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2019 NCAA tournament: Did the committee pick the right bubble teams?

St. John's v Villanova

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 7: Head coach Chris Mullin of the St. John’s Red Storm yells out to his team against the Villanova Wildcats at the Wells Fargo Center on February 7, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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It’s an argument that takes place every Selection Sunday: did the selection committee pick the right bubble teams? Every year it’s stated that the bubble is the worst that it’s ever been, and figuring out which teams should be in the field and which should be relegated to the NIT is an exhausting task.

The last four teams into the 2019 NCAA tournament field were (in order of their place on the seed list) Belmont, Temple, Arizona State and St. John’s. All four programs are headed to Dayton, with the Bruins facing the Owls in one First Four matchup and the Sun Devils and Red Storm playing in the other.

Belmont went 25-5 against Division I opponents, and Rick Byrd’s team finished with a NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking of 47 and a Ken Pomeroy ranking of 54. In Quadrant 1/2 games Belmont posted a record of 5-3, with their best wins being road wins over Murray State, UCLA and Austin Peay, and two wins over Lipscomb.

For programs in lower-profile conferences scheduling enough quality non-conference games can be difficult, especially when the competition for at-large bids hail from power conferences. In the case of Belmont the selection committee splitting the difference; not enough high-level wins to justify placing them directly into the main bracket, but understanding the difficulty that a program like Belmont can have in finding those non-conference games.

Temple, 43rd on the seed list, broke even in Quadrant 1/2 games (8-8) with six of the wins being of the Quadrant 2 variety. Home wins over Houston and UCF were the highlights for Fran Dunphy’s team, which was also a combined 15-1 (Penn being the loss) against Quadrant 3/4 opponents. Temple’s non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 223 wasn’t great, but its overall strength of schedule (84th) and strength of record (47th) numbers were helped by the strength at the top of the American.

Arizona State can claim three Quadrant 1 wins (11-6 vs. Quadrant 1/2) over non-conference opponents that are in the NCAA tournament field, as the Sun Devils picked up neutral site wins over Mississippi State and Utah State and beat Kansas at home. The issue for Arizona State was the perceived weakness of the Pac-12, which to the surprise of some ended up with three teams in the field.

Bobby Hurley’s team was a combined 2-1 against Washington and Oregon, with the loss coming at the hands of the Ducks in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. The Sun Devils also had a total of four losses in Quadrant 3/4 games, including home losses to Princeton and Washington State.

While Arizona State can claim a couple high-profile non-conference wins, the same cannot be said for St. John’s. The Red Storm, who did pick up home wins over Villanova, Marquette (who they also beat in Milwaukee) and Seton Hall, had just one Quadrant 1 non-conference victory (VCU). St. John’s was a combined 10-10 in Quadrant 1/2 games, with eight of the wins being picked up in Big East play. The Red Storm’s non-conference slate wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was ranked higher than Temple’s (219).

So which of the first four teams left out, UNCG, Alabama, TCU and Indiana, has the best argument for inclusion into the field? UNCG, ranked 60th in the NET, was 26-6 against Division I opponents but won just two of its eight Quadrant 1 games. Add in Quadrant 2 results and the Spartans were 4-6 in those games with the best wins coming at the expense of Furman and ETSU (two apiece).

UNCG’s non-conference schedule was ranked (127th) significantly higher than those of Temple and St. John’s with regards to strength, so Wes Miller’s program can’t be blamed for feeling hard done by. Could the lack of “variety” in those quality wins be what kept UNCG out of the field? It’s certainly worth considering.

TCU also had a good argument for inclusion, but the lack of variety may have been an issue for Jamie Dixon’s team as well. All 12 of the Horned Frogs’ Quadrant 1 games were played in conference, with its Quadrant 2 win over Florida being the best non-conference result. TCU didn’t have any “bad” losses, going 11-0 in Quadrant 3/4 games, and the non-conference slate was ranked 117th with regards to strength.

Indiana, which at one point this season lost 12 of 13 games, had some really good wins on its profile including a sweep of Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Hoosiers were 8-15 against Quadrant 1/2 opponents, but the combination of that mid-season slump and a non-conference slate that was ranked 209th may have been too much to overcome despite it including wins over Louisville and Marquette.

Alabama was a combined 10-13 in Quadrant 1/2 games, with its best non-conference wins coming against Murray State, Penn State and Liberty. Avery Johnson’s Crimson Tide had a non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 40, which in most cases would be enough to get a team into the field. But it wasn’t meant to be for Alabama, which will now be a one-seed in the Postseason NIT.

And if Alabama couldn’t get into the field with its non-conference strength of schedule, NC State may have been a non-starter (352nd NCSOS) despite having other numbers in its favor. The Wolfpack had an overall strength of schedule of 49 and the 31st-ranked strength of record, and going 9-9 in a conference that produced three one-seeds is nothing to scoff at either. But the non-conference numbers, despite having beaten Auburn, were too much to overcome.