NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: How Many Losses Is Too Many?
Perhaps breaking new ground in 2020.
The NCAA Tournament at-large teams, generally speaking, will have many qualified, worthy programs among them.
As for the last handful of teams in the field this season? Maybe, maybe not; we’ll find out soon.
This article was updated prior to the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
In 2020, our bracketology gets filled in week after week, and like last year, the quality of the bubble continues its steady decline. Some of them have losses piling up to potentially lethal NCAA Tournament levels, and, as we witnessed last year, they did.
What prompted this review in 2019 was the case of the Texas Longhorns, for example, who remained in contention for an at-large bid despite a high volume of losses because of their strength of schedule. There was the possibility at one point of them becoming a 16-loss at-large team. In 2020, a weak bubble remains an issue, and teams like NC State, Providence, Texas (again), and Purdue could test the limits of what the tournament can sustain. Purdue’s case is one very similar to that of the Longhorns in 2019: they are out of our field at present, but not by much, and they will have at least thirteen losses on the board when it’s all over.
NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: A Recent History
The best at-large teams in the past nine tournaments only had two losses. There were just two of these teams, meaning they each lost only two games, one of which was in their conference tournament. Through the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the worst NCAA Tournament at-large teams had 15 losses. All three were SEC teams (Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Florida), and they were each just four games over .500 at 19-15 overall.
This chart answers several questions. First, since the tournament expanded to 68 teams, what has been the general quality of these teams? Next, what is the maximum number of losses we have seen for at-large bids? Finally, how many losses is too many for the purposes of building an NCAA Tournament bracket?
NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: A 16-Loss Bid?
The Texas Longhorns were 16-15 entering the Big 12 Tournament in 2019. Indiana was 17-14 going into the Big Ten’s 2019 annual championship. Neither team ended up qualifying for the Big Dance: Indiana was a top seed in the NIT at 17-15, whereas Texas did pick up a 16th loss and also went to the NIT. In the NIT, it is not uncommon to have 15-loss at-large teams, though even Texas’ 16 last year was a lot for them.
NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: Really, Though
The obvious begged question is this: if, say, Purdue has 16 losses on Selection Sunday, why are we considering them an at-large contender? Give them a ribbon for scheduling up but this is still uncharted territory entering the 2020 tourney. There used to be a time not that long ago when 12 or 13 losses put you on the outer limits of contention. Now, a major-conference team sitting at something like 20-13 on Selection Sunday is safely in the Big Dance. However, as we illustrate here, once you surpass 11 losses, your odds sharply decline; more than 13 losses and they almost evaporate.
Simply put, there is no historical basis in a decade worth of 68-team tournaments to suggest that a 16-loss team is viable for a bid. 15 losses makes your odds very slim but not impossible. At-large teams average about nine losses in the regular season, so what’s the big idea of some of these 15 or 16-loss teams thinking they have a shot, anyway?
Shudder To Think
Can you imagine how terrible the bubble would be today if the tournament expanded to 96 teams like the brain trust wanted at the start of the 2010s? Weighing the last ten teams of our bracketologies have not been investigations into who is the most deserving. Instead, in full embrace of the double-negative, a look at who is the least undeserving. Now envision throwing another 28 bids onto that steaming Jurassic pile. Sixteen losses looks doable in that situation, and then we start scraping down for .500 power-conference teams and any relatively decent mid-major.
This size of a field would be good for schools in “one-bid conferences” who are struggling for bids today. It’s just that with those feel-good stories comes a handful of unsightly, mediocre teams from the so-called “good” conferences. We sacrifice the overall quality of the field to avoid a few passable teams getting snubbed.
Making the NCAA Tournament is a privilege and an honor. 64 teams was the perfect number for a Division I league of over 350 teams. We can live with 68, but the quality of the at-larges took a hit. Add a few dozen more and we’re going to have a sorry-looking field. As long as the almighty dollar is the NCAA’s guiding principle (as long as the student athletes never see any of it), the possibility for expansion exists.
Any team that has a number of quality wins deserves due consideration for the NCAA Tournament. In 2019, those teams were Texas and Indiana. Here in 2020, it appears Purdue and perhaps NC State will be the ones that test what the Selection Committee is willing to entertain. You get to a point, however, when you just have too many losses. A team that is barely .500 is not going to make the tournament, nor should they.
If you are, for example, a Purdue team sitting at 13 losses in late February with some nice Quadrant 1 wins, you need to think about running the table in the regular season and maybe only losing again in the Big Ten Tournament. Their odds are already slim, but because of the state of the bubble (these last few years), they remain alive. Is that a good thing for the sport? Probably not, but the Boilermakers know what they need to do now.