(For purposes of this article, bracket predictions were taken from ESPN at 11:15 p.m. CST, NET rankings from www.warrennolan.com at 10:15 p.m., and RPI rankings from www.teamrankings.com at 10:10 p.m., all on March 9.)
So, we lost to Houston. Many have described the last second, half-court heave by the Cougars as a “gut punch” and called the defeat “heartbreaking.” I don’t see it this way. I believe the loss was validation that our program belongs on the big stage. And while the victory would have improved our chances of a berth in the NCAAs, I’m convinced we’ve done enough, as of right now, to project as an at-large team in every prognosticator’s bracketology.
Of course, this will change if we lose in the first round of the AAC tournament Friday at 9 p.m. CST. In my opinion, that scenario should be the only reason we don’t make it to the field of 68. When compared to other teams projected on the bubble above us, or squads predicted as at-large locks, we measure up.
I know what you’re going to say, we didn’t beat anybody in the non-conference, and we haven’t won against a Top 25 team. Those are well-worn, somewhat valid points. When taking another look at our non-league games, I found a new perspective. Two of our three losses can’t legitimately be considered bad, and the first win of our season was a good one.
Although St. Mary’s isn’t a tournament team, they are a quality one. After we beat them, they won 9 out of their next 10. They defeated UTEP and Colorado St., who projects as an at-large bid and one of the last four in. They also made it to the semi-finals of the West Coast Conference Tournament. They’re not world-beaters, but it definitely looks better on our resume than, say, the win against Central Arkansas.
Of our three losses, Auburn was clearly a bad one. I can’t justify that one. However, the other two deserve another look. VCU finished their season second in the Atlantic-10 and currently projects as an 11-seed in the tournament. Western Kentucky finished 1st in C-USA East with an 18-6 record, beat Alabama, and is a probable 13-seed. We should have defeated those teams, but they are not bad losses.
Our conference record is a different matter. A regular season in any conference is going to be tough. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there’s not a lot of surprises against teams you see two or three times every season. But while other schools get rewarded for playing grueling conference games and winning, our little league gets the short end of the stick.
I’ve written about the Power 5 bias in the NCAAs before as it dealt with college football, but it is evident in basketball as well. When you include the Big East in with the five other big boys (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC), those six conferences make up 37 bids. Eight of the Big 10’s fourteen schools, seven of the ACC’s fifteen, and seven of the Big 12’s ten project as in the field. The SEC and the Big East each have almost half of their member institutions as mortal locks. The AAC currently projects as a two-bid league.
One might argue that those conferences play better basketball than the AAC. But upon looking at the conference NET rankings, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the numbers. The American is seventh in NET rankings, just a few hundredths of a percentage point behind every conference except the Big Ten and Big 12. The AAC is 8th in RPI and RPI Strength of Schedule, right behind the ACC, Big East, and Pac-12.
To me, those numbers indicate that the American is just as good of a basketball league as any other. There is no clear delineation of strength between the big boy conferences and ours. Yet the Pac-12, for instance, is considered a subpar conference by many experts, but four of their 12 members expect to be playing in the tournament.
For comparison, I took a look at where all the third-place teams in the Power 5 – plus Big East – were projected to be seeded in the tournament. The results weren’t shocking. Virginia Tech (3rd in the ACC, 15-5, 9-4) is a 9 seed. UConn (3rd in the Big East, 14-6, 11-6) is a 9 seed. Iowa (3rd in the Big Ten, 20-7, 14-6) is a 2 seed. Texas (3rd in the Big 12, 17-7, 11-6) is a 3 seed. Colorado (3rd in the Pac-12, 20-7, 14-6) is a 5 seed. LSU (3rd in the SEC, 16-8, 11-6) is an 8 seed.
I can hear it now, “they had better wins than us, in a better league!” I made my case that the AAC is just as good as everyone else, and the first part of that argument doesn’t hold up in some instances. Colorado didn’t have any quality non-league wins, and they were third in a weak conference with six losses. UCONN only played three non-league games, didn’t beat any Top 25 teams, and failed to win against the first, second, and fourth-ranked teams in the Big East. Virginia Tech did have some quality wins to begin the season but hasn’t played since February 6.
We also compare favorably to the teams listed ahead of us on the bubble. Boise St. is considered as one of the last four in, but they have no Top 25 wins, lost to Houston by 10, and we have a better record in a better conference. Colorado St. is also third in their conference, and one of the last four in but didn’t play a Top 25 team and lost to St. Mary’s. Two of the squads listed on the ‘First Four Out’ ahead of us aren’t demonstrably better either. St. Louis didn’t play or beat a Top 25 team, and Utah St. also had no Top 25 contests and lost to VCU.
We played the schedule that was forced upon us. Teams dropped out of the South Dakota tournament. Ole Miss canceled our game but found room on their docket for Jackson St., UNC Wilmington, Central Arkansas, and Middle Tennessee. The Vols ducked us also but willingly played Cincinnati, Appalachian St., Tennessee Tech, and USC Upstate.
Once upon a time, things like peaking in March, being without an essential player for a considerable stretch, and the ‘eye test’ mattered when considering teams for the NCAAs. Now complicated math, inaccurate perceptions of preseason polls, and reliance on name brands from big conferences muddy the waters.
To be clear, I’m only saying we deserve to be considered a lock for an at-large bid at this moment. If we lose Friday night to ECU or UCF, then we don’t belong. If we make the game Saturday, we should be in win or lose. Don’t get me wrong; I still want to beat Houston and claim the conference tournament championship.
We definitely didn’t help our case early in the season, but if you’ve watched this team the last 11 games and still believe we’re not a tournament team, you’re just a contrarian. We’ve done enough to be in, but as always, Memphis has to go above and beyond to be recognized. It starts Friday night.
(Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, feel free to explore my other posts via the menu categories above. Please subscribe, leave a like, and comment below so we can continue the discussion.)