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A reconsidered thesis: Maybe there’s room for more little guys this March

Any commentator who dives into the pool of news analysis — and makes assessments based on what s/he sees — has to do one thing more than anything else: acknowledge when the flow of events changes.

What might have been one week’s accurate-enough analysis can be overturned the following week. Any forceful or firm proclamations can mean a lot less than they once did.

It’s time to revise a bit of news analysis, then — one shouldn’t pretend otherwise and double down on being wrong.

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A week ago, I sat at my keyboard and hammered out this piece on the power conferences dominating the at-large picture. It wasn’t wrong at the time. Wichita State, Gonzaga, San Diego State, and other teams outside the Power 5 were playing their way out of the at-large pool, certainly to the margins of the discussion and away from a relatively safe position. The amount of compelling at-large candidates from non-Power 5 schools was shrinking instead of expanding.

Now, however, that thesis simply has to be reconsidered. Moreover, it needs to be revised.

The Power 5 teams on the bubble have largely endured a terrible week, with Saturday featuring Game of Thrones-level carnage. Clemson and Florida State lost the kinds of games bubble teams simply can’t lose. Florida State is, one could quite legitimately claim, off the bubble unless or until it can play its way back onto it. Clemson is in very deep trouble, perhaps only a tiny bit better off than the Seminoles.

LSU, after losing to a Tennessee team which was without its best player, Kevin Punter, is clearly below the cut line and will have to snag a quality win in order to change its bubble equation. Alabama lost at home to Mississippi State, which was playing without Malik Newman. That’s a nasty bubble breakdown for the Tide, which had probably pulled inside the cut line with their win at LSU a few days earlier.

Oregon State got blasted by Oregon — that’s not a bad loss, but it’s certainly a failure to solidify a spot in the field of 68. The Beavers face a gigantic bubble battle with Washington next Wednesday. That’s pretty much a must-win for both teams. The loser will be in massive trouble.

Texas Tech was the exception to the rule on Saturday, winning a “get-through-it-somehow” road game at Oklahoma State to avoid a bubble blemish. While the Red Raiders moved closer to a safe spot, most Power 5 teams tumbled downward into a more perilous position. Colorado, Oregon State, Florida, and other Power 5 teams which might have removed a lot of uncertainty from their respective situations all fell short on Saturday. With so many teams moving downward on the board, it’s time to give thought to a fresh question:

Can the little guys — generally pushed to the side in this discussion — now get a seat at the table?

One example of a little guy who deserves a new appraisal is Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors rallied down the stretch to stun UC Irvine on the road Saturday night. Hawaii stands on the doorstep of an outright Big West title — a few more wins will do it — and continues to do what every team is asked to do: win. That’s all the Warriors have done of late. They haven’t lost since January, and they’ve dropped only one game to a team they should have beaten (Long Beach State on Jan. 30).

With Saturday’s win, Hawaii has managed to attain this distinction heading into the final week of February:

Two of those other teams are Big East stalwarts Villanova and Xavier, both headed for high seeds (Nova likely a 1 seed, Xavier anywhere from a 1 to a 3). Hawaii is that “little-guy” team which doesn’t get many bites at the apple against power-conference foes… but simply doesn’t lose. It’s very much worth asking: If the Rainbow Warriors win their next six games — reaching the Big West Tournament final without a loss — and then drop the final to finish at 28-4, would they deserve a bid?

Strictly in terms of wins against the RPI Top 50, no. Hawaii came close against Oklahoma and gave it a good try at Texas Tech, but fell short in each case. Graded strictly by the numbers, Hawaii wouldn’t make the cut.

However, this is where the selection of the final few bubble teams (often) ceases to be a numbers-only game and lurches into the realm of principle: If LSU has a few more quality wins than Hawaii but so many more awful losses — given a schedule which provides ample opportunities to play highly-ranked teams — is it fair to reward LSU for being relatively mediocre against better competition?

No, Hawaii didn’t play the same teams LSU did, but it was excellent (not merely above-average) against its slate of opponents. At a certain point, shouldn’t the little guy who rarely loses get his day in the sun, even if the schedule is less imposing?

Who wants to see LSU get rewarded for being mediocre? There’s something profoundly unsatisfying about that… even if various numerical indicators and metrics slot the Tigers five or seven or nine places higher than the Rainbow Warriors. Discretion should be allowed to enter the picture here.

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We’ve mentioned three of the four teams with only three losses in Division I college basketball. The fourth — with a much better chance of actually making the Big Dance as an at-large team — is Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans beat Georgia Southern on Saturday to move to 24-3. With road wins at San Diego State and Tulsa, UALR has defeated two teams which might make the NCAA tournament. Tulsa is well within the RPI Top 50 right now, while San Diego State is hovering near 50. Those are the kinds of wins Hawaii lacks, and they make the Trojans an even more legitimate bubble candidate should they win the rest of their games until the Sun Belt Tournament final.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask the question: If UALR does win its next six games and loses the Sun Belt final, should a 30-4 team be left outside the candy store while a middling power-conference team receives an invitation? Even if certain indexes have the Power 5 team listed higher, shouldn’t critical thinking value a constantly high achiever more than the up-and-down enigma which stubbed its toe on several additional occasions?

If Hawaii, Arkansas-Little Rock, Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, and other similar teams win their next several games but then lose in the finals of their conference tournaments, they might not win the debates they hope to avoid.

If these discussions do take place, however, the struggles of Power 5 bubble teams have given the college basketball community ample reason to reconsider the composition of the NCAA tournament field.

Here’s hoping some common sense will be used. The power conferences might not dominate the at-large pool after all.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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