Which First Four Out Teams Deserved to Make the Tournament?

It's never a consolation to hear that your team should have made it. But it can't hurt, right?

Each year, the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament are left wondering, "What if?" If just one more game had swung their way, they may have been in the big dance as opposed to headlining the NIT.

This year, we've got some big-time names in this category, and they're teams that know what success in the real tourney feels like.

Each of these four teams easily could have wound up being in the field of 68. But which would have deserved it most? Let's answer that using numberFire's nERD metric. This shows the predicted margin of victory between each team and an average one on a neutral court, giving us a measure of which team had the best case for inclusion.

Let's rank those first four out based on nERD. Although it won't help ease the pain, it should help them rest easier at night knowing they assembled a solid squad.

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1. Syracuse Orange

Power Ranking: 47th | nERD: 10.19

Just one year after making a Cinderella run to the Final Four, the Syracuse Orange are on the outside looking in. But in reality, this team isn't much worse than the one that almost won it all a year ago.

Syracuse finished the year with a 10.19 nERD rating, the 47th-best mark in the nation. Last year, their nERD was 11.84, ranking 31st entering the tournament. This year's squad showed flashes of that same potential, but some bad road losses derailed a shot at duplicating the magic.

Of Syracuse's 14 losses, five came to teams outside of the top 60 in nERD, three of which were on the road. Even big victories over the Duke Blue Devils, Virginia Cavaliers, and Florida State Seminoles -- all of which are ranked 16th or higher in nERD -- couldn't erase those demons. It's clear why Syracuse was left out, but it doesn't drown out the questions of what caused those frustrating and damning losses.

2. Illinois State Redbirds

Power Ranking: 52nd | nERD: 9.47

The Illinois State Redbirds may not have the name pizzazz of Syracuse, but they certainly had the metrics. They nearly rode one of the best defenses in the nation to an at-large bid.

The Red Birds checked in with the nation's ninth-best defense at season's end, putting them among some solid company. Of the eight teams ahead of them in this metric, three were a 5 seed or better, and five were at least a 7 seed. The offense, though, lagged behind, ranking 181st.

Playing in the Missouri Valley Conference also made things a bit tough on Illinois State because it meant a date with the Wichita State Shockers. Even though the Shockers finished as a 10 seed, they were 10th overall in nERD at 17.27. Wichita State's decisive victory in the conference championship likely put a big dent in Illinois State's resume, but in actuality, that is a difficult opponent to use as a measuring stick.

3. California Golden Bears

Power Ranking: 57th | nERD: 9.11

The California Golden Bears needed a big run in the Pac 12 tournament to boost their chances to dance, and they almost got there. But, after a loss to the top-seeded Oregon Ducks in the semifinal, they wound up here instead.

What put Cal in that position to begin with was a wicked six-game stretch in which they lost five games, some in blowout fashion. They fell to both the Colorado Buffaloes and Stanford Cardinal -- 73rd and 98th in nERD, respectively -- in this span, and the 49th-ranked Utah Utes took a blowtorch to them with a 30-point victory. That was likely a major drag on Cal's tournament resume, and it dropped anchor on their nERD, as well.

This isn't to say Cal had no argument for inclusion, though. Their conference-rival Southern California Trojans were one spot below them in nERD, and they wound up as one of the 11 seeds in the East. USC had three additional wins, but with an identical conference record, you have to wonder if Cal would have been the superior team from the golden state.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

Power Ranking: 70th | nERD: 7.48

The Iowa Hawkeyes came on hard at the end of the year with four consecutive wins to close out the regular season. Two of those were wins over tournament teams in the Maryland Terrapins and Wisconsin Badgers. It just wasn't enough to overcome their struggles early in the year.

Iowa started the year with a 3-5 record, setting the expectations low for conference play. As it turned out, three of those losses were to eventual tourney teams, but there were also some duds mixed in.

Non-Conference Losses nERD Ranking
Seton Hall 51st
Virginia 9th
Memphis 91st
Notre Dame 25th
Omaha 178th

The Hawkeyes were playing solid basketball by the end of the year, and their 10-8 Big 10 record reflected that. But having a loss to the Nebraska Omaha Mavericks is a major red flag, and it catapulted them to the bottom of these rankings and out of the field of 68.