In March 1991, I was on the field at Madison Square Garden when the Villanova Wildcats lost by just two points in the Big East Tournament semifinals to eventual champion Seton Hall and dropped to 16-14 in the regular season. It didn’t seem so much like an extraordinary moment back then, just a very entertaining basketball game.
And yet, three decades later, these feral cats carry a significant distinction in the long history of March madness. They became the first team ever selected for the NCAA Tournament with just two records above the .500 mark. A decade later, after losing to LSU in a one-point game at the SEC tournament, Georgia also finished 16-14 in the regular season and was also selected to the NCAAs as a participant in the large number.
However, these feral cats and these bulldogs are the only ones. There have been 1,215 major selections since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, but no one else has done so as a large selection with such an unattractive record.
Are we so ready in a college basketball season, when everything else has been affected by the pandemic, to have a .500 team installed on the NCAA bracket? Maybe a game over? This has been an unprecedented college basketball season, so will the selection committee be interested in breaking most or all of the precedents that governed its election over the past four decades?
“I do not want to see a huge change in that thought process,” college basketball analyst Mike O’Donnell, who calls games for ESPN and CBS Sports, told Sporting News. “If you are 0.500 on the season, or if you are under, for me you should have no business in the conversation. Because winning ultimately matters. ”
Teams were allowed to play 27 games in 2020-21 and encouraged to play at least four outside their conferences. It was not universally easy to achieve due to COVID-19 issues. St. Bonaventure only joined two such games. Colorado State played three. Penn State and Rutgers each played four. These are among the many teams battling for large berths with a relatively uncertain outcome.
Some of those who are members of very competitive conferences, obviously the big ten, have struggled – in part because of these shortened out-of-league schedules – to work out the kind of won / lost records that would normally have made them attractive in the big candidates.
A year ago, when nine of the Big Ten’s teams ranked among the top 40 in the final NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rank, they were expected to have 10 teams in the NCAA field by the finals. BracketMatrix.com compounded, with the worst overall record among those belonging to 19-12 Michigan.
This year’s Big Ten has four teams in the NET top 10 and 10 in the top 50. Among these top-30 teams, however, are 10-8 Indiana and 7-9 Penn State. Maryland is ranked 42nd in the NET and has a 9-10 record against Division I opponents. It’s not just Big Ten teams facing this riddle. In the Big East, Seton Hall is NET’s 45th team and only 11-8. Connecticut is 51st and stands at 8-4 after struggling with several interruptions due to COVID protocols.
It can be easy to look at these records and reject their candidacies for NCAA bids. After all, there are teams like the Loyola Ramblers who rank 12th in the NET and have a 15-3 record against Division I teams. They could certainly be selected for the tournament in front of a team from a more prominent conference. And they can be. At present, while Indiana owns two wins over NET No. 10 Iowa, Loyola has not beaten anyone taller than 111. Nearly two-thirds of Rambler’s wins are against teams ranked lower than 190.
In this particular year, this is less Loyola’s fault than it normally could be. The ability to play high-level opponents outside the conference – whether it is teams for larger conferences or medium-sized elite-elite – was limited by the shortened schedule. However, the Ramblers got opportunities against both Wisconsin and Richmond and were unable to win.
“In my opinion, if you’re trying to get in the 68 ‘best’ teams, then there’s probably a .500 team that belongs in the field,” a long-time midfielder told Sporting News. “But if you try to identify the 68 most ‘deserving’, then the one who should undoubtedly be included is the mid-major who has been successful. And the standard has always been to some extent the most deserving teams. The pandemic did not allow so many non-conference games to take place. ”
For those in the process of projecting which teams will be selected for the NCAA Tournament, Maryland has been a team that fits perfectly into the argument of whether the standard may be different for the 2021 edition of March Madness.
Although they possess a losing record against Division I opponents, Terps achieved victories on the way to No. 4 Illinois, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 52 Minnesota, as well as a home win over No. 23 Purdue. The problem: It’s Terps’ only big ten winner. They are 4-9 in the conference and that has pulled them below the .500 mark overall.
Terps’ schedule has been absurdly difficult. Of their 19 DI games, 14 were played against Quad-1 opponents. The six remaining games on their current schedule are not a breeze, but the challenge can be considered a bit more manageable. The average NET ranking for these opponents is 69th compared to 18th over their first 13 Big Ten games. If they were to go 4-2 in that stretch and finish 13-12, would they deserve a big bid?
“It’s a good question that I’ve been thinking about a lot,” Tim Krueger, a parenting analyst for The Athletic, told Sporting News.
“Every time you write off Maryland, they win another win. And so every time you think this one will overcome them, they lose. That’s what bubble teams do, isn’t it? Their resume is pretty good. That is not bad.
“There are a handful of 9-8 teams, and I just did not want to put them in until they got another victory. My thinking has been that there are probably other choices that have quality gains. My fittings are scattered with them.
“If there are not enough choices, then maybe they can look at something similar.”
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