) Seton Hall vs.
South Dakota State
2) Michigan 2) Kentucky
15) Ab. Christian 15) Gardner Webb

Similar to how the committee currently schedules First Four games into the field, the winners of the play-in games will adopt the seed they were occupying and continue into the round of 64.

The Purpose

The 2020 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks deserve a chance to be in the NCAA Tournament, even if they don’t win three Southland tournament games next month. SFA has proven it can beat an elite team in Duke and also has strong advanced metrics to back its gaudy record. Several teams (hello, 2019 South Dakota State and Mike Daum) have fit this mold in the past and weren’t given a shot in March.

This method allows an opportunity for these dominant mid- and low-major teams to prove that they belong in the tournament field. Under this format, maybe SFA gets blasted by a No. 8 seed in a play-in game, and that’s fine. Maybe, though, Stephen F. Austin competes with one of these power-conference teams and proves again why it can compete on college basketball’s highest level.

After all, isn’t that what the NCAA Tournament is all about?


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.