Conference USA Continuously Defies NCAA Tournament Disrespect

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Fourth-place regular-season Conference USA finisher Marshall bounced Wichita State, a team ranked in the Top 15 much of the 2017-18 college basketball season, from the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.

This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, really. Marshall extends Conference USA’s record in First Round games over the past four seasons to a perfect 4-0, joining UAB, which beat Iowa State in 2015; and Middle Tennessee State, which knocked off popular national championship pick Michigan State in 2016, and Sparty’s Big Ten mates Minnesota the following season.

MTSU’s run is relevant to this 2018 Tournament, despite its exclusion. See, the Blue Raiders won the C-USA regular-season championship at 16-2 — four games ahead of Marshall. They emerged from a dog fight with Old Dominion and Western Kentucky the outright champs, apparently poised for another march in March. Boasting one of the nation’s best defenses and a veteran lineup featuring seniors Giddy Potts, Nick King and Brandon Waters, this Blue Raider team had the pieces to make the Sweet 16.

Yet, despite a KenPom rating of No. 41 — higher than at-large selections Kansas State (43), Rhode Island (44), NC State (46), Alabama (48), Oklahoma (49), Arizona State (51), Syracuse (52), UCLA (57), Providence (65) and St. Bonaventure (68) — MTSU’s tournament run comes in the NIT.

And while the selection committee seems to still emphasize RPI over KenPom and other advanced metrics, there’s even less argument for MTSU’s exclusion. The Blue Raiders finished with an RPI of 33.

Incredibly, MTSU was apparently not even close to the at-large conversation, as suggested with its No. 3 seed in the NIT. MTSU’s Conference USA counterpart Western Kentucky, which fell a bucket shy of beating Marshall to advance to the NCAA Tournament, was never discussed even in the general media banter about at-large possibilities. Yet, the Hilltoppers had a KenPom stronger than a handful of at-large invitees, and an RPI in the Top 40.

Oh, and Old Dominion, which finished the season with an overall record identical to MTSU, one game ahead of Western Kentucky in the Conference USA standings and two ahead of Marshall? The Monarchs didn’t receive an NIT bid, say nothing of the NCAA Tournament discussion.

“I don’t know if our conference gets the right amount either of exposure or respect, but it’s pretty tough conference, especially the top six, seven, eight teams,” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni opined at his media session Thursday, prior to the Thundering Herd’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win.

D’Antoni may not know if C-USA gets the right amount of respect, but I can confidently write that it absolutely does not.

There’s a certain irony to glean from Marshall beating Wichita State to advance. The Shockers left the Missouri Valley Conference last offseason for the American Athletic, a league with historically strong programs (Cincinnati and UConn), and a resurgent, former powerhouse in Houston. Certainly the move paid dividends: The Shockers earned a No. 4 seed as the nation’s No. 20 team in KenPom, while last year, they were seeded as a No. 10 despite an eighth-place ranking in KenPom metrics.

If ever there was a damning bit of anecdotal evidence against the selection committee’s apparent mid-major biases, there you have it.

The American finishes its First Round 2-1, with Wichita State as the lone loss. Meanwhile, the Shockers’ former Missouri Valley counterparts at Loyola Chicago completed a comeback and provided the Tournament’s first buzzer-beater on Saturday to advance past Miami.

The Ramblers’ win marked an incredible 10 straight First Round wins for the Missouri Valley. While Wichita State contributed to that streak a season ago, one of the most noteworthy mid-major snubs of 2017 had some thoughts that, frankly, more of us should echo:

Teams like Marshall and Loyola Chicago, MTSU and the Wichita State squads of years past, give the Tournament its magic. March needs more of them, not less.