St. Mary’s and Middle Tennessee were two notable teams who were left out of the NCAA Tournament this year, in favor of at-larges from major conferences. The two conferences those teams came from, the West Coast and Conference USA respectively, are trying something new to help increase their chances of getting bubble teams in the tournament in the future.
Will it work? Well, I’m dubious. It will have a small incremental effect on the RPI for the conference, but I’m not sure that the Selection Committee–following a year where Loyola-Chicago was the story of the tournament, but probably would not have made it had they not secured the auto bid from the Missouri Valley–will change what they do.
First, let’s go to the differing scheduling tweaks the two conferences are making.
Conference USA, which has 14 basketball-playing members and in 2018 played an 18-game schedule with five home-and-home opponents, is altering theirs to try to insure the top teams play each other. The conference is going to play 14 games at the outset (the other 13 opponents, with one of them being partnered for a home-and-away). Then they are going to play the final four conference games based on standings in tiers. The top 5 teams after 14 games will play each other to finish out the 18-game schedule.
The West Coast Conference, which has been top heavy with Gonzaga, St. Mary's, and BYU dominating the 10-team conference in recent years, is going away from true round robin play. Last year, every team played all other conference members twice. To eliminate the RPI penalty of playing bad opponents, though, the conference is dropping two games. Gonzaga, for example, will only play last year’s 9th and 10th-placed finishers once each.
So how much impact will this have? The Conference USA system may seem more revolutionary, but I think the impact is about the same. That’s because the Conference USA system is just guaranteeing a second game against a top team (something that was already happening in the WCC). Last year, Middle Tennessee already played Western Kentucky and Marshall twice in the regular season; under this system they would have played another game against Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio, rather than Southern Miss and UAB.
Using the RPI Wizard at RPI Forecast, Middle Tennessee’s RPI would have gone from 33 to 30, and St. Mary’s (by dropping their two opponents) would have gone from 40 to 35. Would that have been enough to get either in?
Well, the Selection Committee put Middle Tennessee as a 3-seed in the NIT, so I would say no as long as the same mentality exists. St. Mary’s was a 1-seed in the NIT so maybe that matters, but I’ll note this scheduling doesn’t add a quality game, unless St. Mary’s chooses to replace those two weaker conference games with good non-conference matchups, including one on the road.
The biggest factor for the Committee has been quality wins. Maybe these marginal changes will push more conference members up, but the results aren’t going to change as long as the mentality that good wins matter (without accounting for number of opportunities/venue).
What it does show is, again, the absurdity of the system where simply playing teams, such as the bottom of your own conference, is a negative that actually hurts.