Does strength of schedule still matter?

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through afternoon/evening games of Saturday, March 9.

Belmont is now an at-large candidate after the Bruins lost in the Ohio Valley Conference title game to Ja Morant and Murray State. Rick Byrd’s team is ranked in the 40s in the NET, but BU’s strength of schedule ranks in the 220s. For years if not decades, that second number would have mattered a great deal. Does it still weigh heavily?

When the field of 68 is revealed on Selection Sunday, we’ll learn more than which teams got in and where they were seeded. We’ll also receive our first hints on how the men’s basketball committee is going to evaluate teams going forward in this new era of quadrants and the NET.

The quadrant system was introduced for the selection and seeding process in 2018, and this is the first year that the NET rating system is in use. Together, quadrants and the NET hold the potential to alter the way selection has long been done.

Emphasis on “potential.” We won’t really know, of course, until we see a bracket or, better still, two or three done under the auspices of the new-method regime.

In theory, the committee has what it needs to blend the “predictive” and “resume” schools of thought. Though the NET’s inner workings remain a closely held secret, its outputs over the past three months have looked very much like a classic power ranking with politically appealing elements (such as the 10-point cap on margin of victory in games) bolted to the outside of its chassis.

If you have a rating system that’s doing good work in ranking the teams according to basketball strength, then something like a quadrant system can provide a meaningful “resume” measure of performance. A team that performs well in Quad 1 games is likely to be a good team when the boundaries for “Quad 1” have some grounding in observable basketball realities. (Though a continuous measure of game-difficulty would perhaps be preferable to all-or-nothing cutoffs based on round numbers divisible by five.)

Notice, however, that “strength of schedule” is yet to rear its discrete head in this discussion. That’s because it’s already baked into both the NET and the quadrants. Any power ranking must take strength of schedule into account, and the quadrants are self-evidently defined by how good your opponent is and where you play them.

So why is “SOS” still appearing as its own number in 2019? Good question, and, more specifically, this is still a very open question.

People who talk about selection and seeding love to talk about strength of schedule. Decades of trafficking in the RPI taught and indeed rewarded such talk, and in 2019 the number for SOS if often still listed next to a team’s NET ranking. This is happening despite the fact that the NET ranking itself, of course, incorporates a schedule-strength component.

Truth be told, talking this way may still hold value – if the committee still works this way. The promise of the quadrant-and-NET approach is that it has already factored in SOS and yielded a verdict. How the committee translates that verdict, however, is the question in 2019. No team is more interested in that answer than Belmont.

Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now …

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 25 teams
Locks: 31 teams
The bubble: 27 teams for 13 available spots
Should be in: 6 teams
Work to do: 21 teams

ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech
Should be in: Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson

Should be in

Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim’s program has a history of close shaves on Selection Sunday in recent years, but 2019 should be a somewhat more sedate affair. Syracuse is now in the clubhouse, so to speak, at 19-12 and 10-8 in the ACC. The Orange won at Duke, and the victory at home against Louisville also qualifies as Quad 1. (The win at Ohio State, though fast depreciating in value, will go in the books as a third Quad 1 victory.) If the selection were held today, Boeheim’s group would in all likelihood be looking at something in the neighborhood of a No. 9 or 10 seed. That number can be revised upward, naturally, with a good showing at the ACC tournament. (Updated: March 9)

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

On paper, NC State should be fine. The Wolfpack finished the season 21-10 and 9-9 in the ACC, and Kevin Keatts’ team shows up in the mid-30s in the NET rankings. So why are the mock brackets ticketing this group for, at best, a No. 11 seed (and possibly even a 12)? First, NC State suffers from the same malady that afflicted Auburn before the Tigers took down Tennessee at home. The Wolfpack are accused of not having beaten “anyone,” meaning this group’s 2-8 record in Quad 1 games features a win at home over (hey, what do you know?) Auburn and another one on a neutral floor over Penn State. (To be sure, the win over the Tigers looks better now than it did before the beginning of March.) Second, NC State played a very soft nonconference schedule, statistically speaking. Whether and to what extent the committee will care about that second bit is an open question.. (Updated: March 9)

Clemson Tigers

The enemy for Clemson is now the rest of the bubble. After winning at home 67-55 against Syracuse in the season finale, the Tigers will be showing up on many “last four in” and, yes, “first four out” lists. That’s preferable to “next four out,” certainly, but it’s still a precarious position to occupy heading into what is always a wild and tumultuous Championship Week. Even the slightest contraction of the bubble brought about by even a single bid thief, for example, could prove calamitous to Clemson. Bottom line, there could be an at-large bid in the offing for the Tigers even in the event of an early exit from the ACC tournament. A much more appropriate working assumption for Brad Brownell and his men, however, would be to approach the 15-team event in Charlotte as a classic “work to do” situation. (Updated: March 9)

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Should be in: Oklahoma
Work to do: Texas, TCU

Should be in

Oklahoma Sooners

Shown as a No. 8 or 9 seed heading into a rather lopsided 68-53 loss at Kansas State, Lon Kruger’s group has beaten Wofford at home, taken care of Florida on a neutral floor and now stands at 4-10 in Quad 1 games. (For the record, the Sooners are 15-2 in Quads 2 and 3, and 0-0 against Quad 4.) OU is going to the Big 12 tournament at 19-12 and 7-11, and across the last couple of decades, those numbers have not been attached to too many at-large teams. Nevertheless, there are plenty of teams below the Sooners on the correct side of the 2019 mock cut line. The committee will determine the real cut line, but barring a major surprise, Oklahoma appears to be on solid ground. (Updated: March 9)

Work to do

Texas Longhorns

This is what Bubble Watch is talking about with that whole “40 minutes away” thing. With a win at home against TCU in the season finale, Texas would be a world away from where the Longhorns find themselves now. But where Shaka Smart’s guys find themselves now is in the moral equivalent of a must-win situation in the first game against Kansas at the Big 12 tournament. A loss there would leave Texas at 16-16 for the season. Obviously, it would be unheard of for a .500 team with 16 losses to receive an at-large bid, even if said team does have the neutral-floor win over North Carolina and one at home over Purdue. “Unheard of” here doesn’t necessarily mean impossible, it just correctly flags the fact that we’ve never seen it before. Reasonable observers can differ on the merits of the Horns’ profile, but, speaking empirically, asking the committee to do something it’s never done before is not a promising course of action. (Updated: March 9)

TCU Horned Frogs

You have to tip your cap to the Horned Frogs. Going into the game at Texas, this bunch from Fort Worth had possibly the least promising spot in the history of teams on the “first four out” list. Now, after winning 69-56 in Austin, Jamie Dixon’s men are in position to lock down a bid with a strong showing at the Big 12 tournament. The season sweep of Iowa State that was looking like it would be a moot point can now be touted on the profile of a team that captured a third Quad 1 win, convincingly, on the final day of the regular season. TCU was given a chance, and the Horned Frogs took it. With this single outcome, the bubble stakes for the Big 12 tournament, both for the Horned Frogs and for the Longhorns, have been raised substantially. (Updated: March 9)

Big East

Locks: Marquette, Villanova
Work to do: Seton Hall, St. John’s, Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown

Work to do

Seton Hall Pirates

Kevin Willard’s team appears to have played its way into the field of 68, and, if that is indeed the case, the really important basketball with this team took place more or less exclusively in December and March. Within the span of just 14 days in December, the Pirates beat Kentucky 84-83 in overtime at Madison Square Garden and then won a 78-74 road game at Maryland. Then things went quiet and even a bit dark for a bit, as SHU was 4-6 at one point in Big East play. But, in the end, March smiled on the Hall, as Myles Powell and his mates closed the season with back-to-back home wins over Marquette and Villanova. Assuming a non-catastrophic performance by the Pirates at the Big East tournament, Bubble Watch expects SHU to perhaps show up in the committee’s bracket as a No. 10 seed, give or take a line. (Updated: March 9)

St. John’s Red Storm

With St. John’s, we’re confronted with a classic case where the danger might be understated by the numbers. If you were told that the Johnnies were tapped as a likely No. 10 seed before they lost by 13 at Xavier, you would probably conclude that the team will still be fine in terms of getting an at-large bid. Bubble Watch isn’t so sure. Chris Mullin’s guys closed the season by losing four of their last five games to finish at 20-11. The Storm’s NET ranking is in the 60s, and the signature one-point win at Marquette has been dropping in value for the past two weeks. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the underwhelming record against Quads 2 and 3 (7-6) from a team that has held its own in Quad 1 games (5-5). Even though an at-large bid and a spot at around the No. 11 line is still the most likely outcome, it does now appear that this team’s performance in the Big East tournament will have an impact on its chances. (Updated: March 9)

Creighton Bluejays

For the balance of the Big East season, Greg McDermott’s team was a pin cushion for the cruelest of the hoops gods, as the Bluejays lost overtime games not only to Marquette but also to Villanova and Seton Hall. Then in March, finally, CU started to even those accounts. Creighton got back into this discussion by winning a close game on the road against the aforementioned Golden Eagles, and the Bluejays followed that up with a six-point victory at home, in overtime no less, over Providence. Lastly, McDermott’s men wrapped up the season with a 13-point win at home against DePaul, meaning they’re arriving at the Big East tournament at 18-13 overall and 9-9 in-conference. The Bluejays have a shot. (Updated: March 9)

Xavier Musketeers

The Big East section of Bubble Watch is rather extensive, but it’s important to make distinctions even within the league’s spacious “work to do” section. Whereas a team like St. John’s is looking like it might play its way out of the bracket, Xavier has a long distance to travel before it can even be glimpsed in “first four out” territory. Still, the distance that remains to be traversed is nowhere near as vast as what the Musketeers already have navigated over the past month. This is a team that was 11-13 and 3-8 in the Big East. Entering the conference tournament, conversely, those numbers are 17-14 and 9-9. Travis Steele’s guys put a capper on the regular season by beating the aforementioned Johnnies 81-68 in Cincinnati despite not having Naji Marshall (who was out with an ankle injury). A trip to the Big East tournament semifinals (which Xavier has reached every year since it joined the league) would keep this conversation going. (Updated: March 9)

Georgetown Hoyas

It’s not going to be easy for the Hoyas. The win at Marquette, naturally, kept this team in the discussion, and Georgetown will go to work in the Big East tournament as the proud owner of four Quad 1 wins at 19-12 overall and 9-9 in conference play. That’s all well and good, but the profile also includes a couple of less pleasing aspects. The Hoyas are just 8-6 this season against Quads 2 and 3, and the team’s NET ranking going into the game in Milwaukee was a shield-your-eyes No. 80. So, no, it still won’t be easy, but Bubble Watch can envision a path to making this an interesting question, a path that ends with beating either the Golden Eagles or Villanova at Madison Square Garden. Keep going, Hoyas. (Updated: March 9)

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
Should be in: Iowa
Work to do: Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana

Should be in

Iowa Hawkeyes

Losing at Wisconsin isn’t at all bad or unexpected, but losing in Madison by 20 points when it’s the fourth defeat in the past five games merely extends and intensifies Iowa’s worries regarding its seed. After Joe Wieskamp hit a spectacular winning 3-pointer at the buzzer on the road at Rutgers, the Hawkeyes were 20-5 and mock brackets had Fran McCaffery’s team pegged as a No. 6 seed. Since that time, McCaffery was slapped with a two-game suspension (stemming from a tirade directed at referee Steve McJunkins after a loss at Ohio State) and Iowa has seen its projected seed plunge to the No. 9 line or worse. The season’s final game is at Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers recently gave Purdue a game and beat Minnesota. Still, regardless of the outcome in Lincoln, the Hawkeyes will arrive at the Big Ten tournament not merely looking to improve their seed but to rehabilitate it. (Updated: March 7)

Work to do

Minnesota Golden Gophers

The regular season is in the books for the Golden Gophers, and, in any normal year, you would say this is a team with great wins (at Wisconsin and home against Purdue) and a so-so record (19-12 and 9-11 in the Big Ten). Then again, bubble teams like Indiana are lapping the field in both categories in 2019, so we must look elsewhere for superlatives specific to Minnesota. Well, what about this: Richard Pitino’s team has just about the tidiest 12-loss profile you’ll see anywhere. The Gophers are 9-0 against Quads 3 and 4, and their “worst” losses come on the road to the major-conference likes of Boston College, Rutgers and Illinois. Something dramatic in the way of a disastrously fast exit from the Big Ten tournament or a severe bubble contraction or both might have to intervene for Minnesota not to get the No. 10 or 11 seed that mock brackets are envisioning for this team. (Updated: March 8)

Ohio State Buckeyes

Without Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State is in free fall. The 6-foot-9 sophomore was suspended indefinitely and has now missed two games, the second of which was a 68-50 loss at Northwestern. Chris Holtmann’s team had already seen its projected bracket position slip from the No. 9 line to a No. 10 seed, but now OSU has larger concerns than mere seeding. The Buckeyes close their season hosting Wisconsin, and a loss would leave Ohio State 18-13 overall and 8-12 in conference. True, all season long this team has clung to its road win at Cincinnati in the first game of the season. That is indeed a great win, it’s just that OSU hasn’t been able to give that victory much in the way of company. The Buckeyes’ other Quad 1 wins were at Creighton, at Nebraska and at Indiana. That body of work might not be enough in the event of a loss to the Badgers and a quick, Wesson-less exit from the Big Ten tournament. (Updated: March 7)

Indiana Hoosiers

This discussion is going to continue a while longer at least. Indiana is 16-14 and 7-12 in the Big Ten with a season sweep of Michigan State to its credit. The Hoosiers, of course, also have home wins over Marquette and Louisville on their profile. As for IU’s 6-9 record in Quad 1 games, perhaps the main point to be made there is that Indiana has played a ton of Quad 1 games. What’s less frequently cited, however, is the Hoosiers’ 2-5 record in Quad 2 games. Will that data point play a significant role in the committee’s discussion? No one knows, and, anyway, this profile isn’t finished yet. Rutgers is coming to Bloomington, and, after that, the Big Ten tournament looms as a veritable Quad 1 outlet mall. If IU plays the Spartans, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, Penn State (yes, Penn State) or, possibly, Ohio State at the United Center, it will be a Quad 1 opportunity. (Updated: March 7)


Lock: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State

Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

Here’s a Bubble Watch fun fact: Arizona State is the only team in the “lock,” “should be in” or “work to do” categories that has lost games in all four quadrants. Yes, the losses at home to Princeton and Washington State qualify as Quad 4 defeats, and, indeed, the Sun Devils are a notably so-so 10-4 against Quads 3 and 4. See, this is the kind of thing we miss with our single-minded focus on just one of the quadrants. Now, let’s focus single-mindedly on Quad 1: ASU’s win in Tempe against Kansas, as well as ones on a neutral floor against Mississippi State and Utah State, might get this team a bid provided its NET ranking isn’t too controversially low. Going into Saturday’s 72-64 win at Arizona, that ranking was in the low 70s and Bobby Hurley’s group was on Lunardi’s “last four byes” list. It could work out as is, but if the Sun Devils want to feel safe there’s work to do. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn
Should be in: Ole Miss
Work to do: Florida, Alabama

Should be in

Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels faltered down the stretch and lost four of their past six, but things could be worse in Oxford. Ole Miss uncorked a late 7-0 run to win the season finale at Missouri, and, anyway, this is a team that does own road wins at Auburn and Mississippi State. Not to mention this program was picked in the preseason to finish last in the SEC and has made just two NCAA tournament appearances in the past 17 years. When those are the givens and you falter your way into a No. 9 or 10 seed with your new coach in his first season, the future looks pretty encouraging. (Updated: March 9)

Work to do

Florida Gators

In what is fast becoming a recurring Bubble Watch theme, let’s discuss a major-conference team with a bad record compiled in numerous Quad 1 games. Florida is 3-11 in Quad 1 contests, with the wins all coming on the road at LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. (Fun fact: UF was singularly unsuccessful at home against the best teams this season.) It is primarily the win against the Tigers, naturally, that has lifted the 17-14 Gators up to the No. 11 line in mock brackets. Speaking of single games that had a significant impact: Florida’s late-season loss at home to Georgia (part of an 0-3 finish to the regular season) has left this team in a position in which a quick exit from the SEC tournament would expose Mike White’s guys to a high degree of bracket peril. (Updated: March 9)

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama closed its regular season with an 82-70 loss at Arkansas, a game in which the Crimson Tide allowed Daniel Gafford to record a 29-16 double-double. The loss leaves Avery Johnson’s team at 17-14 and 8-10 in the SEC — in other words, classic bubble material. Speaking of peak bubble, Alabama entered the game in Fayetteville as a member in good standing of Lunardi’s “last four in” list. The Tide landed in this degree of peril despite having a home win over Kentucky on their profile, and, naturally, the SEC tournament will offer a wide array of quality opponents and plenty of chances to impress the committee. The larger concern with Alabama, however, is that this team hasn’t won a game against an NCAA tournament-caliber opponent since January. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Houston, Cincinnati, UCF
Work to do: Temple

Work to do

Temple Owls

UCF’s late-season ascendance was good news for Temple. The Owls beat the Knights 67-62 in Philadelphia in the season finale, and it was very much a Quad 1 win. Paired with the home victory against Houston, Fran Dunphy’s team now has a couple of real profile boosters to flaunt as it fights for a bid. Right, about that fight: Temple entered the game against UCF perched right on the boundary line between “in” and “out.” Obviously, beating the Knights pushes you in the correct direction, but a single game can’t push you all the way to safety. So it’s good news for Owl fans that their team now has a chance to put even more distance between itself and jeopardy thanks to an American tournament populated by the Quad 1-opponent likes of UH, Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo, Murray State
Should be in: Wofford, VCU
Work to do: Utah State, Belmont, Saint Mary’s, Furman, Lipscomb

Should be in

Wofford Terriers

The Southern Conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there’s a first time for everything. Indeed, Wofford became a foregone conclusion in this discussion because the Terriers are 27-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young’s team additionally owns Quad 1 wins at Furman, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Finally, it’s worth noting that Wofford won at South Carolina by 20, even though that shows up on the profile as a Quad 2 victory. In fact, the Terriers are a perfect 21-0 against Quads 2, 3 and 4. Young’s guys have now advanced to the SoCon tournament semifinals, and an automatic bid could well be in the Terriers’ future. Then again, it’s nice for Wofford to know that (unless the committee whiffs completely) there’s an at-large waiting if need be. (Updated: March 9)

VCU Rams

Mike Rhoades’ men are riding a 12-game win streak thanks primarily to outstanding defense. Now, at 25-6 overall and carrying an outright Atlantic 10 regular-season title, VCU has a No. 8 or 9 seed waiting for it in a matter of days if mock brackets are to be trusted. There are no remaining Quad 1 opportunities for the Rams even in any potential A-10 tournament game, but the 54-53 win at Texas in December will continue to fill that need on the profile quite satisfactorily. (Updated: March 8)

Work to do

Utah State Aggies

Utah State came really, really close to furnishing us with a very interesting conversation. After everyone had declared the coronation complete with the win at home against Nevada, the Aggies went on the road and needed overtime before escaping with a 100-96 win at Colorado State. Now Craig Smith’s team is indeed assured of at least a share of the regular-season Mountain West title. Projected as a No. 11 seed, USU really has only two remaining dangers. One is a shrinking bubble, and the other would be an ostentatiously early exit from the conference tournament in Las Vegas. But, assuming both of those disasters fail to materialize, Utah State does appear to be in good shape for its first bid since 2011. (Updated: March 5)

Belmont Bruins

Now the Bruins must wait. Ja Morant erupted for 36 points, and Murray State beat Belmont 77-65 in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. Rick Byrd’s team hopes the committee will put stock in the positives on this profile. There is, for starters, the NET ranking that, at least when BU stopped playing, was higher than those of Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana, TCU, Temple, Minnesota, Alabama, Arizona State and the entire Big East bubble (Creighton, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown). The Bruins were also shorthanded against the Racers and played without Nick Muszynski. Lastly, Belmont was 5-3 this season against Quads 1 and 2. Conversely, Byrd’s men won’t want the committee to linger on a negative like the 3-2 record against Quad 3. In any event, the Bruin profile is set but the bubble will continue to shift in ways that will either help or hurt BU’s chances. (Updated: March 9)

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Oh, what might have been. No, Bubble Watch doesn’t mean the 69-55 loss to Gonzaga in Moraga, California. The Bulldogs are looking more and more like a team of destiny, and Mark Few’s guys running the table in the West Coast Conference was never going to be a huge upset. Instead, think about the four-point losses Saint Mary’s recorded against Mississippi State and LSU in November and December, respectively. Either one of those games moved under the win column would make this a much stronger profile for the Gaels. As it is, however, the single Quad 1 win coming on the road at New Mexico State might not be sufficient to get SMC into the field of 68. That said, Saint Mary’s stays in Bubble Watch due to its beautiful NET ranking and a collective and incorrigible ignorance in the world outside the committee room concerning what exactly that will mean in Year 1 of the new metric’s reign. (Updated: March 2)

Furman Paladins
It’s a mark of how strong the Southern Conference is in 2019 that Furman can lose at home to Wofford and, at 25-6 overall, still be in the discussion for an at-large bid. No, the Paladins aren’t “should be in” material just yet, but Bob Richey’s group does have that memorable Quad 1 win at Villanova. Alas, that win (plus a sweet NET ranking in the 40s) might form the sum total of the case for Furman on Selection Sunday. The Dins were done no particular favors by the SoCon tournament pairings, which will offer up the “chock full of Quad 1 goodness” Terriers only in a title game. By that point, naturally, the at-large point is moot. Indeed, it may come to that: Furman and Wofford have both reached the SoCon semifinals. (Updated: March 9)

Lipscomb Bisons
The Bisons show two Quad 1 wins on their profile, at TCU and at Liberty, and their NET ranking is in the 40s. That’s excellent, but it’s still a few spots lower than the one carried by fellow bubbly aspirant Saint Mary’s. Perhaps most daunting is the fact that Lipscomb is done with Quad 1 opportunities. Even the upcoming meeting with Liberty in the Atlantic Sun tournament will take place on the home floor of the top-seeded Bisons and will thus qualify as Quad 2. Such a meeting, anyway, is happening in the title game, so securing an auto bid appears more likely for Casey Alexander’s team than does an at-large. (Updated: March 7)

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