In the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, there will only be four Big Ten schools represented. That’s the worst performance in ten years, and ten years ago there we had three fewer teams. That raises an obvious question: why?
It’s no secret it was a down year for the Big Ten. We got waxed in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and preseason Top 25 teams Northwestern and Minnesota fell flat on their faces during the season. Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all dealt with significant injury problems.
But injuries happen every year, and at one point the Big Ten was 0-10 against the ACC in the Challenge. Most of those years we sent at least five teams dancing.
Last year seven teams heard their names called on Selection Sunday, a record for the Big Ten. But last year was hardly a banner year for the league, either. KenPom had the Big Ten as the fourth best conference last year, with an average adjusted efficiency margin of +13.66. This year, that number only dropped to +13.44. (For comparison, in 2013 when the Big Ten was the #1 conference in the country, the average AEM was +17.54.)
So what’s the difference?
In a word, scheduling.
According to KenPom, Penn State was the best Big Ten school left sitting on the sidelines. They are listed as No. 29 in the country with an AEM of +17.10. Both marks are better than last year’s Michigan State and Northwestern squads, yet both of those teams made the tournament.
The Selection Committee has ostensibly started considering advanced metrics this year, but it’s clear from the fact that a team seven spots lower in KenPom than Penn State received a six seed that a team’s “resume” is what matters more.
Penn State is, by the ranking system that correlates with the Las Vegas spreads more than any other, a better team than Miami. It is a better team than the 2017 Michigan State Spartans and the 2017 Northwestern Wildcats. But they didn’t get the chance to prove it because they didn’t play anybody in the non-conference schedule.
Let’s take a look at OOC strength of schedule for the aforementioned teams:
- 2018 Penn State: No. 322
- 2018 Miami: No. 283
- 2017 Northwestern: No. 249
- 2017 Michigan State: No. 51
Now, other than last year’s Spartan team none of those numbers are that great, but when you play among the 30 softest non-conference schedules, you have to hope you can pile up enough wins in-conference to make up the difference. Penn State’s 9-9 won’t cut it.
But what about Nebraska? They went 13-5 in the Big Ten regular season, beating out Michigan for the last Friday bye in Madison Square Garden. And their non-confernce schedule was No. 269, better than Miami. Why are they languishing in the NIT?
In the Cornhuskers’ case, it was their conference schedule that doomed them.
Yes, they went 13-5, but they played the easiest schedule in the league. Their double-plays were Rutgers, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Penn State. Of their single-plays, Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State were all on the road, not only making it much tougher for Nebraska to pick up wins against those teams—which would have been resume-boosting at home or on the road—but also giving them fewer chances at road wins against the Big Ten’s middle class, where the distinction between home and away can mean the difference between a Quadrant One win and a Quadrant Two win.
So how can we solve this problem? Well, in Nebraska’s case, the league has already done something. Next season, the Big Ten will play 20 conference games, rather than eighteen. That will make the conference portion of the schedule much more balanced. (If they could figure out a way to play 22, I’d be in favor of that, too.)
In Penn State’s case, it’s all on them. At the beginning of the season, one of my friends said that Penn State would have a good year. I looked at the schedule and said, “Pat Chambers knows something about his team that we don’t.” I bet my buddy a bottle of nice whiskey that Penn State would underachieve.
At 9-9, the bet ended up in a push, but the thing is, I was wrong. Penn State was a good team. The computers show that. But their resume was scanty, and that’s on Coach Chambers. It’s one thing to schedule soft if you know there’s no chance you’re going to make the NCAA tournament and need to get some momentum and positivity. (Shoutout to Rutgers!) It’s another thing to do that when you’re a bubble team.
So why did the Big Ten get so few bids this year compared to last year? A big part of it is that last year the Big Ten’s bubbliest team had a non-conference schedule set by Tom Izzo, and this year our bubbliest team had a non-conference schedule set by Pat Chambers.
As with most things, the rest of the league could learn something by taking a page out of Izzo’s book.