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Michigan State Basketball’s Bubble Competition: The Mid Majors

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When it comes to a discussion of “who’s in” and “who’s out” it is really just an exercise in counting to 68. Let’s continue that counting with the Mid Majors

Ohio State v Michigan State
Can Josh Langford and Malik Hall help MSU to “box out” the mid-major competition on the bubble?
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament field, the discussion will often revolve around numbers. Pundits and bracketologists will talk about total records, quality wins, and bad losses. But, at the end of the day, there is really only one number that actually matters for the NCAA Tournament.

That number is 68.

A total of 68 teams will be invited to play in the NCAA Tournament. A total of 31 of those 68 teams will get automatic bids based on winning their conference tournament. This is down one from most years, as the Ivy League decided not to play in 2020-21. As a result, there are a total of 37 teams that the Selection Committee will pick to place into the bracket.

Right now, Michigan State is not projected to be one of those 37 teams in most brackets. But after the pair of wins over No. 5 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State this week, the momentum is building that MSU might just be able to play themselves onto the bubble and then into the Tournament. In order to understand MSU’s chances, we need to attempt to count to 68.

In a recent post, I went through the Big Ten conference in some detail. Right now, six of the Big Ten teams are safely in the field (Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, and Wisconsin), six additional teams are on or near the bubble (Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Penn State) and the remaining two schools (Northwestern and Nebraska) are out unless they win the conference tournament.

The Big Ten is widely considered to be the best conference in the country, and so a total of nine or 10 teams are likely to make the NCAA Tournament. But, that will also depend largely on what happens in the other 30 conference races and tournaments. Today, I will start to take a closer look at the national competition, focusing on the low- and mid-major conferences.

Low Majors (One-Bid Leagues)

The easiest place to start counting is with the set of conferences that I will call “low majors.” This term is arbitrary, but for my purposes, I will define low majors as the conferences where there is no realistic chance that this conference could produce an at-large team. In other words, these conferences will only contribute one team to the field of 68.

As of today, I count a total of 15 of the 31 eligible conferences in this category. they are listed below (with the current NET system top-rated team in parenthesis):

  • America East (Vermont)
  • Atlantic Sun (Liberty)
  • Big Sky (Weber State, who I am still mad at for 1995...they know what they did.)
  • Colonial (James Madison)
  • Horizon (Wright State)
  • MAC (Toledo)
  • Metro (Siena)
  • Mid-Eastern (Morgan State)
  • Northeast (Bryant)
  • Southern Conference (Furman)
  • Southland (Abilene Christian)
  • Summit (South Dakota State)
  • Sun Belt (Georgia State)
  • SWAC (Prairie View A&M)
  • WAC (Grand Canyon)

Basically, these 15 conferences will provide the Tournament with the collection of No. 13 to No. 16 seeds that we will all root for in the first two days to pull the big upset. The conference tournaments will be fun to watch, but the outcomes will have no impact on the fate of MSU.

Potentially Problematic Mid-Majors

Every year there is are a handful of teams from mid-major conferences with very good records and eye-catching NET (or previously, RPI) rankings. If these teams win their conference tournaments, there is no issue. But, if these teams get upset in their conference tournaments, they become possible “bid stealers.” In other words, they might take a slot in the tournament that might otherwise go to a high-major bubble team like Michigan State.

This year I count a total of five conferences and six teams to keep an eye as we approach Championship Week. Table 1 below summarizes the Tournament resumes of these six teams along with MSU’s current resume.

Table 1: NCAA Tournament resumes for MSU and notable mid-majors teams

In this table, I have included what I believe to be the most relevant data with which we can compare teams that are on the bubble or for general seeding purposes: overall record, conference record, NET ranking, Kenpom ranking, “quad one” wins, and non-quad one losses (i.e. “bad” loses).

I have also included the current projected seed and the percentage of online brackets that each team appears in, according to the bracket matrix website. Finally, the table lists the best wins and worst loses for each team, with the opponent’s NET ranking in parenthesis.

The first four teams after Michigan State in the table all have some similar attributes. They all have very good records, and respectable NET and Kenpom rankings. But, they have essentially no quality wins at all. In fact, none of those four teams have even played in a game with a quad one opponent.

In a normal year, teams like Winthrop and Belmont would have had a few non-conference games against better quality opponents. It is certainly possible that either or both of these teams would have been able to pad their resume. But as they stand now, I would be shocked if any of those four teams would earn an at-large bid.

Then again, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. There are some years where the Selection Committee just seems to favor a certain philosophy over another. If this particular group of people want to reward the “little guy” who had a great season, but faltered in their conference tournament, then they might do just that. I think that this is highly unlikely, but who knows the impact that COVID-19 will have on the overall selection process. Just to be safe, I would root for those four teams to win their conference tournaments.

These two teams from the Missouri Valley conference, Loyola-Chicago and Drake, are in a different category. They also both have great records and very respectable NET and Kenpom rankings. They split the series with each other, which gives each team a quad one win.

Both teams also have four total quad-two wins by virtue of beating up on Indiana State and Missouri Sate in conference play. However, I will note that Loyola played in two other games versus more serious competition: Wisconsin and Richmond, but lost both games. Drake has not played in any other quad one games.

Right now, the Bracket Matrix has both teams safely in the tournament and far enough up on the seed line that they would likely make it in as at-large teams. While I could see the argument that neither team actually has a quality win (other than beating each other) I agree that it is likely that both teams, and especially Loyola, will wind up in the field of 68.

For a team like Michigan State, the best case scenario would be for one of the two teams, most likely Drake, to tank late in the season and then lose very early in the conference tournament. But, each team only has two regular season games left, so this is very unlikely. If Drake were to lose early in the Missouri Valley Tournament, the Bulldogs might fall out of the tournament, but I doubt it.

The worst case scenario would be for both team to get upset in the conference tournament, which could result in a total of three bids for the Missouri Valley. But, that might also prompt the committee to drop Drake in favor of the Missouri Valley champion.

In summary, these group of five conferences are likely to contribute five to seven additional teams to the NCAA Tournament, but the number is mostly likely six. This brings the total number of teams up to 20 to 22, but most likely 21.

Other Mid-Major Conferences

Next I would like to examine group of five conferences where multiple teams may be in play for an at-large bid. Let’s start with the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Atlantic 10 Conference, as summarized in Table 2.

Table 2: NCAA Tournament resumes for relevant teams in the AAC and A10, compared to MSU

For this pair of conference, there are a total of eight teams in play for NCAA Tournament bids. Clearly, these two conferences will contribute at least two teams to the field as automatic qualifiers, but right now only Houston is a lock for a bid.

Because of this situation, the AAC is one of the more dangerous conferences to a team like MSU. As long as Houston wins the postseason tournament, then MSU can compete directly with a team like Wichita State for an at large-bid. If Houston falters in the AAC tournament, the bubble reduces in size by one.

The comparison of MSU to Wichita State is an interesting one. According to the Bracket Matrix, from a composite point of view, the Shockers are the “last team out” and appear in over half of the published brackets included in their matrix. Prior to MSU’s win over Ohio State, the resumes of the two teams are similar in terms of rankings and quality wins and losses. MSU’s record is the biggest concern.

With MSU’s win over Ohio State, a comparable NET rating, a better Kenpom rating, and over twice as many quad-one wins, MSU should pass Wichita State on the seed line. The Shockers will only have one more chance to beat a quality team and that would be a match-up with Houston in the AAC Tournament. If the Shockers win that game, it is likely that they will earn the automatic bid anyway.

As for SMU and Memphis, both teams’ rankings are similar to Michigan State’s rankings and like MSU, neither team appears in more than a few online brackets. Both SMU and Memphis lack any quad one wins, but Memphis does face Houston at the end of the season and could face the Cougars again in he AAC Tournament. Similar to Wichita State, as long as MSU can get to at least eight regular season wins, the Spartans should rise above these two teams on the seed list by Selection Sunday.

Table 2 also gives the Tournament resume for the top four teams in the Atlantic 10 conference. Unlike the AAC, there is no single team that has separated themselves from the rest of the league. That said, right now VCU and Saint Bonaventure both have better records and rankings than Saint Louis and Richmond. The current consensus is that VCU and Saint Bonaventure are both in, while Saint Louis and Richmond are out. I suspect that two A-10 teams will see their names on the board on Selection Sunday.

That said, none of the Atlantic 10 teams have any eye-popping wins and they all have losses outside of the top 100 of the NET. There is no chance for any of the teams to pick up quality wins other than by beating VCU or the Bonnies in the conference tournament. If VCU and St. Bonaventure meet in the A-10 Final, I think that both teams will likely make the tournament. If either team were to pick up another bad loss in the next two weeks, I could also see them sliding off the bubble.

Once again, if Michigan State is able to get to at least 8-12 with a few more quad one wins, I think that it is feasible to pass the A-10 teams on the seed line, especially the teams that do not win the A-10 Tournament. I would make the argument that MSU should be above those teams now. MSU’s record and NET ranking is the biggest roadblock and those numbers will improve if MSU keeps winning.

The other side of the coin is that if a team other than VCU or Saint Bonaventure wins the A-10 Tournament, it is possible that the conference could get up to three NCAA Tournament bids, but this seems unlikely.

Let’s now turn our attention to the final set of mid-major conferences: Conference USA, the Mountain West, and the West Coast Conference (WCC).

Table 3: NCAA Tournament resumes for relevant teams in Conference USA, the Mountain West, and the West Coast Conference, compared to MSU

The situation in Conference USA is pretty simple. Initially, it looks like there are several teams that might be candidates for at-large bids. However, the current NET rankings are not as strong as teams in the A-10, for example. There is a chance that Western Kentucky could steal a bid if the Hilltoppers were to falter in the Conference USA Tournament, but it is unlikely. This is almost certainly a one-bid league.

The situation in the Mountain West in interesting. San Diego State has a good record and rankings. The Aztecs appear to be in safely, but they have no quad one wins (although wins versus UCLA and Boise State are notable). Boise State and Colorado State have good records and solid rankings as well, and the consensus is that both teams with be in the tournament. Utah State is a half-step back and generally considered to be on the wrong side of the bubble.

My gut feeling here is that MSU is within striking distance of both Boise State and Colorado State, but likely not San Diego State. MSU still trails the two teams in the NET, but has much higher quality wins and a higher Kenpom ranking. I also think that the committee might simply take the two Mountain West teams that make the conference championship game. If a team not on the list above were to win the tournament, I think that the conference could get three bids, but two feels more likely.

Finally, that leaves the West Coast Conference. Clearly, Gonzaga is safely in, and BYU’s record and metrics also look strong as well. The next best team in the conference, Saint Mary’s College does appear in exactly one bracket online, but the Gaels are clearly a distant third. As long as either Gonzaga or BYU win the WCC Tournament, this is a two-bid league and MSU’s fate is not impacted.

So in summary, here is our tally so far:

  • Low Majors: 15 bids
  • “Problematic” Mid-Majors: possible 5 or 7, but most likely 6 bids
  • Other Mid-Majors: most likely 8 or 9 bids, but it could be as few as 6 or as many as 10 bids

The most likely number of bids from these conferences appears to be about 30 total. However, I could see the number being as low as 26 or as high as 32.

So, that leaves a total of around 38 bids that can come from the six high-major “power” conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, and the SEC. Will MSU be among those teams? That depends a lot on how the Spartans play over the next two weeks. But, it also depends a lot on the how many other high-major teams play themselves onto or off from the bubble. But that is an analysis for another day.