The 5 Worst At-Large Teams in This Year's Big Dance
For smaller conferences and schools, winning a conference tournament to get an automatic bid into the Big Dance is a big deal. We’ll rarely see multiple SWAC or Big South universities dancing in March and April, and it’s because those smaller schools rarely have an opportunity to notch an at-large bid from the committee on Selection Sunday - playing a tough schedule is no easy task for a mid-major.
However, if a team is in a better conference, getting an at-large bid only shows that the entirety of the team’s resume was impressive, good enough for the committee to say, “We need you in the NCAA Tournament.”
But not all at-large bids are good. Not all of them can go in and compete like you’d expect from a more-than-likely major conference team. And the squads below are ones that, despite getting an at-large bid and not winning their conference tournaments, aren’t strong from a metrics standpoint. In other words: bracket filler outers beware – these teams could be one and done if they don’t step up their game.
nERD Rank: 44
One of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament was the Xavier Musketeers, and by no surprise, they find themselves on the list as one of the worst at-large bids in this year’s Big Dance.
Xavier finished fourth this season in the Big East, and were bumped from the Big East conference tournament by NCAA Tournament three seed, Creighton. Over the course of the season, Xavier lost twice to highly ranked Villanova, but did beat Tennessee and Cincinnati during their out-of-conference start to the season. At the start of March, they had an impressive six-point win over Creighton, too.
The Musketeers ended up playing the 26th-toughest schedule, which is more than likely a big reason they got in. They have three double-digit scorers that can do work on the offensive side of the ball, with the best being Semaj Christon, who average 17.1 points, 4.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
Xavier will play their “First Four” game against NC State in Dayton, a location that certainly favors the Cincinnati-based Musketeers. Fortunately for them, too, is that five-seeded Saint Louis, who they’d face with a win, isn’t a very strong team. In other words, despite being a poor at-large bid, Xavier can still make it to at least Round 2.
nERD Rank: 46
I wrote about UMass being an over-seeded team yesterday, and much of that is due to their 46th-ranked nERD score. How they got a six seed after losing three of their final five games, including one to George Washington in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament, is beyond me.
To be fair, UMass started the season 16-1, with wins over New Mexico, Nebraska and BYU. Their only first-half loss was to Florida State, who, according to the committee, was one of the first four teams left out of the tournament.
But going 10-6 in the Atlantic 10 while losing to 11-20 George Mason and 18-15 St. Bonaventure? A 38th-ranked strength of schedule helps, I suppose, but let’s not act as though their six seed was warranted as an at-large team.
Unlike Xavier, this is a case of the committee over-estimating what a team is capable of doing. At least Xavier was seeded correctly.
nERD Rank: 52
Like the Minutemen, I wrote about how the Buffaloes were an over-seeded team in this year’s tournament yesterday as well. Going 10-8 in the Pac-12, Colorado has suffered since losing their leading scorer, Spencer Dinwiddie, to a torn ACL. In fact, as I noted yesterday, the Buffaloes have barely won more games than they’ve lost since his fall, going 9-8.
As a result, they rank 52nd in terms of nERD, which is the equivalent of a last four in-type score. Thanks to a top 20 schedule though, Colorado sits with a first-round matchup against number nine Pittsburgh, a major conference team that is actually under-seeded according to our metrics (Pitt is top 20 in nERD).
nERD Rank: 58
Nebraska finished fourth in the Big 10 this season, one spot ahead of tournament team Ohio State, and two spots ahead of one of the final teams in the Big Dance, Iowa. Unlike the teams mentioned above, Nebraska started the season off a little slow, and actually went 0-4 to start conference play at the end of December and into January. But since January 26th, Nebraska has gone 10-4, beating Michigan State and Wisconsin.
But when you look at the whole body of work, the analytics aren’t in love. In terms of offense, Nebraska ranks 75th in the country, and has just two double-digit scorers. Things are a little better defensively for them, ranking 44th, but it’s still not all that impressive.
The Cornhuskers finished the season with a top-30 strength of schedule, which naturally came about given the conference they played in. Their biggest non-conference contests were against Creighton and Cincinnati, where they lost both games by a combined 30 points (lost each game by 15).
North Carolina State Wolfpack
nERD Rank: 71
Perhaps the biggest surprise this year came from the team in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the North Carolina State Wolfpack punched a ticket to the Big Dance after a huge win over Syracuse in the ACC tournament.
Led by college hoops star TJ Warren, NC State started ACC play with 10 wins, only beating one notable team in Tennessee. And at the beginning of conference play, State went 1-4, losing to Pitt, Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke.
Things started looking up at the start of the second half of the season, but a devastating loss to Syrcause in February gave Wolfpack fans no hope that they’d be dancing in March. And no game was worse than their contest against Miami on March 1st, where NC State kept turning the ball over en route to a 15-point loss.
But that’s why they play the game. The
Warrens Wolfpack had two big wins against Pitt and Boston College to close the season, then got revenge on Miami and Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. Most thought all potential was gone when they dropped by eight points to Duke, but the committee gave the Wolfpack a shot in a first-round game against Xavier.
The roller coaster season from NC State still resulted in pretty bad play. Despite having one of the best players in the country, the Wolfpack lost 13 times, and ended the year with a Defensive Rating of 98.78, good for 107th in the country. Their nERD score aligns with this as well, as NC State has the worst advanced analytics ranking of any at-large team in the tournament.
Defense wins championships, and one guy can only do so much.