The Mediocre Shall Inherit the Earth

Published: Feb 03, 2014 21:39pm EST
By mds2929, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Feb 03, 2014 @ 10:25pm EST

 

College basketball entered February with a bang on Saturday, as an overloaded slate of games saw Arizona's perfect start come to an end in dramatic fashion, Syracuse weather a barrage of three-pointers to stay unbeaten with an overtime victory against Duke, and four Top Ten teams fall on the same day for the first time since the previous Saturday prior to the Super Bowl.

In advance of the NFL's season finale, Indiana snapped #10 Michigan's ten-game win streak, making the Wolverines the fifth Top Ten club to lose over the weekend. While much of the focus has been on the mere fact that said upsets occurred, that the Orange win be the nation's new #1 ranked team, et al, the larger point that should be derived from these results is how and why the bubble picture will be affected going forward.

Of course, this isn't to say that the elite teams that fell don't merit legitimate scrutiny, as well. Despite limiting the Golden Bears to 60 points, #1 Arizona struggled offensively after losing Brandon Ashley for the year with a broken foot and seeing Nick Johnson look like a shell of himself while dealing with an injured hand (1-14 FG, 4 pts, 1 ast, 5 TO).

Neither Joel Embiid nor Andrew Wiggins made an impact in #6 Kansas' defeat in Austin, #7 Michigan State's post offense remains nonexistent in the absence of Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, Marcus Smart's crooked shooting (3-14 FG, 0-7 treys) continued as #8 Oklahoma State was stunned at home by Baylor, and Michigan looked quite pedestrian when not being carried by Nik Stauskas (1-6 FG, 4-4 FT, 6 pts). Barring truly unexpected epic collapses, though, none of these clubs have much to worry about come March aside from injuries and seeding.

The same can not be said for the quintet of teams who pulled off the upsets, as their outlooks entering the weekend ranged from being in solid shape (Texas) to circling the drain (Baylor, Georgetown). Aside from the Longhorns, who were ranked #25 thanks to a recent stretch of strong play, "mercurial" might be the nicest term for the other four, each of which had proven itself quite incapable of consistently strong play despite possessing NBA-level talent.

In a flash, Texas is now basically a lock thanks to knocking off ranked teams in four consecutive games for the first time in school history, Cal is closing in on that point, and the other three teams suddenly saw very unimpressive cases get bolstered to a huge degree. While credit has to go to the victors for pulling off the wins that they so desperately needed, the fact that these schools are afforded the opportunity to play the likes of Arizona and Kansas at home highlights the continued inequality in Division I sports.


The annual argument over who merits at-large spots in the NCAA Tournament is among the most heated in sports and frequently results in media members like Jay Bilas trumpeting the cause of the "major conference" schools, pointing to an imbalance in marquee wins or SOS as clear proof that mid-major teams simply don't match up to the big boys in the sport. Taken without any context, this position will almost always hold true - due solely to conference affiliations and reputations, major conference teams don't even have to do much of anything to produce a slate of games that will be loved by the RPI. However, the playing field is so slanted toward the big boys in college that to ignore their inherent advantages is extreme intellectual dishonesty.

Despite the detriment that comes with a defeat being far less costly in college basketball than it is in college football, it is still exceptionally rare to see big-name schools agree to play smaller universities in anything other than home or neutral court tilts. The reasoning for this is simple: there is little for the major conference team to be gained from defeating a supposedly lesser foe, but as we saw when Wisconsin-Green Bay hosted both Virginia (win) and Wisconsin (tight loss), the chance for a loss in a true road game are far greater than most casual fans would expect.

Similar to Boise State on the gridiron, it typically takes a mid-major multiple years of exceptional success before they are afforded the chance to play in marquee neutral court tournaments, let alone host the larger schools. When that finally happens, as it has for Gonzaga, it's almost solely due to the fact that said small school is playing enough other strong teams OOC that it won't hamper the computer numbers of the name club.

Unfortunately, this remains a concern as the RPI is still used as the primary tool of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. While Joe Lunardi introduced a new formula for personal use in creating his mock bracket, it contains the same flaw as the RPI in rewarding teams for merely playing teams rather than actual results. As Vegas Watch brilliantly broke down, when Lunardi was touting four-loss Kansas over undefeated Wichita State as a #1 seed, the merits of the two teams meant absolutely nothing thanks to the Jayhawks' four defeats offering essentially no penalty whereas the Shockers were slammed right off the bat for not having the good fortune to play as strong of a slate.
 

The remarkable aspect of this inequality is just how much it favors major conference teams. Aforementioned Wichita State reached the Final Four last year, made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, and plays in one of the traditionally most well-regarded mid-major conferences in the Missouri Valley. However, in terms of OOC home/neutral games, the best that the Shockers could manage to get was a home date with Tennessee and a small tournament featuring BYU, DePaul, and Texas (WSU topped the first two of that trio to win the title). This is the case across the country, which led to Lunardi effectively dismissing the at-large hopes of the mid-major clubs while chatting recently at ESPN.com. To understand why this is likely the case, let's look at the resumes of the unranked clubs who knocked off Top Ten teams this weekend as compared to some of the mid/low-major clubs who could easily see their season end with just one loss a month from now (NC = neutral court):


Baylor  (14-7, 2-6 Big XII)  
Pomeroy stats: #54 ranked, #24 adjusted SOS, #168 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: 7th team out
Notable wins: NC Colorado, NC Kentucky, @ Oklahoma State
Losses: NC Syracuse, @ Iowa State, @ Texas Tech, vs. Oklahoma, @ Kansas, vs. Texas, vs. West Virginia
Future opportunities: vs. Kansas, @ Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State, @ Texas, vs. Iowa State, home/home with Kansas State

California  (15-7, 6-3 Pac-12)  
Pomeroy stats: #42 ranked, #28 adjusted SOS, #156 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: #11 seed
Notable wins: NC Arkansas, @ Stanford, @ Oregon, vs. Arizona, vs. Washington
Losses: NC Syracuse, NC Dayton, @ UC-SB, @ Creighton, @ USC, @ UCLA, vs. Arizona State, @ Washington
Future Opportunities: vs. Stanford, vs. UCLA, @ Arizona, @ Arizona State, vs. Colorado

Georgetown  (12-9, 3-6 Big East)  
Pomeroy stats: #59 ranked, #11 adjusted SOS, #104 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: Off the board
Notable wins: NC Kansas State, NC VCU, NC Michigan State
Losses: NC Oregon, NC Northeastern, @ Providence, @ Xavier, vs. Seton Hall, vs. Marquette, @ Creighton, vs. Villanova
Future Opportunities: vs. Providence, vs. Xavier, @ Marquette, vs. Creighton, @ Villanova

Indiana  (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten)  
Pomeroy stats: #55 ranked, #104 adjusted SOS, #326 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: Off the board
Notable wins: NC Washington, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Illinois, vs. Michigan
Losses: NC UConn, @ Syracuse, NC Notre Dame, @ Illinois, swept by Michigan State, vs. Northwestern, @ Nebraska
Future Opportunities: @ Minnesota, vs. Iowa, @ Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, @ Michigan
 

Harvard  (17-3, 4-0 Ivy League)  
Pomeroy stats: #34 ranked, #148 adjusted SOS, #115 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: #11 seed as Ivy League representative
Notable wins: NC UW-Green Bay, 
Losses: @ Colorado, @ UConn, @ Florida Atlantic
Future opportunities: None (10 Ivy League games)

Louisiana Tech  (18-5, 6-2 Conference USA)  
Pomeroy stats: #48 ranked, #267 adjusted SOS, #280adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: 8th team out
Notable wins: vs. St. Bonaventure, @ Oklahoma
Losses: @ St. Mary's, vs. UL-Lafayette, NC Oklahoma State, @ Southern Miss, @ UTEP
Future Opportunities: None, barring a C-USA Tournament matchup with Southern Miss.

Stephen F. Austin  (20-2, 9-0 Southland)  
Pomeroy stats: #66 ranked, #341 adjusted SOS, #295 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: #14 seed as Southland Conference representative
Notable wins: None, really. They won at Oklahoma last year and can't get games against notable teams.
Losses: @ Texas, @ East Tennessee State
Future Opportunities: None

Wisconsin-Green Bay  (18-4, 8-1 Horizon)  
Pomeroy stats: #60 ranked, #137 adjusted SOS, #96 adjusted OOC SOS
1/30 Bracketology: #12 seed as Horizon League representative
Notable wins: NC Tulsa, vs. Virginia
Losses: vs. Wisconsin, NC Harvard, @ Eastern Michigan, @ Valparaiso
Future Opportunities: None, really.
 

While surprises selections of play-in participants Iona and Middle Tennessee State, as well as famous Final Four gate-crashers George Mason and VCU, stand out as notable examples of mid-majors who were granted an opportunity to prove themselves, they are more the exceptions that prove the rule given how easily their selections jump to mind. As evidenced above, even major conference teams with terrible defeats like Georgetown's vs. Northeastern and Indiana's at home vs. Northwestern have a massive advantage in terms of cleaning up messy resumes.

Contrast that with the listed mid-majors, good teams all, who have a combined one game remaining against a kenpom top 100 team (Harvard @ #100 Princeton) and therefore can only have their chances hampered. As long as money rules and the big boys in college athletics get to dictate the manner in which schedules are set, this will continue to be an imbalance in their favor. It's just unfortunate to see a good team, already hampered by limited opportunities, see its hopes likely dashed after 30 games worth of excellence is rendered irrelevant by a single conference tournament upset given that the at-large lottery rarely pans out in the favor of the little guys.


Statistical resources: ESPN.com, kenpom.com, VegasWatch.org


 

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