Middle Tennessee lost on Sunday in the Sun Belt semifinals, after winning seventeen straight games. St. Mary’s lost last night’s West Coast final to #1 Gonzaga, marking the third loss to the Bulldogs, while going 19-0 against the rest of their schedule since Christmas. The talk about whether they were an at-large immediately began. The weird thing about this is that the Blue Raiders and Gaels are almost universally viewed in the same range by all ratings systems, and that includes different types that don’t always agree on teams.
Pomeroy’s ratings have Middle Tennessee at˘31st. The RPI has them at 28. Mark Bashuk’s Seven Overtimes ratings have them at 32nd, as do my Wins Above Median At Large (WAMAL). They are down at 48 in Sagarin, and 46 in ESPN’s BPI. All of those would have them in the field of 68, anywhere from a 7 seed to a 12 seed. St. Mary’s is at 31 in the RPI, 25th in Pomeroy, 21st in my WAMAL ratings, 24th in Seven Overtimes, 27th in Sagarin, 35th in BPI.
I cannot find a rating system, whether predictive, retrodictive, involving point margins or not, that has Middle Tennessee out at 28-5 or St. Mary’s out at 27-6. That includes the NCAA’s preferred RPI. If either of these schools are not selected, they will be among the five best RPI ratings not to make the tournament. This article from last year at ESPN Stats & Info has the following teams as the best RPI ratings to not be selected: 2006 Missouri State (21), 1997 Texas Tech (29), 2006 Hofstra (30), 2007 Air Force (30), 2008 Dayton (32).
So, if all of this seems to add up to a bid, why is there concern that the committee might bypass Middle Tennessee or St. Mary’s in favor of a bigger program like Tennessee or Kentucky, or Villanova or Virginia? Because “the profile” isn’t good enough. Middle Tennessee hasn’t beaten a Top 50 (by RPI) team, you know, going 0-2 against the Top 50. St. Mary’s couldn’t beat Gonzaga, and only has that win over Creighton of note. That isn’t good enough. Or is it?
Let’s compare their profile to the bubble teams, and for that I will use the last seven teams in, and the seven teams besides Middle Tennessee, in Lunardi’s bracketology. I will then compare them using a tool that the selection committee will surely be examining, by looking at a RPI breakdown of how each team did against various levels of opponent in the RPI (1-25, 26-50, 51-100, 101-200, and 201+).
When we try to account for Simpson’s paradox, understanding that Middle Tennessee and St. Mary’s played fewer top teams and a higher percentage of teams below 100, we see that both teams still outperformed their bubble comrades at every level from teams ranked 51-100, to those ranked 101-200, to the 201+ category. Neither of them played a team in the 26-50 category in RPI, so we have no comparison to draw there.
For the top group, St. Mary’s has one win in four opportunities, roughly in line with the bubble teams, while Middle Tennessee went 0-2. A-ha! See Middle Tennessee is not worthy!
Not so fast. Middle Tennessee lost to Florida in a road/neutral game in Tampa populated by a pro-Gator crowd, and at Belmont. No one traveled into their arena, except for Ole Miss, one of those bubble teams, and Middle Tennessee won that one. So if we want to really compare Middle Tennessee’s record against top 25 teams, it needs to be truly comparable, by accounting that their games were on the road.
Those 14 bubble teams that the committee will be debating went 1-33 against the RPI top 25 in road/neutral games. No, seriously, they have. That’s dreadful. Middle Tennessee going 0-2 doesn’t seem like a strike that knocks them down now, nor does St. Mary’s losing at Gonzaga and again in Vegas.
One of the reasons I started tracking wins over median at-large was to try to put this kind of information in context. Home versus road matters a lot in comparing how teams did against top opponents. Playing the 51st best team on the road (50% chance for a decent at-large) and the 99th best team at home (85% chance) are lumped together by the committee’s RPI comparison chart, but are vastly different. St. Mary’s drawing Gonzaga in three of their four top games is different than another team playing teams closer to 25 than 1.
When I went more granular with the wins over median at large, both of these teams are solidly in. St. Mary’s is +1.05 wins above median at-large. This means an average at-large (roughly the 25th best team, where 50 teams comprise the top auto bids and all at-larges) should be expected to get 25.95 wins against St. Mary’s exact schedule, and they went 27-6. For Middle Tennessee, it is +0.2 (28-5 actual record vs. 27.8 expected wins). Those rate significantly better than many of the bubble teams, are at -1.8 wins below average for an at-large selection.
Lunardi has St. Mary’s in as a 10 seed, and Middle Tennessee in the First Four Out. Jerry Palm of CBS doesn’t list Middle Tennessee in his first four out, even, behind such luminaries as Charlotte (137th in Pomeroy, last four losses by at least 18 points, -3.45 wins below average at large in WAMAL). The bracket forecasts always comes down to a few teams. St. Mary’s will probably be in. Middle Tennesssee is a wildcard this year.
I am going to have them in every projection between now and next Sunday. I am not confident in the committee, but a fair view of their profile says they should be dancing in March.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]