An abundance of quality mid-major teams coupled with a notably weak crop of power-conference programs would seemingly open at-large opportunities in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The cynic in me says based on past results, don’t hold your breath. Last year’s field excluded a Saint Mary’s team that finished with 30 wins and a No. 32 KenPom rating; Western Kentucky, which ranked No. 47 in KenPom; and MTSU, a program that won Tournament games in each of the previous two years along with some impressive non-conference games in 2017-18.
But hey, at least the Selection Committee made room for Arizona State and Oklahoma.
Championship Week chaos is nearly upon us, and with it will come the inevitable bursting of a worthy mid-major team’s bubble. Who’s most likely to get the shaft on Selection Sunday 2019? Let’s dive in!
Conference: Ohio Valley
Future Hall-of-Famer Rick Byrd hit the remarkable milestone of 800 career wins last week, but not doing so a week earlier may have doomed Belmont’s at-large prospects. The Bruins swept fellow mid-major bubble occupant Lipscomb in an out-of-conference series, and scored an Ohio Valley win over Murray State. A pair of losses to No. 120 Jacksonville State, and worse, falling to No. 208 Green Bay early in the campaign is the kind of albatross that can vex an at-large hopeful.
Another matchup with Murray State, and thus another opportunity to add a signature win to its resume, is only likely in the OVC Championship with the automatic bid on the line.
Reigning Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo did the NCAA a solid last year when it blasted one of the program’s knee-deep in ongoing FBI investigations, Arizona. The Bulls carried the momentum from last March into a strong start to this campaign, and have been ranked in the Top 25 for most of 2018-19. Ironically, the win that laid the foundation over West Virginia on opening night really isn’t impressive at all, now. It certainly pales in comparison to wins over San Francisco and a sweep of Toledo, but the Syracuse head-to-head compensates with that all-important power-conference head-to-head.
Although AP rankings have no bearing on at-large chances — just ask 2015 snub Murray State, ranked in the final poll before its exclusion — the Bulls are virtual shoo-ins for the field at this juncture. Snubbing a Top 20 team in the first year of the NET would pretty well invalidate the NCAA’s new rating system right out of the gate.
Furman was the talk of the mid-major basketball world through the first month of the regular season, scoring wins over two of last year’s four Final Four participants. The Loyola victory on opening night lost much of its luster as the season’s progressed, but the Villanova win is a nice mantelpiece alongside two other Top 100 victories.
Going 0-for against Wofford hurts, robbing the Paladins of another signature victory, but they did avenge losses to SoCon foes East Tennessee State and UNC-Greensboro. The SoCon deserves to land multiple bids this year, given the weak resumes of the Pac-12, Big East and American. Furman’s the most likely option, based on its favorable NET ranking and high-profile defeat of the defending national champions.
Conference: Atlantic Sun
The Atlantic Sun has historically been an automatic 15 or 16-seed conference, so the emergence of its top two teams as KenPom Top 70 (Top 50 in Lipscomb’s case) is quite a development. The other, Liberty, isn’t included here because it barely squeaks in under 70. Thankfully, its chances of an at-large are unrealistic with only one more opportunity for a signature win coming in a likely A-Sun Championship matchup with Lipscomb.
Lipscomb boasts Top 100 wins over TCU, Vermont and Liberty, and while the Committee only applies this when convenient, the Bison’s losses came down to the wire against quality opponents. Still, they could have really used one of those four-point-or-less losses to Belmont and Louisville to flip to a W. The sweep against Belmont in particular is a killer, though doesn’t loom quite as large as dropping a decision to Florida Gulf Coast last weekend. That may have burst Lipscomb’s at-large bubble for good.
Conference: Ohio Valley
It may be in its infancy, but the Belmont-Murray State rivalry has fast become one of the most exciting in mid-major basketball. However, the programs have not met in an OVC Championship since Belmont denied a Top 25-ranked Murray State an NCAA Tournament bid four years ago. Fingers crossed we get a redux in 2019 to kick off Championship Week.
Murray State’s an interesting case-study. Belmont has a stronger resume in terms of quality wins, with the Racers’ “signature” games resulting only in close losses (Alabama by six points, Auburn by five). In fact, the Racers’ resume is bereft of Top 100 KenPom victories. But Murray State doesn’t have an albatross L, which weighs down Belmont’s bubble considerably.
Plus, the emergence of Ja Morant as a Top 5 NBA Draft prospect gives Murray State star power; after Trae Young and Oklahoma received a dubious at-large berth a season ago, I don’t discount the value a single star has on a team’s at-large aspirations.
Conference: West Coast
This one is exceedingly weird to me. Saint Mary’s was left out of the field a year ago with just four losses, but the Gaels’ strength of schedule was lacking. This year, Saint Mary’s scheduled up significantly, resulting in 10 losses (with another Gonzaga matchup still on the horizon), but the Gaels ride a much more comfortable bubble into the home stretch.
Some of that can be attributed to the weak overall bubble landscape. One can also credit the value of strength-of-schedule, with Saint Mary’s benefiting from losses to Utah State, Mississippi State, LSU, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s, all of which are KenPom Top 100. But the Gaels also have losses to teams below the 100 threshold: Harvard, UC Irvine, Western Kentucky and most notably, Pepperdine.
The Gaels racked up Top 100 wins against Utah Valley, New Mexico State, BYU (but also dropped a decision to the Cougars) and San Francisco (ditto). It’s an exceedingly weird resume to evaluate. If the message the Selection Committee plans to send is for mid-majors to schedule up, expect Saint Mary’s to be rewarded.
Conference: West Coast
With the exception of Saint Mary’s snub last year, the WCC has pretty consistently been a multiple-bid conference. Credit Gonzaga as the former low-major’s rising tide. Until a few days ago, I would have contended San Francisco was the obvious choice to secure that bid. However, a loss to Santa Clara on Saturday marked the Dons’ third against a 100+ KenPom opponent, and this instance, one pushing 200 at No. 188.
San Francisco needs to close out the regular season with wins over San Diego and Loyola Marymount, and cheer hard for Gonzaga to beat Saint Mary’s in the finale. That would force a three-way tie for second-place (assuming the Gaels and BYU do not lose elsewhere). San Francisco completed a sweep of BYU in the regular, guarantee the Dons the three seed. That means avoiding Gonzaga until a hypothetical final, but drawing a rubber match with Saint Mary’s. A win there would solidify USF’s at-large resume.
Conference: Mountain West
Aside from Buffalo, Utah State strikes me as the only mid-major bubble team guaranteed an at-large berth, barring a catastrophic conclusion to the season. In fact, Utah State has the opportunity to make the strongest closing argument when it hosts Tournament shoo-in Nevada on Saturday.
The Aggies head into their final two regular-season games with three KenPom Top 100 victories, including one of over fellow at-large hopeful Saint Mary’s. They avenged one of their five losses to Top 100 opponents earlier this month in an 82-81 thriller against Fresno State (not included in this list, coming in at No. 67 per KenPom), and also made up for their lone 100+ loss last night with a comfortable defeat of San Diego State.
A win over Nevada pretty much renders whatever happens in Vegas stays out of the Selection Committee’s meeting room. Otherwise, a run to the MW Championship Game assures Utah State’s place in the Field of 68.
I’ll be very interested to see how the Selection Committee handles Wofford. The Terriers haven’t lost since before Christmas when they fell at Mississippi State, the fourth of four losses to KenPom Top 40 opponents. North Carolina and Kansas are two of the other three, but the fourth is Oklahoma: a power-conference team with a mostly meh resume, but a head-to-head victory.
Wofford’s had the opportunity to compensate for those Top 40 losses with a perfect record in the top-heavy SoCon. The Terriers completed the sweep of Furman last weekend, one week after finishing up UNC-Greensboro, and two weeks removed from a sweep of ETSU.
Wofford would seemingly be a safe in, barring losses to Chattanooga and Samford to close out the regular season. Maintaining an NET ranking better than 30 would seem imperative, however, assuming the Committee employs the new metric similar to its use of RPI. Mid-majors in the 30s were no shoo-in during the RPI days.