Why the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Should Embrace Mid-Majors This Year

With all the talk about this being a particularly weak NCAA tournament bubble, why not reward the little guy over a mediocre power conference team? Plus, what the world was like the last time Kansas failed to win the Big 12.
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There’s a term that will see probably 90% of its yearlong usage over the next two weeks, just as it always this time of year: bid thief. For the uninitiated, this is a team that A) wins its conference tournament, thus automatically earning a berth in the NCAA tournament; B) would not have been selected by the committee as an at-large; and C) is from a league where one or more other teams would be selected for at-large spots. The idea is that by that auto bid unexpectedly going to an otherwise non-tourney team, rather than to one that would have been selected anyway, the number of available bids for bubble teams shrinks by one. Thus a bid is stolen.

A lot of folks dislike this term, and with good reason. The team didn’t really steal anything—they earned their way to the NCAA tournament through available means, just as the bubble teams could have. Whatever the merits of the term (which, despite its judgmental connotations, is at least helpful shorthand for describing this sequence of events), with some conference tournaments getting underway this week, let us speak this wish into the world: May this March’s potential mid-major bid thieves not end up stealing from their own kind.

If you have been following bracketology buzz, you have likely come across the suggestion that this season’s bubble is (again) as weak as has been seen in a long time. It doesn’t take a bracketologist to see where such sentiments come from. Oklahoma and TCU are currently projected by most experts as being firmly in the field as No. 10 seeds, yet the Sooners and Horned Frogs are just 7–10 and 6–11, respectively, in the Big 12. Indiana is back in the mix after beating Michigan State again this weekend, yet the Hoosiers have lost 12 of their last 15 games and are 15–14 overall and 6–12 in conference play. Then there are less egregiously under-.500 conference performers like Minnesota, Creighton, Seton Hall, and Clemson populating the bubble as well.

Meanwhile, behind the safe trio of Nevada, Buffalo, and Wofford, there are several strong mid-majors who have excelled within their leagues but whose tourney candidacy would very much be in doubt without their league’s automatic bid. That group includes teams like Utah State (15–3 in the Mountain West, with a win over Nevada); Belmont and Murray State, which both went 16–2 in the Ohio Valley; Lipscomb, the Atlantic Sun’s first-place finisher at 14–2; and UNC Greensboro and Furman, which finished behind Wofford in the impressively top-strong SoCon with résumés worthy of the committee’s consideration.

The point of this is not to advocate for or against specific teams, especially since résumés are still in flux. But if there is ever a year to give the nod to smaller programs who stood out from their competition—even if those teams lost an elimination game at the end of the season—when the call is close, then this is it.

Yes, the goal should be to simply select the best teams, regardless of where they come from. Yet given the wide range of competition and the highly variable performance of college-age athletes, parsing between those on the cusp already involves a lot of subjectivity (even when evaluating objective metrics). And the goal of the NCAA tournament field is not to actually have the 68 best teams; if it was, then there would be no automatic qualifiers from smaller conferences. But those auto bids are already aimed at rewarding teams for performing well against competitors that are on their own level. After all, the incredible discrepancies in available resources for programs between leagues (and even within them) truly do divide them into tiers of competition, not unlike the way combat sports are divided by weight class. There’s value and precedent in rewarding teams’ pound-for-pound strength.

The consumer—at least beyond those loyal to the snubbed bubble squads—benefits from this thought process as well. March Madness thrives on the play and potential of underdogs, and even if they are comparable in quality, an underachieving power-conference program that finished four games under .500 isn’t going to offer the same potential for thrill as some tiny school of no-name recruits that most viewers couldn’t find on a map. There is a reason 10th-seeded Gonzaga’s Elite Eight run in 1999 resonated more than 10th-seeded Syracuse reaching the 2016 Final Four, or eighth-seeded Butler making it to the final weekend in ‘11 was more of a Cinderella run than eighth-seeded North Carolina doing it 11 years earlier.

And to those who would fault some smaller schools for their lack of high-end wins, remember that to even schedule those opponents, mid-major programs often have to resort to true road games (something many high-majors avoid when they can) and even then only get a few cracks at it. How much worse is that really than getting ample opportunities and winning some, but also losing again and again?

So committee members, if you’re reading this—and surely you are not—here’s hoping that when those last few spots come up for debate on St. Patrick’s Day, you err on the side of the little guy. It makes sense. And the tournament will be better for it.

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If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to yell at me for liking mid-majors, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

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And just like that, the Streak is over. With Kansas’s loss at Oklahoma on Tuesday, the Jayhawks’ run of 14 seasons with at least a share of the Big 12’s regular season championship ended, as they fell two games behind Texas Tech and Kansas State with just one game remaining. Those two teams will face Iowa State and Oklahoma, respectively, on Saturday to determine who wins (or shares) the Big 12 crown this year.

With the Streak having been in such peril over the past two months—ever since the Jayhawks lost big man Udoka Azubuike to injury, after already being without Silvio de Sousa due to eligibility issues—it has been easy to forget that it seemed to enter this year as safe as ever. Kansas was the preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll, with the rankings of Kansas State (12), West Virginia (13), and TCU (20) indicating that few saw them as clear challengers to the Jayhawks’ supremacy. (Although as my colleague Molly Geary kindly pointed out on Twitter, I forecasted the Streak’s demise as my bold preseason prediction, something I believed so wholly that I did not even remember doing it until Molly’s tweet.)

Yet things wound up going so sideways for Kansas—Azubuike’s injuries, de Sousa’s suspension, Lagerald Vick’s continued absence for personal reasons—and its challengers, namely Texas Tech, emerged so strongly that it wound up being impressive that Bill Self kept this team in contention for the title into its penultimate game.

With the Streak now put to rest, let’s put it in perspective with some facts about the last time a Big 12 regular season concluded without Kansas in or tied for first place, in March 2004:

  • Zion Williamson was three years and eight months old.
  • Roy Williams, Bill Self and Billy Donovan had never won a national championship as a head coach.
  • LeBron James had not yet finished his second NBA season, nor made the playoffs.
  • The Red Sox were “cursed.”
  • Alex Rodriguez had yet to play an official game as a Yankee.
  • Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers had not been drafted.
  • Barack Obama was serving in the Illinois state legislature.
  • Grey’s Anatomy and The Office were a year away from premiering.
  • William Hung was a thing.
  • Rihanna wasn’t.
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High Five

1. Tennessee: The Vols’ drubbing of Kentucky over the weekend—payback for the Wildcats beating them similarly in Lexington two weeks prior—reignited talk of Tennessee’s Final Four potential, with good reason. Wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State showed little sign of slack.

2. Texas Tech: Just in time for March, the Red Raiders are suddenly playing like a Final Four contender on the offensive end as well, averaging 1.25-plus points per possession in four of their last six games. Currently pegged for a No. 3 seed, Tech could be a great arbitrage pick in your pool.

3. Kansas State: Judging by kenpom.com odds, the Wildcats, who host Oklahoma in their finale, should be favorites to win the Big 12 outright over the Red Raiders, who travel to Iowa State. At 0.88 points per possession, adjusted for competition, this is the best defense Bruce Weber has coached in Manhattan.

4. Wofford: The Terriers terrorized the SoCon regular season, finishing 18–0 in league play with 11 double-digit wins. And while yes, Fletcher Magee is one of the best names in college hoops, don’t sleep on his teammates Storm Murphy and Donovan Theme-Love.

5. VCU: The Rams wrapped up the Atlantic 10 early with their win at George Mason on Tuesday, extending their streak to 11 straight wins. And at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, none of VCU’s top 10 players by minutes played is a senior. The near future is bright in Richmond.

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Top of the Classes

Senior: Jason Burnell, Jacksonville State forward

Over the Gamecocks’ two wins over the past week, the Florida native averaged 28.0 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 74.2% from the field, including his third career-high 30-point effort of the season.

Junior: Amir Coffey, Minnesota forward

The previously sliding Golden Gophers boosted their bubble prospects this past week thanks in large part to Coffey, who scored 31 points against Northwestern and 32 against Purdue while averaging 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 steals and shooting 6 for 10 from three.

Sophomore: Fatts Russell, Rhode Island guard

The Rams’ two OT wins this past week were powered by their 5’ 10” guard, who played more than 40 minutes in both and topped his 23-point, six-rebound, five-assist, four-steal performance against Dayton with 41 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals, and the game-tying three in the final seconds of regulation against Saint Joseph’s.

Freshman: Darius Quisenberry, Youngstown State guard

The Penguins’ OT loss to Cleveland State was highlighted by Quisenberry’s 32 points on 9-of-15 shooting (including 5 for 7 from three), four assists and three boards.

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Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome North Carolina forward Cameron Johnson, who is averaging 16.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 47.9% from three for the No. 3 Tar Heels. So, Cameron, tell us about the best...

...animal to have as a pet. “I’ve always been a dog guy. I have a little dog back home, a toy poodle. He’s very small. His name is Gus. He’s a family dog we’ve had for eight years, nine years maybe. He’s getting old. He’s very, very reserved, almost acts like a cat. Just minds his own business. He’s pretty low-key.”

...movie you’ve watched recently. “I re-watched The Dark Knight maybe a week ago. It’s always a great movie and definitely was still good the fifth, sixth time I’ve watched it. It’s different for a superhero movie. It’s unpredictable—well, now that I’ve watched it so many times, it’s pretty predictable. But I just like how the characters play out with each other. Normally I’m more Marvel over D.C. Batman is probably the only D.C. comic I enjoy.”

...class you’ve taken in college. “This rhetoric class I had in undergrad. The subject matter was terribly boring, but our professor was this young guy who was great. He made everything super interesting. We’d talk about really old people like Socrates and Aristotle and he’d just find a way to connect it to us any way he could. We had a lot of debates in that class on random stuff, like Harry Potter and Space Jam and Pokemon and Mean Girls. He really did a great job of making it relevant and fun.”

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Social Media Post of the Week

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One to Watch: Duke at North Carolina, Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN

Saturday should be a great day of hoops, other games including Michigan at Michigan State, Tennessee at Auburn, Texas Tech at Iowa State and Oklahoma at Kansas State, with the latter two potentially deciding the Big 12’s regular season title. But the goings on in Chapel Hill will likely be the most must-see event of the day, with the Tar Heels potentially playing for a share of the ACC title and going for the first regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils in a decade. Oh, and then there’s the potential (but unlikely) return of Zion Williamson, who has not played since suffering a sneaker-induced knee sprain in these teams’ first meeting on Feb. 20. Duke will likely need its superstar freshman to beat North Carolina on its own floor. If not, we’ll see just how far R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish—with some advance notice—can carry the Blue Devils against a Final Four-level opponent.