NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: How Many Losses Is Too Many?
Perhaps breaking new ground in 2019.
The 2019 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.
In 2019, our bracketology gets filled in week after week, and the quality of the bubble continues its steady decline. Several teams, like Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, and Indiana, cannot get out of their own collective way. Some of them have losses piling up to potentially lethal NCAA Tournament levels.
The Texas Longhorns, for example, could lose in the Big 12 Tournament and test a new threshold: a 16-loss at-large team.
It may not happen, nor should it if Texas makes an early exit at the Big 12 Tournament. Let’s explore, however, how historic such a tournament bid would be.
NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: A Recent History
The best at-large teams in the past eight 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. The worst NCAA Tournament at-large teams had 15 losses. Both were SEC teams (Vanderbilt and Alabama) in the previous two tournaments. They were each just four games over .500.
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 are 16-15 entering the Big 12 Tournament. Indiana is 17-14 going into the Big Ten’s annual championship. The latter is out of games and cannot lose a sixteenth prior to Selection Sunday. Texas is the only viable team that could sustain a sixteenth loss. South Carolina, the SEC’s four seed, is also 16-15, but few expect them to be anywhere near contention.
First, for the good things about the Longhorns and their resume. Their NET ranking is 39, they have five Quadrant 1 wins, and Texas played the sixth-toughest schedule in college basketball. As for the bad, the Horns only have two true road wins. They have a home loss to Radford. Texas has a losing record in both Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games. Finally, of course, their 15 losses on the board put them at the historical extreme for an at-large team.
NCAA Tournament At-Large Teams: Really, Though
The obvious begged question is this: if Texas (or any other team) has 16 losses, why are we considering them an at-large contender? This is uncharted territory. It is still not impossible less than a week before the tournament that the Longhorns can make it, but 16 losses? 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.
Texas has a difficult draw in their first Big 12 Tournament game against Kansas. If Texas loses to Kansas and finishes 16-16, toss the pretty Quadrant 1 wins out the window. They would not be a tournament team, nor should they be.
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 decade? 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 like Furman, Lipscomb, and Belmont, struggling for a bid 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. Not to single out the Longhorns, who are by all accounts a fine program, but for them to make the tournament at 16 losses without at least making the Big 12 title game would be a travesty. Also not to single out Indiana, whose favorite three words this week are “Quadrant One Wins,” but even 15 losses for them is a hill to climb.
Take Duke, for example. The Blue Devils have the second-best strength of schedule in the nation. Yet, they are on track for a one seed because they WON many of these games. Duke scheduled up and took care of business. Texas scheduled up and has some signature wins to show for it, but lost a lot more than they won.
Based on the quality of their top wins, Texas deserves consideration. A 16-loss at-large team, however, says more about the condition of the bubble than the Longhorns themselves.