A look up and down the NCAA Tournament bubble mostly reveals a long list of major conference teams. Northwestern, USC, Seton Hall, Providence, Syracuse, California… the Missouri Valley Conference’s Illinois State and Wichita State are in there too, but by the skin of their teeth. And one is almost definitely making the tourney as an auto-bid.
The other will sweat it out on Selection Sunday, as the only real mid-major bubble squad.
Recent seasons have yielded similar results.
In 2016, every 10-seed was from one of the top eight conferences, and once again, the Wichita State Shockers were the only exception inside the bubble. They played in the First Four along with three teams from the top conferences. Every other mid-major – St. Mary’s, Monmouth, and Valparaiso – was on the outside looking in.
A year earlier, eight of the 10 teams to make the NCAAs as a 10- or 11-seed were from a major conference, and six of those were from the Power Five. The exceptions to the major conference rule, Boise State and BYU, are also their own brands apart from their lesser conferences. Dayton and Davidson, the other non-P5 teams in those slots, also bring their own brand cachet with them.
Similar issues arise as you continue going back in time to the early days of the 68-team field.
Mid-majors are largely under-represented getting into the NCAA Tournament as at-large teams. And the ones that get in are proven brands. From Wichita State, BYU and Boise State, to Davidson, Dayton, VCU and (sometimes) St. Mary’s, those are the names that get past the committee.
Why is that?
Part of it has to do with the obvious marks like strength of schedule. These teams are all from better mid-major leagues or in leagues with more than one quality team. The Atlantic 10 is nearly always a multi-bid conference, and the Mountain West, Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference have all gotten multiple teams in during past seasons.
Additionally, these school’s brands move the needle as some of the most popular underdogs in college sports. That helps when it comes to the NCAA selection committee’s priorities toward audience eyeballs. But it also helps them schedule better to begin with during the regular season. They’re a draw at road arenas, even for major conference teams.
You can’t say the same for the non-champions of low-major conferences. Or even more notable leagues like the MAC, Horizon, Ohio Valley or Ivy (among others). Those schools either lack the brand power to get in without a league title, or simply don’t have the firepower to keep up with top-25 opponents. They’ll take the payday to visit those elite teams. But the skill disparity is real, and insurmountable. It also doesn’t do them any favors on the NCAA Tournament resume to take a 20- or 30-point loss.
All of that doesn’t explain the vanishing mid-major presence on the bubble, though. And more specifically, it fails to address the vanishing mid-major presence when it comes to at-large bids.
From 2014-16, just seven at-large bids (out of 108) were handed to teams not in the top eight conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, American, Atlantic-10, Big East. Looking at Bracket Matrix’s current projections, that number is just two for this year as well, bringing the four-year total to nine out of 144 (6.25 percent).
In the 10 years prior, the conferences were slightly different (sub in the Mountain West for the American), but most years, the differences were not nearly as stark between the “haves” and “have-nots” of college hoops.
A total of 40 at-large bids were handed to schools outside of the top eight leagues, out of 346 possible invitations (11.56 percent). The at-large pool was 36 teams deep from 2011-13, and just 34 from 2004-10 (under the old, 65-team tournament model). From 2004-06, 21 bids were given to leagues outside of the top eight.
There are a couple easy explanations like conference realignment – bids that went to Conference USA in 2004 were allocated to the Big East when those top C-USA teams moved there the following season. Also, the shifts of programs like Davidson and VCU up to the Atlantic 10 lowers the pool of quality programs in the lesser conferences.
But that doesn’t explain the stark difference in raw bids or percentage from that earlier timeframe and the more recent one.
The at-large pool is bigger. Therefore, the odds of mid-majors getting in should grow accordingly. It hasn’t. It’s actually shrunk, as has the list of mid-major teams vying for bids but ultimately falling just short.
The number of upsets in conference tournaments has also gone up in recent years. Last year, in particular, became a rash of top-seeded losses. That should also increase the number of top mid-majors eligible for selection. But instead, we’ve seen more bids than ever get handed out to the major conferences.
Whether it’s ballooning league sizes (four of the top eight leagues have 14 teams or more), RPI gaming run wild (hi, Pac-12) or brand-name supremacy, the NCAA Tournament is increasingly becoming a party just for the sport’s elite programs.
That may beneficial to the NCAA, CBS, host cities and sponsors come time for the Final Four. But it creates few favors with regard to early round intrigue and the proverbial Cinderella.
All but one school in last year’s Sweet 16 was from a major conference, and the ACC had six in total. Major conferences had 14 out of 16 in 2015. However, the exceptions in those three cases were Gonzaga (twice) and Wichita State. Not exactly “Cinderella” stories anymore by any means.
The growth of the tournament has created opportunities – VCU’s 2011 Final Four run, UAB’s 2011 and Iona’s 2012 at-large bids, respectively. But those chances don’t seem to come around as often anymore.
This year seems like more of the same. We’ll see if that remains true come Selection Sunday.