Can Any Mid-Major Survive a Conference Tournament Loss?
The first conference tournaments are underway, which means March Madness -- in its entirety -- has officially begun.
While the conference tournaments provide thrilling entertainment to fans, they are the most stressful time of year for mid-major teams looking to validate their entire seasons in just a handful of days.
This year, Wichita State, Saint Mary's, Monmouth, and Valparaiso headline the group of mid-majors who could serve as Cinderellas and potential NCAA bracket busters. But each has to get into the Big Dance first. While they all have strong records, a win in their conference tournaments is the only thing keeping them from falling into the murky, inconclusive bubble team debate.
To analyze whether or not any of the mid-majors can survive a loss in their conference tournaments and still secure an at-large bid, their resumes will be compared to four teams who could be in line to earn the last few at-large spots on Selection Sunday:
Michigan is 20-10 with three top-25 wins (Maryland and Purdue at home, Texas on a neutral court), but no other top-100 wins outside of those. They have just two losses outside the top 50 of RPI, and none outside the top 100.
St. Bonaventure is 21-7 with six top-100 wins, highlighted by a win at Dayton and a season sweep of Saint Joseph's. St. Bonaventure has a strength of schedule ranked 129th, power ranks that place them outside the top-70 in our rankings, KenPom's, and ESPN's, and two losses outside the top 150 of RPI.
Temple is 18-10 with seven top-100 wins and two losses outside of the top 150 in RPI. Temple ranks 102nd in our power rankings and not much more favorably in KenPom's or ESPN's rankings.
VCU is 22-8 with six top-100 wins and two losses outside of the top 150 in RPI (Massachusetts and George Mason). VCU is a top-40 team in each of the previously-mentioned power rankings but has a strength of schedule ranked 120th.
Next, let's look at the five mid-majors with the best cases for getting into the tournament field, without the security of an auto bid.
San Diego State
San Diego State (22-8) is 47th in RPI with four top-100 wins, highlighted by a neutral court win against California that has looked increasingly better as the season has progressed. Three of their losses are to top competition (Kansas, Utah, and West Virginia), but a neutral court loss to San Diego (299th in RPI) sticks out like a sore thumb.
Compared to the at-large teams above, San Diego State would fall in the middle of the pack in RPI and power rankings. They place well ahead of St. Bonaventure and VCU in strength of schedule and are power ranked more favorably than St. Bonaventure and Temple. While having only one top-50 win puts them behind the group we're examining, San Diego State and other mid-majors often get hurt to an even greater degree by their bad losses. The Aztecs, however, have just the one loss outside the top 100, which is fewer than everyone in our sample except Michigan.
Monmouth (25-6) stole the show in college basketball pre-New Year's for more than their nationally-acclaimed bench celebrations. The top of Monmouth's resume looks as good as any major conference bubble team's with neutral court wins over Notre Dame and USC and a win at UCLA. In all, Monmouth has five top-100 wins, to go along with an RPI just outside the top 50.
The polarity in Monmouth's resume has, and will, make for a fascinating debate if they don't win the MAAC Tournament because their profile is also weighed down by four losses outside the top 100. Three of those losses could be outside the RPI's top 200 by Selection Sunday. Monmouth's wins help them stack up with our group of at-large candidates, but the four sub-100 losses are double what anyone else has, and their strength of schedule of 168th is worse than all four bubble teams in our sample. Take away two of those bad losses, and it would be hard to leave Monmouth out. But with them, Monmouth will likely be the underdog we're saddest to see left out of the field if they don't win the MAAC.
Valpo (26-5) is easily among the best teams examined throughout this article in terms of power rankings. They're 39th in our rankings and inside the top 40 in KenPom and ESPN's BPI. Valparaiso won at Oregon State and has two other top-100 wins. Four of their five losses are to teams ranked 80th or worse in RPI. Their own RPI is inside the top 50, but their strength of schedule is outside the top 150.
The schedule and good-win, bad-loss profile would put Valparaiso at a decided disadvantage against our bubble team sample. If Valpo survives a loss in the Horizon League Tournament and finds themselves in the field, it would be a strong signal that the Selection Committee has started to favor efficiency and power rankings over the traditional measures found on the "team sheets" it uses to deliberate the at-large candidates. While there does seem to be some momentum toward the Committee using advanced metrics, the traditional measures will likely weigh too heavily to get a team like Valparaiso in with an at-large bid.
Saint Mary's (25-4) is 37th in RPI with six top-50 wins, including a sweep of the perennial front-runner in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga. Their four losses include a season sweep at the hands of Pepperdine (134th in RPI), and their strength of schedule ranks 221st.
Saint Mary's stacks up as a slightly stronger version of Valparaiso in every area except strength of schedule. Based on the various power rankings, Saint Mary's is up there with the best of our at-large bubble field. But zero top-50 wins and a strength of schedule that won't be inside the top 200 by Selection Sunday would make a Gaels' at-large bid controversial at best.
Wichita State (23-7) is not the slam dunk to make the NCAA Tournament that many would assume from current bracket projections and their well-earned reputation from recent years. Wichita State has a terrific signature win over Utah at home but no other wins inside the top 85 of RPI. The Shockers have just four top-100 wins, and three losses outside the top 60. Unfortunately for Wichita State, they were without star point guard Fred VanVleet for a three-game losing streak against USC, Alabama, and Iowa in non-conference play. Especially without VanVleet, none of those setbacks would be deemed "bad" losses, but they are missed opportunities at resume-bolstering victories.
Wichita State would be a lock for the tournament if we set the field based on our power rankings. We have them ranked 17th in the country, and the Shockers are inside the top 10 over at KenPom. But Wichita State's lack of wins still leaves them in a position where even they, the most reputable and respected of this bunch, would not want to head into Selection Sunday without the security of its Missouri Valley Conference automatic bid. The Shockers have just the one aforementioned top-50 win and a strength of schedule outside the top 100. It's possible that Wichita State, especially when graded on a curve due to the VanVleet injury, could come in ahead of St. Bonaventure, Temple, or VCU on the S-curve. But a loss in the MVC Tournament could serve as another blemish that ensures that Wichita State's resume does not particularly stand out from a crowded bubble.
Can Any of These Teams Earn an At-Large Bid?
Each of the five mid-majors we've examined would make for fun inclusions in the NCAA Tournament field and dangerous first-round matchups for whoever would have to play them. But none of these teams, as it stands today, should be considered a lock for an at-large bid if a lesser conference foe jumps up and steals a conference tournament title.
Two things stick out from this exercise. First, a team's conference plays a huge role in how "clean" or "blemished" a team's resume is going to look. Every mid-major has taken at least a couple of losses in their conference schedule, which is certainly understandable given the road trips and rivalries that each team will encounter. But losses in better mid-major conferences like the Mountain West (San Diego State), West Coast (Saint Mary's), and Missouri Valley (Wichita State), which are ranked 10th, 11th, and 12th nationally according to KenPom, will almost always look markedly better than losses in leagues like the Horizon (Valparaiso), Sun Belt (home of Arkansas Little Rock, who is 27-4), or MAAC (Monmouth), which rank 17th through 19th, respectively.
Second, and this is said every year in March: teams need to challenge themselves in the non-conference schedule. Losses to solid teams from major conferences do nothing but benefit a mid- or low-major team looking to boost their resume. The upside is the possibility for a signature win or two that shows the Selection Committee that you can "beat somebody" if you get a shot in the NCAA Tournament field, and there is almost no downside. Saint Mary's, with their 221st-ranked strength of schedule, will have no one to blame but themselves if they miss out on the Big Dance.
There is still much to be decided in the next week and a half. Based on where things currently stand, Wichita State, in all likelihood, should find their way into the NCAA Tournament on the merit of the significant edge in efficiency and power rankings. San Diego State, Saint Mary's, and Monmouth, in that order, would likely have the next-best shots but are more likely to find themselves among the "first four out" than the "last four in" on Selection Sunday if they don't win their conference tournaments over the coming days.