As we head into the penultimate weekend of regular season college basketball, the view toward the NCAA tournament is solidifying. There are, in many cases, only 2-3 games remaining before conference tourneys begin.
I whipped up a comparison database, for the last six seasons, of teams and where they ranked in the RPI, and their record against the RPI top 25 and top 50. We know that each of these things is a key indicator of which teams will be selected. Here’s a summary of how important both are, showing the percentage of at-large teams selected from those eligible (so I excluded the auto bids seeded 11 or higher).
Every team who has 5 or more wins against the top 50, and had an RPI of at least 60 has made the tournament. Even in the 60’s, half of the teams have made it (Syracuse and Temple last year). Meanwhile, teams in the 30’s in the RPI generally make it, but those that have 0 or 1 wins against the top 50 are a 50/50 proposition.
With that in mind, I found similar teams, from 2011 to 2016, to this year’s bubble teams based on (a) RPI rank, (b) overall win-loss record, (c) win-loss record against top 25 in RPI, (d) win-loss record against top 50 in RPI, (e) total number of games played against top 50 in RPI.
Here are the results using the projected records and RPI ranks at RPI Forecast:
Let me clarify that this is not a projection of each of these team’s odds of getting an at-large. It’s a projection of their chances based on recent history, if they hit that projected record (that is, play about like they have played to date). I’ll also note that for the mid-majors, I ran their projection on the assumption they got to the final but failed to secure the auto bid.
Take Michigan State, for example. They are currently 17-11. They only need to go 1-2 against a tough schedule of Wisconsin, at Illinois, and at Maryland, to get to 18 wins. If they lose out, though, and are at 17-14, the chances are lowered.
With that in mind, though, I’d like to talk about a few teams, who present interesting cases: Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
They are interesting because we simply have not seen teams with records near .500 in the top 50 in the RPI. Only two teams have finished in the top 50 while winning exactly 17 games: Minnesota in 2011 and Oklahoma State in 2015. Oklahoma State got in the tournament at 17-13, with a 6-9 record against the Top 50. Minnesota, at 17-14, missed with a 3-8 record against the top 50.
Wake Forest is 16-12 overall, and the RPI would put them in range. However, they are 1-10 against teams that I am currently projecting in the field. If they don’t beat Louisville or Virginia Tech in the last two games, I’m not sure 1-12 against likely tourney teams will cut it. But get one of those wins, and they have a chance.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is 15-13, and was 8-10 at one point. Their RPI rank climbed inside the Top 50 with the win at Tennessee. They are also 4-6 against the Top 50, with games remaining against Kentucky and Florida. That 61% is on the assumption they lose both those games and finish 16-15. Win one of those, and they will have five Top 50 wins, most in the last month. Teams with a 4-8 record against the Top 50 and an RPI near 50 are more likely than not to get selected. I think they are being underestimated as an at-large selection.