Discussing the NIT: Feb. 19, 2018

Conference season is winding down and my end-of-season NIT projection is starting to look quite similar to some “if the season ended today” NCAA Tournament projections. I released a new bracket this morning and it’s probably time I took a moment to discuss some of the more controversial points.

St. John’s

Let’s start with the locals. The Red Storm haven’t been in my NIT bracket since starting Big East play 0-11. Of course since then all Chris Mullin’s squad has done is rattle off four straight victories, including wins over postseason teams in Duke, Villanova (on the road!) and Marquette. The Red Storm have a difficult, yet manageable, schedule down the stretch. If they somehow find a way to go 2-2 during those final four games, as projected by T-Rank, they’ll end up at 16-15 (5-13) with wins over Nebraska, UCF, Duke, Villanova, Marquette and a couple other good ones. That resume is probably enough to get a .500 team into the NIT. A home game might be a little generous, St. John’s was the last four seed in my s-curve, but credit to the Red Storm for really improving as of late.

The Big Ten

There are four Big Ten teams in my latest NIT bracket. The three hanging around the NCAA Tournament bubble are Penn State, Maryland and Nebraska. Here are there projected resumes:

Team A: 61 RPI, 1-10, 3-1, 7-0, 8-0 (Quads I-IV), 184 non-con SOS
Team B: 70 RPI, 2-5, 2-3, 7-2, 8-0 (Quads I-IV), 265 non-con SOS
Team C: 67 RPI, 1-6, 3-2, 7-1, 9-0 (Quads I-IV), 278 non-con SOS

Team A is Maryland, B is Penn State, and C is Nebraska. Quite honestly, none of those are the profile of an NCAA Tournament team. It appears all three thought they could boost their profiles in Big Ten play and that’s ended up a disastrous move. Down seasons from Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin have robbed the conference of easier Quadrant II wins in league play. Yes, Nebraska might be 11-5 in the Big Ten, but the Cornhuskers just lost at Illinois. There’s a big game though coming up on Feb. 25 when Penn State goes to Nebraska. The winner of that will most likely be the Big Ten’s best hope at a fifth NCAA Tournament bid. (Maryland hosts Michigan on Feb. 24 and if the Terps win that we’ll also be having a slightly different conversation.)

It’s worth noting that every time either Selection Committee has explained their process they’ve said that conference record never comes up. So ignore Nebraska’s 2-game lead on PSU and 4-game lead on UMD. It means basically nothing. Thus right now it appears that Penn State and Maryland have ever so slightly better resumes than Nebraska (at least to me), which is what you see reflected in the current NIT bracket.

As for Indiana? If the Hoosiers find a way to beat either Nebraska or Ohio State down the stretch, or win two games in the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden they’ll basically be a lock. Otherwise they’ll be sweating out the automatic bids.

Temple / UCF / SMU / Tulsa

The American is one of the trickiest pieces of the NIT puzzle. Wichita St., Cincinnati and Houston have all but locked up NCAA Tournament bids. That leaves the second tier of the conference fighting for NIT spots. The next best one is a mercurial Temple team. The Owls have some great wins, including Old Dominion, Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina and Wichita St. They also have perplexing losses to La Salle, George Washington and Memphis (at home). A blowout loss against Houston at home on Sunday left the Owls with no more chances to raise their profile until the American’s conference tournament. UCF also has some excellent wins, but couldn’t take down the top teams in the conference and lost at Connecticut. Both of those teams look like NIT locks.

SMU has lost its last five games, and is playing without its top two players in Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster. Even if they end beating ECU and USF in the next two weeks, it probably won’t be enough to snag a berth. Unfortunately those injuries have caused Tim Jankovich’s club to plummet down the rankings. Foster is out for the season, but if Milton returns maybe SMU makes a run (e.g. beating Wichita St. and/or Houston at home), but without their NBA talent it seems unlikely that SMU can right the ship in time to snag an NIT bid.

Tulsa has won its last five games, but the Golden Hurricane still need a few more good wins to secure an NIT berth. Beating some combination of UCF, Cincinnati and Temple (and avoiding a loss at ECU) would go a long way to pushing them off the bubble and into serious consideration.

Washington

The Huskies are popping up on some NCAA Tournament bracketology sites as a bubble team (they’re in the First Four Out in the Bracket Matrix), so why do I have them as a three seed? Washington is one of the most fascinating cases available to the committee this season. They project to have an RPI around 58, but with a perplexing profile given the new team sheets. Washington is hoping that road wins at Kansas and USC are basically enough to convince the committee to ignore losses at home to Stanford and Utah, plus a road loss at Oregon State. The Huskies also currently have a “Super Average” of 76.3, according to barttorvik.com, which is in Indiana/UCF/BYU territory, not that of a bubble team. Why? BPI, KenPom and Sagarin all have Washington ranked 92nd or below. (Washington is 11th nationally in luck, which explains a large part of the predictive vs. RPI discrepancy.) But a cause for concern? KPI, which is designed to mimic the committee, has Washington 37th. Maybe I’m underrating them, but I’m hoping Mike Hopkins’ squad is an example of how much the new metrics matter.

St. Bonaventure

I have the Bonnies in the NCAA Tournament. After beating Rhode Island at home on Friday night they’ve done enough. Let them in. Otherwise what mid-major (or almost mid-major) stands a chance? Hopefully Mark Schmidt’s team closes the regular season out strong.

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