Bracketology 2019: Taking stock of non-conference results

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On Selection Sunday 2018, the Nebraska Cornhuskers learned the hard way that a sterling conference record in a power league — a 13-5 Big Ten mark, in their case — might not necessarily lead to an NCAA Tournament bid. That was thanks to a league-wide pattern of poor non-conference scheduling that damaged the metrics of the conference’s mediocre, and sizable, middle class. And with the Cornhuskers’ going just 1-3 against the Big Ten’s four March qualifiers, thanks to a slate stocked with games against the league’s lesser lights, Tim Miles’ team found itself in the NIT.

As you’ll read below, the Big Ten looks like it collectively learned a valuable lesson, as the combination of an expanded league slate of 20 games and improved November and December scheduling has the conference in position to lead the country in NCAA bids this time around. But what about the other potential multi-bid leagues? Did their members record the non-conference victories that will boost the league as a whole throughout January and February — with rich dividends awaiting in March?

To review the fall performances of each of the seven most likely multi-bid conferences, I totaled each of their members’ records in non-league contests against power opponents (for this exercise, that’s the ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Gonzaga on its own). I also noted the number of mid-major losses, not including the Zags in this case, each of these seven conferences recorded. For reference, I’ve included their five-year bid totals and how many league members rank in the NET’s top 30, 75 and 135 — as these groups will determine how many quality win opportunities exist for at-large hopefuls.

I’ve ranked the seven conferences in order of their winning percentage in power non-conference games with a reminder of some of the more noteworthy non-league wins and losses potential contenders picked up. At the end, I’ve included a quick look at the at-large prospects for the possible multi-bid mid-major leagues.

Buckle up. This is going to be a bumpy trip.

Big 12

Record vs. power teams: 29-17 (.630)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 8 (0.8 per team)

Most helpful win

With Texas going just 3-2 against power opposition, a 92-89 victory over North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational semifinals will have staying power with the Selection Committee appreciating marquee wins, particularly away from home.

Most disappointing loss

Iowa State‘s Maui quarterfinal loss to Arizona ended the Cyclones’ hopes of leaving Lahaina with anything worthwhile on its profile, even if they were shorthanded at the time.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Oklahoma vs Florida

Oklahoma’s win over Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinal got the Sooners’ road-heavy non-conference schedule off to a strong start.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise profile

Not much was expected out of Oklahoma, especially after the Sooners barely snuck into the tournament with Trae Young a season ago. But Lon Kruger’s club went 12-1 against a non-conference slate that saw them play just four true home games. While a home win over Creighton is the best of those 12, victories over Florida, Notre Dame and Northwestern might still have value when all is said and done.

Disappointing profile

This dishonor goes to West Virginia, who recorded 8-4 non-league mark that featured three mid-major upsets and a 1-2 start — one that put Bob Huggins’ squad on the back foot early.

March prospects

Five-tournament (2014-2018) NCAA bid trend: 7-7-7-6-7
Current NET-ranked teams: 4 (top 30), 5 (31-75), 1 (76-135)

The consistent Big 12 might just pick up at least six bids once again. But getting to seven or eight will be tricky with Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia all struggling to some extent and Oklahoma State below .500 in Mike Boynton’s second season.

Remember that the league, along with 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams, have one non-conference game remaining in their challenge series on January 26th. Two weeks out, event’s most important contests look to be Iowa State’s visit to surging Ole Miss and TCU‘s home game with Florida from an at-large perspective and a KansasKentucky showdown at Rupp Arena that will affect the race for the top seed line.

Big Ten

Record vs. power teams: 34-27 (.557)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 5 (0.36 per team)

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Iowa

An in-state rivalry win got Iowa’s season back on track.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Most helpful win

Sure, it was at home, but Iowa’s 98-84 romp over Iowa State was needed after an 0-2 Big Ten start and the Hawkeyes’ early 2K Empire Classic wins over Oregon and UConn losing their luster not long after the teams left New York.

Most disappointing loss

Minnesota managed to beat four power teams that have been some level of disappointing this season. But the Golden Gophers also lost at Boston College, which might end up costing them a seed line — if they’re lucky.

Surprise profile

Most thought Michigan would be good. But not many thought they’d be “11-0 in non-league games with wins over North Carolina and at Villanova” good. It’s no wonder the Wolverines are now contending for a top seed.

Disappointing profile

Both Maryland and Purdue really hurt themselves when it comes to seeding by going a combined 0-6 against power opponents in non-league play. The Boilermakers in particular might regret a one-point loss at Florida State and the 88-80 defeat Notre Dame handed them in the Crossroads Classic.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 6-7-7-7-4
Current NET-ranked teams: 7 (top 30), 5 (31-75), 2 (76-135)

What a difference a season makes! Thanks to the combination of more conference games and better non-league results, the Big Ten has a statistical base to leave 2018’s four-bid total in the dust. Note that the five teams that went 2-0 in the conference’s early set of league games — Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin — are all seeded on lines one through five of Tuesday’s bracket. To me, the big question is how the league’s bottom four — Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Illinois — impact the race.


Record vs. power teams: 32-28 (.533)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 13 (0.87 per team)

Most helpful win

With four non-conference losses, Syracuse desperately needed its 72-62 road win at Ohio State. Let me put it this way. In 2017, the Orange won 18 games, including ones over Duke and Virginia at the Carrier Dome. But they couldn’t pick up a marquee win away from home — a result that pushed them into the NIT. One year later, they won 20, with late road victories over Louisville and Miami likely pushing them into the First Four. If Jim Boeheim’s squad gets to 19 or 20 wins again with a quality ACC road win to pair with the one over the Buckeyes, they might make it to Dayton again.

Most disappointing loss

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Penn State

Virginia Tech’s one-point challenge loss at Penn State is slipping into “bad” territory.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

14-1 Virginia Tech is one point away from perfection, as the Hokies fell to Penn State 63-62 in their only true road non-conference game. Unfortunately, it’s not like the Nittany Lions are setting the Big Ten on fire (again).

Surprise profile

Even with a 2-4 mark in non-league power games, this honor goes to Louisville, thanks to a home win over Michigan State and road victory against Seton Hall. Those might be handy should Chris Mack’s first Cardinal squad get to 9-9 in the ACC

Disappointing profiles

Since I’ve already discussed Syracuse, I’m turning my attention another 2018 Sweet Sixteen squad, Clemson. While the Tigers went 2-3 against power opponents, wins over Georgia and South Carolina probably won’t move the needle this year. Clemson’s consecutive losses to Creighton and Nebraska by a total of seven points might be particularly painful. Similarly, Notre Dame’s 3-2 power record features just one win over a potential NCAA team, Purdue, and consecutive losses to Oklahoma and a UCLA squad that’s already fired its coach — by a total of eight points.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 6-6-7-9-9
Current NET-ranked teams: 6 (top 30), 4 (31-75), 3 (76-135)

It feels like one-third of the ACC’s 15 teams are already planning for next year, even if Pittsburgh won’t go 0-18 for a second straight year. Wake Forest is bad. Boston College hasn’t made the anticipated leap to contention. Miami is shorthanded and it shows, while Georgia Tech looks to be a year away at least. That means how well Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse perform will determine whether the conference’s bid total falls between six and 10.

Big East

Record vs. power teams: 24-23 (.511)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 8 (0.8 per team)

Most helpful win

Villanova‘s 66-60 toppling of a dangerous Florida State team in the AdvoCare Invitational final might have saved the Wildcats’ season after consecutive home losses to Michigan and Furman (even if Jay Wright’s team dropped consecutive December’s road games to Penn and Kansas). Honorable mention goes to Providence‘s road victory over a similarly inconsistent Texas squad. That one could eventually be a bubble tiebreaker.

Most disappointing loss

Butler‘s 69-64 loss to Dayton in the Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinals might sting all the way to Selection Sunday The Bulldogs could have used the early tests against Virginia and (likely) Oklahoma the win would have provided, rather than the contests they earned instead — the first against a Middle Tennessee team that’s defeated just one Division I team to this point and the subsequent matchup with a Florida squad Butler was already set to meet.

Surprise profile

While Seton Hall started slowly, following up blowout loss at Nebraska with a two-point home defeat to Saint Louis, the Pirates managed to get things together in time to win the Wooden Legacy, over what’s admittedly turned out to be a less-than-impressive field. And while that home loss to Louisville followed, Kevin Willard’s team more than made up for it by beating Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in one of the season’s best games to date and Maryland in College Park just before Big East play tipped off.

Disappointing profile

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic

A Legends Classic title is currently the only good thing about St. John’s non-conference schedule.
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

St. John’s. Yes, the Red Storm entered Big East play 12-0 but there were so many empty calories on that slate, and the lack of real challengers is arguably already costing the Johnnies in conference play. If Chris Mullin’s squad fails to win at Duke on February 2nd, their lone non-conference over a potential at-large squad will have come against VCU on November 20th.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 4-6-5-7-6
Current NET-ranked teams: 3 (top 30), 3 (31-75), 4 (76-135)

The Big East is going to be hard pressed to equal the last two seasons’ bid totals and land multiple teams in the protected seed range, something that’s been a constant since the new version of the conference emerged in 2014. With Georgetown not quite ready for primetime, DePaul being, well, DePaul and Xavier struggling in Travis Steele’s first season, 30 percent of the league will struggle to make an at-large case. And thanks to some indifferent non-conference performances, Creighton, Butler and Providence will all need to impress during Big East play to have a chance to help the conference send a majority of its membership to March Madness.


Record vs. power teams: 30-33 (.476)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 11 (0.79 per team)

Most helpful win

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Tennessee

Tennessee announced its intentions to the rest of the country in the middle of a football Sunday.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Easy. Tennessee‘s 76-73 triumph over Gonzaga in Phoenix on December 9th — a victory that catapulted Rick Barnes’ squad from Final Four threat to potential national champion — leads the way. It’s just a pity it happened in the middle of a busy NFL Sunday.

Most disappointing loss

It was difficult to pick one out of a fairly hefty list, but I settled on Auburn‘s 78-71 setback at N.C. State on December 19th. While the Tigers have three power non-conference wins, none of those came against a surefire at-large team. And with the Tigers one of four SEC teams left out of the Big 12 Challenge later this month, they’ll have to do all of their remaining work in league play.

Surprise profile

Much like the ACC and Big East, it’s a team that didn’t have the greatest November and December, but which managed to show up at the most important time. In the SEC’s case, that’s Kentucky, who picked up victories over North Carolina in Chicago and Louisville on the final two Saturdays of 2018 after struggling against a few mid-majors and losing to both Duke and Seton Hall. You won’t find better non-conference wins on a non-Tennessee SEC profile.

Disappointing profile

South Carolina, now 2-0 in the SEC, lost every game of note on its slate and added a trio of mid-major upsets against Stony Brook, Wofford and Wyoming for good measure. To have any hope of reaching the field of 68, the Gamecocks will have to build on their hot start to conference play.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 3-5-3-5-8
Current NET-ranked teams: 6 (top 30), 5 (31-75), 2 (76-135)

After 2018’s eight-bid haul, expectations for 2019 were sky high for a league that has struggled to compete with the other power conferences on the basketball front. But with the exception of Tennessee and Kentucky, the SEC struggled to live up to those hopes in a November and December that featured some ambitious scheduling. But all is not lost for the SEC. Sure, just six teams featured in the first bracket of 2019, but no fewer than four others were within striking distance of the field and there are another three that aren’t completely out of the picture either (sorry, Texas A&M). And even though the non-conference results were slightly disappointing, there’s still enough quality there to boost the league’s at-large profiles.

American Athletic

Record vs. power teams: 16-19 (.457)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 23 (1.92 per team)

Most helpful win

With West Virginia failing to reach the Myrtle Beach Invitational final, UCF needed to take advantage of at least one of the two remaining power win opportunities on its schedule. And so the Knights did — defeating Alabama for the second season in a row — even they managed to lose to Missouri for the second straight time immediately afterward.

Most disappointing loss

With both Temple and VCU on the bubble, the Owls’ 57-51 loss to the Rams in the Legends Classic semifinals on November 19th might have repercussions on March 17th.

Surprise profile

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Temple

Houston’s run at perfection ended on Wednesday night. Now the question is if their 13-0 start will help them on Selection Sunday.
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Houston went a perfect 13-0 against a non-conference slate that wasn’t quite as good as anticipated, thanks to the struggles of BYU, Oklahoma State and Oregon. Still, victories over LSU and Saint Louis should have some meaning when March arrives, even if they likely won’t boost the formerly-undefeated Cougars’ seeding much.

Disappointing profile

While SMU managed to win at Georgetown, the Mustangs only managed an 8-4 non-conference mark. Sure, home losses to Lipscomb and TCU are forgivable, but another to Southern Mississippi and a Cancun Challenge semifinal setback to Bradley might damage both the Ponies’ March hopes and those of the conference’s overall.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 4-2-4-2-3
Current NET-ranked teams: 1 (top 30), 4 (31-75), 4 (76-135)

Arguments about the American’s status as a major conference aren’t limited to football. I’ve included them in this exercise because the league’s 12 members outperformed the Pac-12 in power non-conference games this season, despite having six fewer opportunities.

But that doesn’t mean the American is going to compete with the five leagues ranked above it in this season’s bid race. After non-conference play, only Houston looks like a surefire NCAA team, with Cincinnati, UCF and Temple looking like at-large threats (and in that order). And while South Florida and East Carolina are both showing signs of life after serving as doormats throughout the conference’s history, Tulane seems to be getting worse, while UConn is going through yet another transitional year, with typical postseason contender Wichita State joining them. Penny Hardaway’s Memphis club is a year or two away from contention, while Tulsa continues to remain an enigma. And that means the contending quartet will have to rely on their limited number of games against each other to build their profiles — and that’s a formula likely to result in just one or two American Athletic NCAA qualifiers, not three or four.


Record vs. power teams: 9-31 (.225)
Mid-major upsets suffered: 27 (2.25 per team)

Most helpful wins

This is a tie between Arizona’s aforementioned win over Iowa State (71-66) in Maui and Oregon‘s 2K Empire Classic 80-65 consolation victory over Syracuse. But considering the Wildcats and Ducks managed to go a combined 3-7 in power non-conference games, they’ll both need to do plenty of work in conference play to make those results matter in March.

Most disappointing loss

Arizona only managed to score 49 points against Baylor at home in a nine-point loss on December 15th. In a November and December full of putrid performances, this ranks as a remarkably pathetic one for an at-large contender.

But really, I was spoiled for choice here, with Saturday, December 29th sticking out as particularly bad.

Making matters worse, the Pac-12 won just nine games of the 40 it played against power opposition. It’s hard to express how awful that is.

Surprise profile

Arizona State is the only team in the conference with two truly bankable wins on its résumé — over SEC contender Mississippi State in Vegas and a second straight over Kansas. And with quality wins mattering more than questionable losses to the Committee, Bobby Hurley’s squad could be well positioned to make the First Four for a second straight year, at a minimum.

Disappointing profile

While Washington was blown out at Auburn and fell to Virginia Tech by 12 in Atlantic City, it’s a pair of two-point losses away from home — against Minnesota in Vancouver and at Gonzaga — that have the Huskies sitting on the wrong side of the cut line in January.

March prospects

Five-tournament NCAA bid trend: 6-4-7-4-3
Current NET-ranked teams: 0 (top 30), 3 (31-75), 6 (76-135)

If you thought last season’s Pac-12 — the one that placed a trio of teams in the field of 68 with two of those losing in Dayton — was bad, the 2018-19 version makes that one look like 2018’s ACC. Every single team in the conference is a disappointment, from the woebegone Washington State and California teams responsible for 11 of the league’s 27 mid-major losses to a Utah outfit that’s mired in mediocrity to a UCLA squad that’s already fired its coach to a crop of contenders who managed to underperform mightily over the season’s opening weeks.

There’s a good chance the Pac-12 will again have six or seven teams that win 10 or more conference games. But like last season, those victories won’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things because the conference as a whole wasn’t able to win enough in non-league play to provide a solid base for its scheduling metrics. No Pac-12 team currently ranks in the top 30 of the NET, which means all Group 1 win opportunities for the conference are going to be road games (and those will be limited with just three teams in the top 75). That’s the real consequence of sleepwalking through the season’s opening weeks.

Other Potential Multi-Bid Conferences

At this early stage, it appears that the following conference tournaments will cause some unease among bubble teams. But it’s going to take a lot for any of these leagues to earn more than two bids.

  • The Atlantic 10 sent three teams to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but they needed Davidson to win the auto bid for that to happen. And while the conference has consistently qualified a trio of squads since placing six in the 2014 field, it will likely need VCU (non-conference wins over Temple and Texas away from home with questionable losses at Old Dominion and College of Charleston at home) and Saint Louis (which defeated Seton Hall, Butler and Oregon State to balance out losses to Pitt, Houston, Florida State and, most damagingly, Southern Illinois) to virtually run the table in league play and get a surprise auto bid winner to send three in 2019.
  • Had Buffalo followed up its road win at Syracuse with one at Marquette, the Bulls would be a virtual lock at this early stage. And if they run through the MAC as anticipated — note that they obliterated a good Toledo team by 30 on Tuesday — they aren’t going to need to worry about winning the conference tournament in Cleveland.
  • It’s a similar story for Nevada in the Mountain West, though the Wolf Pack must avoid repeating Saturday’s 27-point loss at New Mexico to be safe. While the Wolf Pack have a 4-0 record in power conference games, three of those victories came against Pac-12 opposition, with only the one over Arizona State coming against a potential at-large team.
  • While Gonzaga is well on its way to a 21st consecutive NCAA bid, early hopes for a multi-bid WCC have been tempered by indifferent performances, particularly out of BYU, Saint Mary’s and San Diego, along with the Pac-12’s struggles. While WCC squads won 15 of its 31 power conference games, 10 of those victories came against their regional power loop. Making matters worse, San Francisco lost a home game against Arizona State thanks to the California wildfires. A visit from and potential win over the Sun Devils would have done the Dons far more good than their victories over California and Stanford.
  • While Conference USA entered the season with hopes of its first multi-bid season since 2012, Western Kentucky and Marshall didn’t live up to the preseason hype and Old Dominion Monarchs ‘s questionable losses to Saint Joseph’s, Oregon State and Northern Iowa will likely outweigh victories over VCU and Syracuse.

My next full bracket update will come on Tuesday.

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