One of the endless debates in college basketball come tourney time is the relative excellence of teams in the major conferences versus the mid-major or minor conferences.
A cursory examination of NBA rosters will see both the middies and minor conferences well represented. And every March when the NCAA tournament gets underway, there are always one, two, or three major surprises as a low seed upsets an upper seed.
Usually, those low seeds are in conferences largely overlooked by the NCAA. While conferences like the ACC or Big Ten will get 6 or 7 representatives in the tourney, the middies and minor conference will be lucky if they get 2.
That’s why it’s a shame that a team like Murray State — 27-5, 16-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference — will almost certainly not be invited to The Dance. At one point, the Racers won 25 in a row — until they met up with Belmont in the conference finals and lost in the final seconds by one point.
And some of those 25 victories were against quality opponents:
“The one thing I will say, and this is probably my only forum to say it, is this is an NCAA tournament team,” Prohm said, before detailing the Ohio Valley Conference’s postseason success and its production of NBA players since 2010, before turning to his own team’s record. “Everybody talks about, ‘Who have you played?’ We beat Illinois State. They beat Wichita today. We beat Evansville. Evansville [beat Northern Iowa]. We beat Western Kentucky by double figures; they went to Ole Miss and won, and they’ve got Ole Miss as a No. 9 seed. We beat Eastern Kentucky. They couldn’t make it to the [OVC] championship game; they went to Miami and won by 30.”
Yes, the Racers had some quality wins. But they also had some bad losses, as ESPN points out:
Of the 30 games the Racers played this season, just three came against teams ranked inside the RPI top 100. As Prohm noted, the Racers did beat Illinois State on a neutral court, which looked better after the Redbirds’ upset of Wichita State. But Murray State also lost at Xavier 89-62 on Nov. 24. Five days later, it was thrashed by Valpo 93-58. Every other Murray State opponent this season has been ranked outside the top 100 — including losses to Portland, Belmont and (gulp) Houston. Twenty-one of their 25 wins came against teams ranked outside the top 150.
These are the perils of playing in a conference like the Ohio Valley. We’ve seen countless teams overcome their smaller, weaker leagues in past seasons; to do so, you have to impress in November and December. Mid-majors have fewer opportunities to impress, and much less time to round into form. Is that fair? Of course not. It’s college basketball.
The all-powerful RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is a measure of strength of schedule and how a team does against that schedule. Almost all NCAA tourney teams are in the RPI top 75 and virtually no at-large bids are given for any team worse than that.
Murray State is currently in 67th place in the RPI standings. The Selection Committee chooses 68 teams, 32 of which are already spoken for conference champions. That leaves 38 spots for the rest to fight over. With major conferences averaging 5 spots a piece, that leaves at most, a half a dozen at large berths that will go to worthy middie teams. Ultimately, the statistical advantages weigh heavily on the Selection Committee and teams like Murray State are likely out of luck when the brackets are filled next Sunday.
It’s not fair. It’s college basketball.