SportsPulse: Selection Sunday is just days away. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson tells you the teams that still have work to do this championship weekend.
Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley does his best to stay away from all the NCAA tournament chatter. But the former Duke All-America guard found himself rooting against another bubble team, Temple, in a game vs. his brother Dan Hurley’s Connecticut team last week.
Temple won that game and is one of 16 bubble teams fighting for 10 available at-large bids to the NCAAs alongside Arizona State in this week’s conference tournaments.
“The unknown of which teams get in is great for college basketball, it’s just not great for my team’s anxiety,” Hurley said.
Last year, despite losing five of their last six and finishing 8-10 the Pac-12, the Sun Devils were the last team to squeeze into the field of 68. This year, Arizona State (21-9) has fared much better in conference play (12-6) to finish as the second-best team behind Washington. But a drastically weaker Pac-12 has has Hurley’s team feeling uneasy.
What’s aiding Arizona State’s hopes is the bubble being much softer this year — perhaps, softer than any since the tournament expanded in 1985 according to bracketologist Shelby Mast.
“The best way to describe a softer bubble is that instead of the committee having a lot of good teams to choose from, this year the committee’s problem will be not having enough of them with tournament-worthy profiles compared to years’ past,” said Mast, USA TODAY Sports’ bracketologist for the past six years. “Of the 16 bubble teams this year, only five or six would be dancing with last year’s bracket field whereas this year 10 of them can get in. And last year at least 20 teams were fighting for the last 10 spots.”
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Since 1985, just two teams have been at-large selections with 15 losses. That number could be eclipsed this year with Texas, Alabama, Florida and Indiana among the group of at-large candidates with at least 14 losses entering their conference tournaments.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said a number of factors contribute to this year’s weaker bubble, starting with down years for several power conferences. For example, the Big 12 is highly unlikely to notch a No. 1 or No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday for the first time since 1999. Texas beat projected No. 4 seeds Kansas and Kansas State during a gauntlet Big 12 schedule but is still on the outside looking in because those wins won’t bolster mediocre credentials as much as previous years.
“Major conferences just aren’t as good this year, and there’s a lot of softness with middle-of-the-pack teams in those leagues,” Bilas said. “Some of the conferences have great teams, but some don’t. The Big 12 is nowhere near the level of strength of years’ past. Some conferences have gotten some pretty good resistance from teams near the bottom, but that just creates the illusion of balance.”
One factor that’s partially masquerading a softer bubble outlook this year is the NCAA’s new metric, the NET, which replaces the RPI this year on selection committee members’ team sheets determining top-30 home and top-75 road wins. The new ranking values more in-game statistics to determine a team’s strength outside of just wins and losses that are home or away.
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The differences are stark. North Carolina State has a NET score of 32 despite an RPI of 98 and the country’s 352nd worst non-conference strength of schedule out of 353 teams. Florida, another bubble team, has a NET score of 33 compared to a 70 RPI. Indiana has a NET score of 51 vs. an 83 RPI.
“Some of these teams wouldn’t be anywhere in shouting distance with the RPI,” Bilas noted.
But it doesn’t help every bubble team.
“The variance from (the RPI) to the NET doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Hurley said of ASU’s 67 NET score being far worse than its RPI of 39. “We’ve scheduled as hard as any team in the country, so getting graded for a (down) year in the (Pac-12) is really out of our control. We knew we had a smaller margin for error than some other leagues.”
“Every year, these teams have notable warts on their profiles,” NCAA director of media coordination and statistics David Worlock said. “The committee will seed the at-large teams from the bottom up, and it won’t be based on conference records; it’ll be based on several considerations that include quality wins and really bad losses.”
Mid-major Belmont could be the beneficiary of the new metric and a softer bubble, depending on how other borderline teams fare in conference tournaments this week. The Bruins (26-5, 16-2) lost to Murray State in the championship game of the Ohio Valley tournament, but still have a worthy résumé thanks to a respectable NET score of 45 to go with a top-75 non-conference strength of schedule.
“I was never a fan of the RPI and I do think it’s important to look at the numbers of whether a team can really play or not,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “But it can get tricky because as a coach I don’t want to say, ‘oh we’re supposed to beat this team by 18 tonight. We better beat them by at least that much so we can move up in the (NET) ratings.'”
While Belmont’s NET score mirrors its RPI of 42, the NET ranking actually hurts the profiles of other mid-majors. UNC-Greensboro has an RPI of 30 — which would be tied for the second lowest RPI of a team to get snubbed from the tournament since 1985. But the Spartans NET rating of 58 pushes them closer to outside the bubble.
“I’d imagine the hardest call for the selection committee to make is comparing a 26-5 team at our level vs. a 17-13 team that’s in the middle of a power-five conference,” Byrd said.
Worlock said that if more mid-majors get in than past tournaments it’s because smaller conferences had banner years. The Southern Conference’s Wofford is currently projected to receive a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday while UNC-Greensboro and Furman both have tourney-worthy at-large résumés.
“I can’t remember a March Madness where we didn’t have a conversation about the bubble being soft,” Worlock said. “The softer bubble narrative could (overshadow) how good these smaller teams actually are.”
Bilas said he’s noticed mid-majors falling under a bigger microscope because of a softer bubble, but cautions the story line of small mid-majors with great conference records vs. middling power conference teams with below .500 records.
“The committee’s job should be selecting the 68 best teams — not the 68 most exciting,” Bilas said. “For some reason, the tournament seems to be less and less about the best teams and more of the populous view — who fans want to see. This is for the national championship, not the feel-good tournament.
“A smaller school like Murray State wouldn’t win as much in the SEC. Alabama beat Murray State in non-conference so saying those teams are better isn’t exactly valid.”
Byrd feels it’s those types of hypothetical scenarios that make the committee’s job so challenging.
“Could Alabama have won the Ohio Valley? I’m not so sure,” Byrd said. “They would’ve had a better conference record than in the SEC, sure, but there’s a reason a lot of these (power five) teams don’t schedule road games at mid-majors. It’s because they could very well lose. To go 16-2 in our conference has to be worth something this year.
“The committee members are charged with selecting the best teams, and that’s not an easy job. I’m not gonna climb up on my soap box and campaign for us to get in. I trust the committee will do its job.”