The Nebraska Cornhuskers have been one of the surprises of the conference season. They started Big Ten play, all the way back in early December, with a 29-point blowout loss at Michigan State, since then, though, they’ve won 8 of 11 conference games, with the only losses coming at Purdue, at Ohio State, and at Penn State in overtime. They’ve won 10 of 13 overall since a last-minute one-point loss to Kansas at home back in mid-December.
Still, Nebraska is almost certainly going to be disappointed on Selection Sunday. In my latest projection, I did not have Nebraska among my ten most likely “just out” teams to get into the field. I am not alone. Only 2 out of 94 recent brackets included in the Bracket Matrix had Nebraska in the field, putting them behind 13 other at-large hopefuls projected out of the tournament.
But I’m here, Nebraska fans, to tell you that your anger is misplaced if you are messaging a “bracketologist” (whatever that term means) to complain about not being in the field. I think Nebraska should be very much in contention, and likely just on the right side of the bubble. But I’m projecting what the committee will likely do based on the past behavior of how they have selected teams. My opinion on what should happen counts for nothing.
Here’s a quick primer about the issues that now have Nebraska on the outside, and with very slim hopes:
The Big Ten was down in November and December: Yes, Purdue is one of the best teams and Michigan State is a contender, but the middle of the conference largely disappointed. Northwestern was following up its first tournament appearance and ranked preseason. That didn’t last long. Wisconsin is a perennial contender, but has collapsed to a 10-13 record. Minnesota has disappointed after being in the tournament last year. Iowa is in a down year and Indiana and Illinois are trying to rebuild with new coaches.
As a result, the Big Ten is ranked as the 6th-best conference, which means behind every other power conference. The 6th-best conference usually doesn’t get much love from the committee, especially for teams on the margins.
As a result, there are few Top 50 RPI wins out there, and that’s what the committee cares about: There’s a misconception that the RPI rules the committee’s perception. It’s true, but it’s not by just looking down the RPI ranking list and seeding the teams based on where they are ranked in the RPI. Rather, the committee loves wins over other good teams, and gives them outsized importance. Who gets wins over Top 50 teams? The teams from the conferences where 6 or 7 of their teams end up in the Top 50 in the RPI. Then, you can go 5-10 against the Top 50, and that is favored over a team that goes 2-3 against the Top 50. Does that make sense? Not necessarily, but it is the truth.
Well, there are only four teams in the Big Ten currently in the Top 50: Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan. Nebraska and Maryland are just on the outside.
The imbalanced Big Ten schedule is doing Nebraska no favors: Not only are there few Top 50 teams in the Big Ten, but Nebraska plays none of them twice. And they played the three best on the road already, with the only home game coming against Michigan, which they won by 20. Now Nebraska knows how mid-majors feel when they have to play all their toughest games on the road and get evaluated on not having enough big wins.
Contrast that with a bubble team like Kansas State out of the Big 12. There are six teams in the Top 50, and they play them all twice. That’s 12 games, and just as importantly 6 home games against tournament competition. And that’s before the Big 12 tourney. With a committee that will overweight those results and attribute greatness by association (as I wrote in explaining why the top rated RPI conferences often disappoint), that means Kansas State will get selected way before Nebraska.
The RPI non-conference schedule way over penalizes for playing a couple of really bad opponents, and Nebraska had some that are costly: Look, I personally think how the RPI measures strength of schedule is not ideal. I don’t think teams should be judged by the weakest opponents they faced, but that is the net effect.
Nebraska didn’t play a great non-conference schedule but they played enough good teams. They played Creighton and Kansas, and also two teams thought to be in the mix for a tournament spot in Central Florida and St. John’s. (And again, all but Kansas was away from home). The problem for Nebraska is the bottom of the schedule.
They played the worst team in Division I.
Delaware State is 0-21 against other Division I schools. Not only are they 0-21, but they play in the MEAC, one of the two worst power-rated conferences. Since opponent’s schedule and opponent’s opponent’s schedule make up 75% of RPI, that’s a very costly game. RPI Forecast projects Nebraska to finish about 79th in RPI, but just removing that victory would move them to 66th. That’s insanity, that winning one game would be so costly. But it’s also true.
Add in a couple other games against Marist, Eastern Illinois, and North Dakota –three other teams with 5 or fewer D-I wins–and that’s why the RPI is down on Nebraska.
My preferred method is Wins Above Bubble, because practically, is there any difference for a team like Nebraska in playing Delaware State and having a 100% chance of winning or playing the 250th best school and having a 97% chance of winning at home? And Nebraska’s schedule and results would put them at 42nd in Wins Above Bubble. That’s about as a 10 or 11 seed, and in the field.
Nebraska is 57th in Ken Pomeroy’s ranking. That puts them in the same range as bubble teams like Missouri, USC, Boise State, Alabama, NC State, and UCLA. But the committee has a bias for Top 50 wins, so Nebraska is lacking. The RPI is also penalizing them badly because they happened to play the worst team in D-1 on one night in December, and won handily.
Nebraska has no Top 50 RPI games left in the regular season, and probably won’t get one unless they get to the Big Ten semis at the earliest. The opportunities to get quality wins aren’t there, and the committee doesn’t care what your conference record is.
Nebraska should be in contention, but based on selection decisions in the past, the chances are slim.