Small schools likely out on at-large bids

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While there are still 52 days until Selection Sunday, it is, of course, never too early speculate about which teams might make the NCAA Tournament field. 

More specifically, do any small-conference schools have a shot at an at-large bid? 

Recent history says: not likely. 

The selection committee hasn’t taken kindly to many mid-major resumes over the past few years. Since 2015, 142 of 144 at-large bids have gone to schools from the Power 6 conferences and three other almost-power conferences – the American Athletic Conference, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. 

The two exceptions, BYU in 2015 and Saint Mary’s in 2017, both came from the West Coast Conference, which is ranked eighth this season by KenPom.com, ahead of the Atlantic 10 (10th) and Mountain West (11th). 

Last season, Saint Mary’s was left out despite compiling a 28-5 record during the regular season. At No. 32, the Gaels were the highest-rated team in KenPom’s rankings left out of the tournament. There were 13 teams – including UCLA (No. 56), Alabama (57) and St. Bonaventure (68) – rated lower that received bids to the Big Dance. 

The 2017 Gaels team was 27-4 in the regular season and finished the year No. 15 in Pomeroy’s rankings. Three of their losses came against Gonzaga, which played in the national title game that year. 

All of the above decisions were influenced by the much-maligned RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), which has been scuttled by the NCAA in favor of the more-advanced NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool). The new system factors strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency and the quality of wins and losses. 

Will any of that help this season’s small-conference bubble teams? Maybe. 

While Gonzaga – the Zags haven’t really been considered “mid-major” in more than a decade – and Buffalo are both currently in the NET Top 10, other potential bracket-busters will be sweating it out if they’re forced to depend on goodwill from the selection committee on March 17. 

The NET and KenPom largely agree on who the best mid-major bubble teams are, and Wofford (No. 29 in the NET and No. 39 at KenPom), San Francisco (38th, 44th) and Murray State (45th in both) appear to be the top three contenders. (Pomeroy’s numbers put Saint Mary’s atop this list, but the Gaels had an uncharacteristic – and likely disqualifying – six losses in the non-conference.) 

Wofford’s four losses came against North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. The Terriers routed South Carolina in November but lack a true signature win. A 7-0 start in the hyper-competitive Southern Conference, one of the nation’s most-underrated leagues, helps their cause. 

Two of San Francisco’s three losses came against Buffalo and Gonzaga. The Dons played the Zags close before Gonzaga pulled away late to win by 13. The two teams have a rematch on Feb. 7 in Spokane, Wash. The Dons, who have a win over Saint Mary’s, would plant themselves firmly in the discussion By beating the Bulldogs at The Kennel. 

If the committee is smart, it will take a long look at Murray State. The Racers, 15-2 heading into an Ohio Valley Conference showdown with Belmont, are led by All-America candidate Ja Morant. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is No. 9 in KenPom’s player of the year rankings and has already been discussed as a potential NBA lottery pick. 

Seeing what Morant – or USF’s Frankie Ferrari or Wofford’s Fletcher Magee – could do in the NCAA Tournament seems a lot more interesting than watching the ninth-best team in the ACC or Big Ten.  

After a big 4-0 week with our selections, we’ll try and keep it rolling this week.

Wednesday

Purdue at Ohio State: The Buckeyes started the season 12-1, but 2019 has not been kind to them. They’ve lost four in a row, including two at home. Meanwhile the Boilermakers, who looked wobbly a month ago, have won six of seven. PURDUE

Thursday

Washington at Oregon: Don’t look now, but the Pac-12 might actually have a good team. Really. The Huskies have quietly put together a seven-game win streak that includes five wins and a push ATS. Oregon, which will likely be a small favorite at home, is 3-4 since Dec. 21. WASHINGTON

The Citadel at UNC Greensboro: The Citadel was 9-2 against a pillow-soft non-conference schedule (plus an early conference game against Mercer). Since then, the Bulldogs have lost seven straight. The Spartans are 6-1 in the SoCon. UNC GREENSBORO

Saturday

Colorado at Stanford: It’s hard to believe the Buffaloes were once 8-1. Since then they have wins against only Charlotte and Washington State and are 0-4 on the road. STANFORD

Last week: 4-0

Season: 16-15-1

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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