Instead of posting a full bracket today, I wanted to take some time and pixels to look back at what happened in November and December. That’s when the bulk—but not all—of this season’s non-conference play took place. Usually, the only non-league play left in the season would consist of the Big 12/SEC series at the end of this month, one or two Big Five games, and the occasional non-D1 games scheduled by mid and low-major teams that have a bye during conference play. However, with the pandemic, you might see a few more surprise non-conference games arranged to make up for cancelations.
Typically in this space, I write about wins and how they are more important than losses in the selection process. And while that remains true, and there will be lots of talk about victories over the next eight or so weeks. But losses matter, particularly non-conference ones that influence both the national perception of teams and conferences and serve as the basis for some of the metrics the Selection Committee uses in building the bracket.
The 87 teams in the ‘Autonomy 5’ conferences, Big East, and American Athletic have lost a total of 251 non-conference games so far. Given that these conferences go an aggregate .500 against each other in league play, that means these losses will have an outsized impact on determining the 36 at-large bids on offer for the 2022 NCAA Tournament. It’s time to go conference by conference to see which conferences set themselves up for success and which ones will struggle to meet preseason at-large expectations. Sure, these conferences’ results may not be too much of a surprise based on the national discourse, but the raw numbers are eye-opening.
American Athletic (11 Teams)
Current NET: 6 Top 100, 4 Top 75, 1 Top 25/50
Total non-conference losses: 40 (3.64 per team)
Most frequent loser: South Florida (7)
Least frequent loser: Houston and UCF (2 each)
Home non-conference losses: 13 (1.18 per team)
Most frequent home loser: South Florida (3)
Mid-major losses: 20
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: East Carolina (2), South Florida (4), Temple (2), Tulane (4), Tulsa (3)
Someday in the near future, the American, the classic ‘tweener’ conference thanks to the presence of both historic basketball powers and schools where football drives the bus will fall out of analyses like this one. That’s because three of its stronger basketball programs— Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati—will be off to the revamped Big 12. Sure, Memphis, SMU, Temple, and Wichita State will stay behind, the replacements for the three powers aren’t likely to pack the same punch and the conference’s traditional weaklings will remain.
The basketball/football school divide not only influences the meaning of the non-conference losses numbers above, it also creates a clear gap in the discussion of American Athletic members’ individual at-large hopes. Houston and UCF, who only lost to power-conference teams in November and December, are in the best position for bids as a result. Memphis, meanwhile, has plenty of work to do despite wins over Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Saint Louis. That’s because the Tigers also recorded losses to two of the SEC’s worst teams, Georgia and Ole Miss, and dropped a home game to Murray State, even if the Racers have at-large hopes of their own.
As for the schools where football traditionally drives the bus, Tulane looks like the best example of a team whose non-conference struggles will do them more harm than good. Ron Hunter’s club is 4-1 in conference play so far, with wins over Cincinnati, Memphis, and Wichita State, but a 3-6 non-conference mark, including defeats in both legs of a home-and-home against the College of Charleston, a home loss to Southern, and a 1-2 trip to the Bahamas for their holiday tournaments means the auto bid will be the only way the 126th-ranked team in today’s NET will make the field.
ACC (15 Teams)
Current NET: 10 Top 100, 7 Top 75, 3 Top 50, 1 Top 25
Total non-conference losses: 53 (3.53 per team)
Most frequent loser: Pittsburgh (6)
Least frequent loser: Duke and Wake Forest (1 each)
Home non-conference losses: 15 (1 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Pittsburgh (5)
Mid-major losses: 20
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: Boston College (4), Louisville (2), NC State (2), Pittsburgh (3), Syracuse (2), Virginia (2)
Based on the NET rankings alone, the picture shouldn’t look as dire for the ACC as it does. However, you have to note that Duke and North Carolina look like the only teams currently in the Top 50 that will stay there in the long term. Virginia Tech, ranked 41st, currently sits in last place in the league standings and hasn’t won consecutive games since before Thanksgiving. Wake Forest’s pillow soft non-conference schedule means they’ll have a lot to prove in the ACC grind. Miami, meanwhile, has a win over Duke, the ideal pairing for key non-conference victories over (checks notes) North Texas and Penn State.
There’s still time for the Hokies, Deacons, Canes, and others—namely Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State, and Syracuse—but any hopeful will need to go on a serious run in conference play. That would include grabbing wins over Duke and UNC when possible and avoiding defeat to Pittsburgh and Boston College. They lost a combined 11 times in non-league play and currently rank as potential Quad 4 home losses for their conference rivals.
Big 12 (10 Teams, 9 NCAA Eligible)
Current NET: 10 Top 100, 9 Top 75, 7 Top 50, 5 Top 25
Home non-conference losses: 7 (0.7 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Kansas State and Oklahoma State (3 each)
Mid-major losses: 4 (plus 2 to Gonzaga)
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: None
Now we’re getting into the good stuff. If you’re wondering why the Big 12 is oft-touted as the strongest league in the country in 2022, its collective non-conference results really tell you why. In non-league play, 60% of the league either didn’t lose at all or lost only once, with just two teams, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, losing more than twice. (Remember that the Cowboys are postseason-ineligible this season too.) Thanks to all of this success, the conference’s individual NET rankings are likely to be supercharged. With half the league in the Top 25 and two other teams in the Top 50 and the struggles of the ACC and Pac-12, don’t be surprised if the metrics help push eight Big 12 teams into the field on Selection Sunday.
Big East (11 Teams)
Current NET: 9 Top 100, 7 Top 75, 6 Top 50, 3 Top 25
Total non-conference losses: 26 (2.36 per team)
Most frequent loser: Georgetown (5)
Least frequent loser: DePaul, Providence, Seton Hall, Xavier (1 each)
Home non-conference losses: 9, including St. John’s to Kansas at UBS Arena (0.82 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Creighton, Georgetown, St. John’s (2 each)
Mid-major losses: 6
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: Georgetown (3)
Coming into the season, Villanova and UConn were expected to be great for the Big East, but it wasn’t totally clear if anyone else would join them. Now, in mid-January, the Wildcats and Huskies, who lost five non-conference games combined, are joined in the Big East race by a collection of teams who exceeded expectations in November and December. Providence, Seton Hall, and Xavier all made their intentions known by dropping just a single game each in non-conference play, while Marquette recorded early victories over Illinois and West Virginia to gain early notice nationally, even if three non-conference losses ultimately removed some of the tarnish from the Golden Eagles’ profile.
The Big East could join the Big 12 in placing the overwhelming majority of its membership in the Big 12. However, potential Quad 3 and 4 losses are littered across league schedules in the guise of Butler and 2021 Big East Tournament champion Georgetown. The Hoyas are currently the only conference team ranked outside of the Top 200.
Big Ten (14 Teams)
Current NET: 11 Top 100, 9 Top 75, 7 Top 50, 5 Top 25
Total non-conference losses: 31 (2.21 per team)
Most frequent loser: Nebraska (5)
Least frequent loser: Minnesota, Purdue (undefeated)
Home non-conference losses: 9 (0.64 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Nebraska (3)
Mid-major losses: 5
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: Rutgers (2)
Even though the Big Ten’s total number of losses is relatively high, the fact that all but five of the 26 defeats came against peer conferences (mostly in tournaments and the Big Ten’s two challenge events) means that the negative affects on contenders’ metrics is minimal. One thing to keep an eye on, however, is the NET rankings of Big Ten teams that hover near or below .500. In the recent past, non-conference results have led to far more Big Ten teams ranking highly in the NET than they should. Often, teams like Penn State or Nebraska fall under this category. In 2022, that group could include 7-6 Michigan or 7-6 Northwestern.
Pac-12 (12 Teams)
Current NET: 7 Top 100, 5 Top 75, 3 Top 25/50
Total non-conference losses: 41 (3.42 per team)
Most frequent loser: Oregon State (8)
Least frequent loser: USC (undefeated)
Home non-conference losses: 18, including two Washington State losses in Spokane (1.5 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Oregon State, Washington, Washington State (4 each)
Mid-major losses: 23 (plus one to Gonzaga)
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: Arizona State (4), California (2), Oregon (2), Oregon State (3), Washington (5), Washington State (4)
The 2021-22 Pac-12 season is shaping up a lot like the 2016-17 one in that there are three national contenders—Arizona, UCLA, and USC—and nine teams who will need to rack up wins over the lead trio to have any hope. That’s to be expected when your conference averages more than three non-conference losses per team (with a maximum of an 11-game non-conference schedule) and nearly two mid-major losses each. At least Oregon‘s mid-major defeats came against BYU and Saint Mary’s, two at-large contenders. And that’s why the Ducks are the best-placed to make a late run at a bid—Thursday night’s win at Pauley served as notice to the rest of the conference and country that they’re ready to make a run.
Five Pac-12 teams rank outside of the Top 100; however, with Oregon State outside of the Top 200. That means there will be plenty of opportunities for contenders to pick up seed-deflating losses over the next couple of months.
Note that March 2021’s three surprise power-conference auto bid winners—those Beavers, Georgia Tech, and Georgetown—all rank among the worst performers so far this season, though the Yellow Jackets haven’t been quite as awful as their peers.
SEC (14 Teams)
Current NET: 10 Top 100, 8 Top 50/75, 5 Top 25
Total non-conference losses: 43 (3.07 per team)
Most frequent loser: Georgia (8)
Least frequent loser: LSU (undefeated)
Home non-conference losses: 15, including an Alabama loss to Davidson in Birmingham and an Arkansas loss to Hofstra in North Little Rock (1.07 per team)
Most frequent home loser: Georgia (5)
Mid-major losses: 18
Teams with multiple mid-major losses: Alabama (2), Georgia (4), Missouri (2), Ole Miss (3), South Carolina (2), Vanderbilt (2)
The non-conference season featured some simply baffling results for SEC teams. Alabama defeated Gonzaga in Seattle and Houston in Tuscaloosa ... and also lost to Iona in the ESPN Events Invitational and Davidson in a hastily rearranged matchup in Birmingham. Florida took down Ohio State in a thriller and manhandled Florida State for the first time in Mike White’s tenure ... and provided Texas Southern with its first win of the season. Georgia lost five non-conference home games, ensuring that Tom Crean’s make-or-break season was likely to end in pieces. Arkansas, the team I pegged as the SEC’s auto bid back in November, followed two wins in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City with a semi-home loss to Hofstra.
The SEC will likely place six or seven teams in the field, thanks in no small part to the strength of its top five, all of which are in the NET Top 25. But danger lurks for bubble teams in the form of Georgia and Missouri—as both are buried in the rankings, 225th and 232nd, respectively today. Again, that means the potential for Quad 4 losses exists in conference play.
And that opens the door for ...
Perhaps some truly unprecedented things? I mean, let’s just consider Tuesday’s projection, which featured four WCC teams, two OVC entrants, a St. Bonaventure team ranked outside of the NET Top 100 as an at-large, and 11 multi-bid conferences in total. And note that several contenders, particularly Atlantic 10 outfits Dayton, Richmond, Saint Louis, and VCU; Conference USA’s UAB; Iona and Monmouth in the MAAC; Boise State, Fresno State, Utah State, and Wyoming in the Mountain West; and Chattanooga in the SoCon, still have room to grow. At a minimum, the fall struggles of ACC, Pac-12, and SEC members in particular will lead to plenty of scoreboard watching during the Championship Fortnight. If things break right; however, we could see the most diverse NCAA Tournament field of the millennium.
I’ll be back with a full projection on Tuesday.