Miles Ahead: The NCAA Tournament Selection Process

Quality over quantity. This popular statement can apply to many aspects of life. For me, it’s prominent with my golf game. All I need is one sub-100 round per year and I’ll call it good. The NCAA Selection Committee is a big fan of this mindset

Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Texas were among the last teams to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. Last week I talked about each of these teams subbing USC for Syracuse, and touched on some of their impressive wins this season in what is 100% the reason they made the field. I’m leaving out USC this week because they at least made the Pac-12 tournament championship and picked up a few more wins. Before this weekend, I wasn’t convinced they deserved a spot ahead of a similar team like Nebraska. I even called out Joe Lunardi for it. I wonder how they feel knowing a team that was bounced from the first round of their conference tournament with less wins made it ahead of them. Such a shame they have to sulk about it in a place with weather as barely tolerable as LA this time of year. I really feel for them.

With Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Texas making the Tournament, the Committee made their criteria clear: as long as you can beat a pretty good team sometime throughout the year, you’ll be dancing in March. Just make sure you’re from a power-five conference. These four teams made it ahead of the likes of Middle Tennessee and St. Mary’s, both of who had more wins overall and in their respective conference than each aforementioned team.

But as Rick Pitino knows, it’s not how you start it’s how you finish, right? On the contrary! 15 seconds in to the revealing of the field is all it took me to realize it didn’t matter how you finished the year, only that you beat a top team on a random night during the season, regardless of timing. Arizona State lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, but beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in December. Oklahoma went 3-9 their last 12 games, but beat Texas Tech and Kansas in January. Syracuse finished 5-7 their last 12 games, but three of those wins came against Louisville and Miami on the road in February, along with Clemson at home in the last regular season game. Texas lost to Texas Tech in the quarterfinals of the Big-12 tournament, and also finished 5-7 their last 12 games, but beat Texas Tech and West Virginia during the season, in addition to Oklahoma twice. None of these teams finished in the top half of their respective conference, and all went 8-10 in conference play. In laymen’s terms, you can be average a majority of the season and still make the NCAA Tournament if you have the pedigree and a big win somewhere along the line.

This year in particular I’ve noticed that pedigree is more prominent than I ever thought in college sports. The most notable case is with the undefeated University of Central Florida (UCF) football team not making the College Football Playoff. If you’re the NCAA, who would you rather have? A historic Alabama program in the midst of a dynasty that has greatly benefited from the current system and had a hiccup the last game of the season? Or a hot up and coming UCF program that can barely fill the stands unless they’re having a historic season? Alabama was even given an advantage by not having to play in their conference championship game. Don’t worry though, this was accounted for by making them the bottom seed. A Cinderella story for the ages.

Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Texas all have a fairly rich basketball history. Each has produced an NBA star in recent years: Arizona State with James Harden, Oklahoma with Blake Griffin, Syracuse with Carmelo Anthony, and Texas with Kevin Durant. Oklahoma made the Final Four two years ago, Syracuse won the National Championship in 2003. So when it comes to this year, who would you rather have play in your tournament if you’re the NCAA? A mediocre team that’s one of the most recognized brands in college sports with one of the most exciting players in the nation? Or a 28-win team from a small west-coast school full of Australian players?

Unfortunately this reasoning applies when talking about Nebraska. Nebraska has one of the weakest basketball track records of any major program in the country. The Huskers remain the sole team from a power-five conference without an NCAA Tournament victory after Northwestern beat Vanderbilt in the first round last year. While this year was extraordinary by Nebraska standards, it was barely a blip on the radar for the Selection Committee. 22 wins, including 13 in the Big Ten, apparently isn’t enough. However, finishing 8-10 in conference play and in the bottom half of your league, like Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Texas did, is enough if you have a name with historic success on the front of your jersey. Hypothetically, imagine if Nebraska had Oklahoma’s résumé. Imagine the uproar if a 13-loss Nebraska team that finished below .500 in conference play made the field ahead of a 22-win Oklahoma team. Sooner fans would be outraged. I would stick to basketball.

Oh it gets worse. In reality I knew Nebraska had a very slim chance to make the field of 68 after their loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. But I thought we would at least be able to see a few more games at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the NIT. Not only did Nebraska not make the NCAA Tournament, they were given a 5-seed in the NIT after being projected as a 2-seed just hours before the bracket reveal. That means the NIT selection committee has at least 16 teams ahead of Nebraska, including LSU (17-14, 8-10) and Stanford (18-15, 11-7), leaving Nebraska in the BOTTOM HALF of NIT teams. Meanwhile, Oklahoma made the NCAA Tournament comfortably as a 10-seed, signifying they were in no real trouble to make the field.

Now I know Nebraska doesn’t have any other marquee wins besides Michigan. They were a last-second 3-pointer away from beating Kansas. They were a strong second half away from beating Creighton in Omaha. The condensed Big Ten schedule didn’t do them any favors either. The Huskers only played Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State once each and on the road. Had they also played one of those teams in Lincoln, where they are 16-1 this season, things might’ve turned out differently and that résumé might have the piece Nebraska is missing. The Huskers controlled their own destiny in making the Tournament, and sadly fell short. But, what numbers don’t tell you is what a team’s potential is. When Nebraska is clicking they can compete with anyone in the country. I would take Nebraska against Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Texas any day of the week. They have the talent, depth, and athleticism to compete with any of them.

Judging from the bubble teams that made the field and the teams that didn’t, the selection process comes down to three things: Did you beat a blue-blood like Kansas or a team that’s having a surprisingly good year? Does your program have a respectable program history? Do you play in a power-five conference? If the answer to these questions is yes, feel free to be slightly above average and go under .500 in your conference because you’ll probably find yourself dancing.


Up Next (22-10, 13-5):

Wednesday, March 14th: @ Mississippi State. Tipoff at 8pm. Watch on ESPN2.

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