What’s in a number? It’s one of college basketball’s foremost questions this season

No, no, no — we’re not going to use the “B-word” around here for another full month. The word which rhymes with “Clack it, Allah, gee!” is not going to be printed in this space until absolutely necessary. Projecting seeds and regions, plus the number of teams each conference will put in the NCAA tournament — those are end-of-February activities.

We have five full weeks in which to see exactly what teams are made of… and even that might not be enough to ascertain which win is a quality result or an empty-calorie triumph. These kinds of determinations go into the NCAA tournament’s final crock pot. Right now, we’re not even about to cook. We need to search for the right (68) ingredients, and the journey has only just begun.

This is not a deep dive, merely an introduction, on The Road To The Final Four.


We’re going to reintroduce these themes and images over the coming weeks, but let’s get you into the habit of making informed judgments on various teams and conferences as they pursue tickets to the Big Dance.

Whenever the B-word comes up and resumes are evaluated, you will hear these refrains from plenty of fans, understandably eager to plead their team’s case before a court of (basketball) law:

“20 wins — if you get there, you’re a tournament team!”

“You can’t have a losing conference record and honestly expect to be considered!”

“They’re in third place in their conference. That’s strong. Of COURSE they’ll get in!”

Naturally, plenty of 20-win teams will make the tournament. Naturally, a losing conference record is not a recommended part of a resume. Naturally, being third place in a conference, even a power conference, will usually mean entry into the March Madness sweepstakes.

However, these are not airtight principles.

There is nothing in any of the above details which guarantees inclusion or exclusion from the NCAA tournament.

Mutliple teams with 20 wins before Selection Sunday — in conferences which generally don’t expect to be one-bid conferences — were left out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Some of these teams were top-three finishers in their respective conferences: Tulsa (second) and Temple (third) in the AAC; Colorado State (Mountain West); and Rhode Island (Atlantic 10).

Yes, Temple and Colorado State both deserved a bid more than UCLA did, but one of those two teams was probably going to get left out, anyway.

A team which tied for third in a Power 5 conference and collected 20 wins before Selection Sunday was Texas A&M. The Aggies did not make the field.

Meanwhile, two teams which went 8-10 in a Power 5 conference — Texas and Oklahoma State — both made the 2015 edition of the Dance.

YES, if you were to ask me, “Matt, shouldn’t a team such as Murray State (which went unbeaten in its conference last season) get invited to the NCAA tournament instead of Texas or Oklahoma State?”, I would say yes. However, that’s a question of policy. It’s not a reality of the selection process as things currently stand. I do have a proposal for that, but it’s just that at this point — a proposal, not a reality.

If you’re asking me, “Will Team X get in under this set of circumstances,” things such as number of wins, conference record (within reasonable limits), and placement in one’s conference are not automatic eliminators or inclusion mechanisms.

With that point out of the way, let’s briefly look at some examples which could become more central to the discussions which will intensify in late February and early March:


South Carolina is 17-1. Clemson is 12-7. South Carolina defeated Clemson head-to-head.

South Carolina must have an NCAA berth in the bag, and Clemson must be in huge trouble, right?

It’s just not that simple.

Yes, South Carolina is in a better position right now — of that, there’s no dispute. Clemson undeniably has more work to do. The Tigers must achieve at a level which diminishes the impact of their seven losses. Yes, within certain limits, the numbers of wins and losses can and do matter.

However, the discussion merely starts there; it doesn’t end there.

The ACC is a far deeper and better league than the SEC. This can be said with substantial if not complete confidence, even at this relatively early point in the season. Let’s say for the sake of argument (as projection, not as a firm evaluation) that Texas A&M is a true heavyweight team and that the ACC might not have a single heavyweight team by the end of the season. Maybe Texas A&M becomes a No. 1 seed and league champion North Carolina is a 2 seed. Let’s give the SEC those hypotheticals.

Even then, the 1-through-9 depth of each conference shows that there’s no comparison between the leagues. The SEC will get four teams in the field only if everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) goes just right for Florida in the coming months. Right now, a three-team haul looks likely, with A&M being joined by South Carolina and Kentucky. The ACC might be balanced to the point that no one team stands out, but North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Duke, and even Florida State have realistic NCAA aspirations (at the very least). Clemson will play a lot more teams over the next month and a half with credentials that could vault the Tigers into the field. South Carolina, conversely, won’t have that same chance.

Let’s then say that South Carolina loses its games against Texas A&M and Kentucky, and then drops five games against the rest of the SEC.

What if this hypothetical emerged? 23-8 South Carolina, fourth in the SEC, versus 18-12 Clemson, seventh in the ACC?

It might be easy to think that with five more wins, four fewer losses, and a plus-three differential in terms of conference finish, plus a head-to-head win, South Carolina would easily win that comparison.

It wouldn’t — not if South Carolina fails to beat A&M and Kentucky the rest of the way, and Clemson collects at least three wins against quality ACC foes while avoiding a truly bad loss to the bottom of the league.

That’s just one case study out of many which underscores how the process does — and doesn’t — work.


Let’s close with one really quick survey of the national scene.

A lot of teams in (generally) multi-bid conferences have a 12-5 record: Memphis, Florida State, Saint Bonaventure, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Washington. If you evaluate their resumes, though, you’ll see that some teams are far away from being serious tournament contenders, while others have fairly solid portfolios and are in position to make the tournament as long as they don’t absorb too many bad losses the rest of the way.

Remember: Circumstances, opponents, and ultimately, how good teams prove to be over the next five weeks (minor little detail there, right?) will shape the college basketball landscape.

The number 20 isn’t a magic number. Finishing below .500 is not an automatic trigger for elimination. Finishing third in a multi-bid conference doesn’t mean you earn a guaranteed ticket to the Dance.

Keep these points in mind, but don’t worry — we’ll be sure to revisit them as we move along.

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.