NCAA Football

Could the entire Big 12 make the NCAA Tournament?

Could the entire Big 12 make the NCAA Tournament?

It’s still early January, but Texas Tech has the potential to be a classic bubble team. The Red Raiders are ranked No. 60 in the NET rankings. They are higher in many of the other metrics that members of the selection committee consider: No. 41 on KenPom, No. 29 in the BPI, No. 30 on Sagarin, and No. 34 on BartTorvik. They don’t have any Quad 1 or 2 wins yet, but they have 13 opportunities left on their regular season schedule. They don’t have any losses in the lower two quadrants.

Texas Tech clearly has a lot more work to do, but it would not be unprecedented for a team with this profile to play its way into an at-large bid. Since the NCAA replaced the RPI with the NET as its primary sorting tool in 2019, seven teams ranked lower than 60th have been awarded at-large bids. (There probably would have been more had the 2020 NCAA Tournament not been canceled.) That includes Rutgers, which got in last year despite being ranked No. 77. The Scarlet Knights were 6-6 in Quad 1 games, but Notre Dame, which was No. 53, was just 2-8 in Quad 1 and still got invited to the First Four. There’s also the chance that the Red Raiders could earn the Big 12’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

Seeing a team like Texas Tech make the field would not be unprecedented. What would be unprecedented is that if it happens, the Red Raiders could well be the 10th team from the Big 12 to qualify, which means the entire conference would be playing in the tournament. No league has ever placed more than 70 percent of its teams. That record is likely to fall as it seems highly probable that the Big 12 will send at least eight into the bracket. The more titillating question is whether all 10 will make it.

I’m not saying this is going to happen. I’m not even saying likely. But I’m saying there’s a chance.

Start with where the Big 12 ranks in the NET. The league’s average ranking is 27.2, which is by far the highest of any conference. According to the indispensable site Bracketologists.com, here’s how that stacks up with the average rankings for the top conference going into Selection Sunday during the NET era:

Top conferences by NET ranking

Year Conference Average net ranking

2023

Big 12

26.8

2022

Big 12

37

2021

Big Ten

43.79

2020

Big East

38.1

2019

Big 12

42.6

Could the entire league actually make the tournament? That depends on two things. The first is whether the numbers hold up. Conventional wisdom holds that teams in leagues like the Big 12 “will beat up on each other” and therefore push some teams out. However, the flip side is that those teams could help each other because of their strong metrics across the board. A loss to a good team doesn’t hurt that much, but a win can help a lot. There aren’t many teams that still get to play at home against three top 15 NET teams in Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State. Texas Tech (or whoever the last-place team is) will be under .500 in Quad 1 games on Selection Sunday, but if it can win the right games, it can still merit strong consideration.

The more pressing question is about the optics. The NCAA has always insisted that the selection committee should assess teams regardless of conference affiliation. Yet, these are still human beings in that committee room, and they have to know that if they were to put in every single team from a power conference, there would be a lot of blowback. How much does that matter?

I asked that question to several former committee members, and the answers were all the same. “If I think a team deserves to be in the tournament, I’m going to vote them in the tournament,” said Tom Burnett, the former commissioner of the Southland Conference who served as the committee’s chair last year. “I don’t know how I would keep a team out because I was bothered by the whole conference getting in. That wouldn’t be fair to punish them like that. If you have to defend it, you defend it on the merits.” Another former committee member agreed. “In the five years I did this, no one ever kept a scorecard on how many teams were in from each conference. It was never a part of the dialogue,” they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak publicly. “If all 10 teams from the Big 12 got in or not, nobody would lose any sleep over that.”

Needless to say, there’s a lot of basketball to be played, but don’t underestimate how much has already been decided. Since conference teams are almost exclusively playing each other the rest of the way, their metrics are heavily dependent on the nonconference portions of their schedules. That data won’t change. The Big 12 is well-positioned to break the record for the highest percentage of teams to the NCAA Tournament. Sending all 10 is a long shot, but this league is primed to take it.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• People love to debate (or rather, dismiss) the idea of expanding the NCAA Tournament, so I’d like to weigh in on some things. First and foremost, the action that triggered all this discussion last week was a veritable non-event. The NCAA’s Division I transformation committee made a series of recommendations, one of which was that all championships include at least 25 percent of eligible teams. For basketball, that would equate to a field of 90. Those recommendations, however, are non-binding. Some people inside the NCAA, most notably ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey (co-chair of the transformation committee), have already indicated they’d like to look at expansion. They don’t need any committee to tell them what to do.

Frankly, I have no problem with anyone looking at expansion, because I think the more they look, the less appetite they’ll have for it. I’m all for making more money, but the financial upside of expansion is not nearly as high as a lot of people think. For a school like, say, Kentucky, the money that comes in from the NCAA Tournament already represents well under 5 percent of the athletic budget. How much more would a school get with a few more teams? And what’s the financial downside of adding games that are woefully non-compelling while diminishing a regular season that already struggles to gain traction? Not to mention that whatever the NCAA does to the men’s tournament it must also do to the women’s. Let Sankey, Phillips and anybody else run all these numbers. I doubt they will add up to much.

However, if the power conference commissioners want this to happen, then it probably will happen. This brings me to my second point: For people who think expanding the field is tantamount to Armageddon, there is actually a worse outcome — namely, that the power conferences could break away and form their own tournament. I’ve always thought that was an unlikely scenario (again, the financial upside is limited), but I could see a resolution by which the field could expand to, say, 76 teams (which would mean expanding the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders to quadruple headers) to satisfy people who might otherwise do something a lot more drastic.

People across college sports don’t see eye-to-eye on much these days, but everyone agrees that there’s not a whole lot wrong with the NCAA Tournament. Here’s hoping they don’t break it by trying to fix it.


Brad Brownell has Clemson off a 5-0 start in the ACC. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

• Clemson was picked to finish 11th in the ACC’s preseason media poll, so it’s unexpected, to say the least, to see the Tigers alone in first place with a 5-0 record following their comeback win at Pitt on Saturday. The Tigers are 13-3 overall and 3-1 in Quad 1 games. What’s remarkable is not just what Clemson is doing but the way it is doing it. Of the 10 players who took the floor in Saturday’s win, just one, 6-3 senior guard Brevin Galloway, who transferred from Boston College, has previously played for a different school. And that doesn’t include senior guard Alex Hemenway, who has played all four years at Clemson and has missed the last five games with plantar fasciitis in his foot.

This is not to say that Tigers coach Brad Brownell is averse to using the transfer portal. He tried to bring in another guard or two to replace two players who transferred out (Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor, who ended up at Seton Hall and Missouri, respectively). And he has had transfers make significant contributions in the past. But Brownell told me that he still prefers to build his rosters the old-fashioned way, with high school freshmen who stay and develop year by year. “The best way to maintain your culture is by signing high school players,” he said. “It doesn’t always work that way, but I think it’s helping this year’s team for sure. These guys have played in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve been together for a long time, and they’re highly motivated to do well.”

One of those veterans is 6-10 junior forward P.J. Hall, who went from averaging 10 minutes per game as a freshman to a full-time starter last season who led the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. Hall had surgery during the offseason to repair a stress reaction in his foot, and later in the summer he had a second surgery on a fractured kneecap. Hall still isn’t quite the player he was last season, but he has been working himself back into shape, and he had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the win over the Panthers. If Hall continues to progress, and if Hemenway gets healthy, then Clemson has the potential to contend for an ACC championship. Given the unconventional way this roster has been constructed, that would be quite the surprise in a season that has already been full of them.

• The Nick Smith Jr. vibes at Arkansas are getting weirder. The Razorbacks’ five-star recruit missed the season’s first six games because of knee inflammation. He returned in late November and averaged 12.8 points and 1.8 assists in five games, but Smith was put back on the shelf prior to Arkansas’ Dec. 21 game against UNC Asheville and hasn’t played since. The Razorbacks, who also lost their fourth-leading scorer, Trevon Brazile, to a season-ending ACL injury, have dropped two of their last three games (at LSU and at Auburn) and are in dire need of Smith.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman made waves last week when he revealed that Smith is rehabbing his knee not on campus but in Los Angeles, which is where Klutch Sports Group, which was co-founded by LeBron James and represents Smith for NIL opportunities, is based. That fueled the burgeoning speculation that Smith’s agents are encouraging him to sit out the remainder of the season so as not to jeopardize his standing in the NBA Draft.

Keep in mind that a lot of people said the same thing last year about Memphis freshman Emoni Bates, who sat out most of February and March with back issues but rejoined the Tigers for their two NCAA Tournament games. The real tell in this situation is whether Smith returns to Fayetteville for the start of the second semester later this month. In the meantime, his absence has forced Musselman to be even more dependent on three other freshmen and given him an unsettling distraction to manage just as conference play is ratcheting up. They will need to be locked in when they face red-hot Alabama at home on Wednesday.

“I think our team has done a great job of being really mature through all of this,” Musselman told me. “They understand that from a practice standpoint and a game standpoint, you’ve got to come prepared and collectively be ready to play. From an effort standpoint, I have no complaints. They’ve been incredibly focused and played extremely hard.”

• When Iowa junior forward Patrick McCaffery decided he needed to take time away from playing so he could focus on his issues with anxiety, his father and head coach, Fran, wanted to keep the reason behind that decision private. Patrick was convinced to make the disclosure public primarily by his brother and teammate, Connor, during a long conversation with their father and director of player development Tristan Spurlock as the Hawkeyes sat on the team plane during a tarmac delay following its Jan. 1 game at Penn State. “Connor felt like if Patrick explained to people what he was going through, it would not only help anyone else who might be going through it, but it would also help Patrick feel better,” Fran told me during a phone conversation on Saturday. “The outpouring of support has been incredible, but Patrick said to his mom, ‘I wish people would stop saying I’m courageous, because it insinuates that those that haven’t talked about it aren’t courageous.’ The hope is that maybe this will help people think of this as something that’s normal. I sprained my ankle, I hurt my knee, I struggle with anxiety.”

Patrick issued his statement the next day, and though he did not play in the Hawkeyes’ wins over Indiana and Rutgers last week, he wanted to be on the bench for both games so he could cheer on his teammates. He is doing some light shooting workouts, and although he does not participate in practices, he attends those as well. Fran told me that Patrick has been struggling with anxiety since he was in high school. There is no timetable for Patrick’s return, but he has taken a significant and positive step, and his candor will hopefully remove the stigma that all too often accompanies mental health challenges. “The only thing he needs to do right now is feel better,” Fran told me. “We’re not setting a date on when he comes back. It’s up to him to decide when he’s ready.”

Mid-major Top 10

1. San Diego State (12-3). The Aztecs improved to 3-0 in the Mountain West with road wins over UNLV and Wyoming. They have two big games coming up this week against Nevada and New Mexico at home. Previous rank on Dec. 19: 3

2. Saint Mary’s (13-4). The Gaels are strong in the metrics (No. 11 NET, No. 10 KenPom) and they beat San Diego State in Phoenix, but their two Quad 3 losses to Washington and Colorado State leave them one spot behind the Aztecs. PR: 2

3. Florida Atlantic (14-1). The Owls’ 13-game win streak, the nation’s second-longest, includes a four-point win at North Texas and a two-point home win over UAB last Thursday. They are alone in first place in Conference USA with a 4-0 record. PR: 7

4. New Mexico (14-2). The Lobos were the nation’s last unbeaten team at 14-0, but they have now lost two straight at Fresno State and vs. UNLV. Things won’t get any easier this week when they play Oral Roberts at home, followed by a road game at San Diego State on Saturday. PR: 1

5. Charleston (16-1). The Cougars ran their nation’s-best winning streak to 16 with wins over North Carolina A&T and Delaware. They have a huge game on Wednesday at CAA co-leader UNC Wilmington. PR: NR

6. Boise State (12-4). The Broncos ended December with losses at Santa Clara and Nevada, but they rebounded last week with home wins over San Jose State and Utah State. Three of their next four Mountain West games are on the road. PR: 4

7. Utah State (13-3). The Aggies got their best win of the season on Christmas Day over Washington State in Hawaii, but they got dominated on Saturday at Boise State, 82-59. PR: 5

8. UNLV (12-3). The Runnin’ Rebels lost three out of four games to close out 2022, but they rebounded in a major way to win at New Mexico, 84-77, on Saturday night. PR: 10

9. UAB (12-4). The Blazers wouldn’t have dropped in these rankings on the basis of their two-point loss at Florida Atlantic, but they followed that up on Saturday with a 90-87 overtime loss at FIU, which is ranked No. 240 on KenPom. PR: 6

10. North Texas (13-3). The Mean Green scored two tough road wins last week at Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. They’ve got another big road test coming up this Saturday at Florida Atlantic. PR: NR

Dropped out: Iona (6), Saint Louis (9)

Six games I’m psyched to see this week

Oklahoma State at Kansas State, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPNU. What a remarkable week for Jerome Tang’s Wildcats, who followed up their 116-103 win at Texas with a 97-95 overtime win at Baylor, where Tang was an assistant coach to Scott Drew for 19 years. They will need to keep their edge against an Oklahoma State squad that ranks 10th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and is in dire need of a win after starting off 1-2 in the Big 12.

North Carolina at Virginia, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN. The Tar Heels have won six of their last seven, including at home last week over Wake Forest and Notre Dame, but a win in Charlottesville will require their best effort of the season. The Cavaliers are playing their usual lockdown, grind-it-out style, but this is one of the better offensive teams that Tony Bennett has had there. That was in evidence as the Cavs shot 12 of 26 from 3 and had five players score in double figures during Saturday’s 73-66 home win over Syracuse.

UConn at Marquette, Wednesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Marquette is one of the surprise teams this season, but the Golden Eagles are undersized in the paint. That could be a problem against UConn, which got 26 points and nine rebounds from 6-9 junior forward Adama Sanogo in Saturday’s 69-60 win over Creighton.

Alabama at Arkansas, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2. If you like exciting freshmen, this is the game for you. Alabama heavily relies on four of them, most notably 6-9 forward Brandon Miller, who put up 19 points in Saturday’s rout of Kentucky. Arkansas also has an elite freshman in 6-7 guard Anthony Black, who had 23 points in Saturday’s loss at Auburn, but they need to significantly improve their 28.7 percent shooting from 3-point range, which ranks 340th nationally.

Creighton at Xavier, Wednesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1. Sean Miller knew he was walking into a good situation at Xavier, but he could hardly have predicted his Musketeers would start 5-0 in the Big East, including a win over then-undefeated UConn. They won at Villanova, 88-80, on Saturday thanks to 29 points from 6-9 senior forward Zach Freemantle. Creighton also has a potent scoring big man in 7-1 junior forward Ryan Kalkbrenner, but he was held to nine points in Saturday’s loss at UConn.

Michigan State at Illinois, Friday, 9 p.m., FS1. The Illini looked to be headed for a crisis following their loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, but they got their first Big Ten win on Saturday against Wisconsin thanks to a combined 44 points from Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins. The Spartans are finally healthy and have won six in a row, but this is a big week for them as they also play at Wisconsin on Tuesday.

(Top photo of Kansas’ Kevin McCullar, left, and Texas Tech’s Kevin Obanor: John E. Moore III / Getty Images)





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