Nice record, but who'd you beat?
Right now, it's just a "what if" scenario that, come March, might be a large enough issue to give the NCAA Tournament selection committee fits.
Imagine a major conference team that finished among the upper half of its league heading into Selection Sunday without a win over a potential NCAA Tournament team. The team in question could have as many as 17 or 18 wins and have finished third or fourth in its league, but none of its wins will have come against teams headed to the Dance.
Sound impossible? Well, check out the Big Ten and Pac-10. Or, even the Big East.
What would the committee do in these cases?
"[The teams will] likely be judged like some of the mid-majors get judged," said Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby, the chair of the 2004 NCAA Tournament selection committee. "Sometimes, there are teams that have glitzy records but there isn't much to compare them against. You'll have to take a close look at how they've played in their league."
Translation: Finishing in the top five of the Big Ten or Pac-10 doesn't mean what it used to just a few years ago. Just ask the Big East, which saw only four of its teams receive bids a year ago. Boston College and Seton Hall took 19 and 17 wins, respectively, to the NIT.
It's become clear that a team can play a strong, or at least somewhat strong schedule in and out of conference, finish with a respectable record in a high-major conference and still not impress the committee.
Bowlsby, and at least one other committee member, acknowledged that the body of a team's work comes into play when handing out at-large bids. But the pool being considered (see: bubble teams) could be larger than ever on the committee's first ballot. Why? Committee members cannot just assume this year that a top-five team out of the Pac-10 or Big Ten should automatically be in the 65-team field.
So, as the Big East and ACC have found out in recent years, the days of at least four Big Ten and Pac-10 teams being grandfathered into the field appear over.
Even so, there's never been a rule stating these two, or any high-major, conferences have to be widely represented in the NCAA Tournament. The ACC, clearly the best conference this season and arguably one of the best all time, has experienced dips during which only three teams received bids. The ACC had three in the field as recently as 2000 and 1999.
But there seems to be times when the selection committee uses historical references when deciding on the number of teams from the Pac-10 and Big Ten selected to the tournament. Neither has had fewer than four since 1993, when only Arizona, Cal and UCLA received bids. And it's been 20 years since the Big Ten sent fewer than four.
Both leagues, however, could face such a hit if their teams don't start beating teams headed to the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-10 can lock in Arizona and Stanford, but after its two top 10 teams, things get tricky.
UCLA (8-3) is poised to impress the committee with a 4-0 start in the league. But, the Bruins' best non-conference win was over Michigan State, whose best win is over Penn. The Bruins will need to knock off one of the two Pac-10 favorites to feel better about their NCAA résumé.
Oregon, meanwhile, is 6-4 overall and just 1-2 through the first two weekends of Pac-10 play. The Ducks also haven't beaten anyone better than Fresno State -- losing to Alabama and Kansas, before falling at UCLA and Oregon State in conference play.
In the Big Ten, only Wisconsin is a January lock for the Dance. Illinois is likely in as well, with wins over Missouri and Memphis, while Purdue would have to fall hard to miss the NCAAs with its nice wins over Duke in Alaska and at Illinois on Saturday. But after these three, there is no Big Ten team that makes the committee say it must invite it to the tourney.
Another problem facing the committee centers around the Big Ten's schedule, which isn't a true round-robin format. As a result, committee members will have to really scrutinize the teams who don't beat Wisconsin, Illinois or Purdue, to see exactly who they beat and where.
"We can't paint with broad brushes," Bowlsby said. "(But) Michigan State might be a good example. The Big Ten doesn't look like it has a good (meaning Final Four good) team except Wisconsin."
Bowlsby's candor is refreshing. And, he wasn't through citing examples of what the committee could face in March.
Last year, the Mountain West had two teams (BYU and Utah) with high RPIs. BYU was No. 24, which was a bit hard to comprehend, but it didn't stop the Cougars from getting an at-large bid. Was the RPI the determining factor? Maybe. But the Cougars did finish in a tie atop the standings with Utah (RPI No. 19), which also got an at-large berth after Colorado State won the conference tournament.
Another recent example Bowlsby cited was that of Alabama vs. Georgia in 2001.
Alabama reeled off 21 wins during the 2000-01 season, but didn't get a bid to the '01 NCAA Tournament. Georgia went dancing despite its 16-14 record. The Tide, however, went 17-1 at home and 2-7 on the road. Its 8-8 conference record also came in the weaker SEC West.
The Bulldogs may have also been left home in 2001 by the committee, despite playing the nation's toughest schedule, something Michigan State may wind up doing this season. The difference between Georgia of 2001 and this year's Spartans, however, is the Bulldogs won their share of marquee matchups, including a sweep of co-East champion Florida.
Georgia finished 9-7 in the SEC East that season, which is regarded as one of the top divisions within a conference. Michigan State is already 0-6 against Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse. The Spartans also lost their Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Saturday.
"Georgia went out and played people and didn't win them all, but did win some of them, and they came out of a good balanced conference," Bowlsby said. "It's who they beat. Alabama that year beat a bunch of nobodys and didn't do well against the top of the league. You've got to look at a pattern of consistency.
"When all is said in done, the 34 teams playing the best basketball, and those that have demonstrated the best body of work (will get in)," Bowlsby said.
At this juncture it's hard to make a case that Michigan State -- winless against six ranked opponents -- or Oregon, which hasn't beaten any teams ticketed to the Dance, are in that group.
"The more the top-eight ranked conferences carve themselves up, the more it creates opportunity for others to be in the pool," Bowlsby said. "There is a lot of competition out there and there have been some crazy games. There has been a lot of ragged basketball and it has been interesting to watch, but it will make for a more difficult task."
Just look at one state: Iowa. Last week, Iowa State beat Missouri, which had just beaten Iowa. Iowa beat Purdue, which earlier this season, beat Duke.
The first thing the selection committee does when it gets to Indianapolis during Championship Week is submit a list of teams that definitely should be in the field. Bowlsby said that list should be shorter than ever this year. A year ago, he said the first ballot had 20 teams that sailed in to the Dance.
"I expect less of that," Bowlsby said. "But the second half of the season could be entirely different than the first half. But if it isn't, our job will be more difficult because there will be more teams under consideration."
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