Why a Big Ten Team Could Make March Madness Without a Winning Record

It’s never happened before, but this year brings a perfect storm.

Connor Groel
Dec 13, 2020 · 12 min read
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Image from AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

**stats correct through games played on Dec. 12**

In NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball, a team has never received an at-large bid to March Madness without a winning record. In fact, this year marks 20 seasons since the last time an at-large team was fewer than four games above .500.

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The idea of the selection committee rewarding a team with an equal amount of wins and losses with a trip to the Big Dance seems ridiculous.

However, due to a combination of special circumstances unique to this season and recent tournament trends, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see a Big Ten team make March Madness at just .500 overall, or yes, perhaps even with a losing record.

The Strength of the Big Ten

There’s a reason why I’m talking specifically about the Big Ten’s chances of making history this season. The Big Ten is good. Really good.

In my final bracketology from last season, I had 10 of the conference’s 14 teams comfortably making the 68-team March Madness field with two more (Purdue and Minnesota) remaining in the conversation late into the year.

Expect a similar story this season. While it would be surprising to see Northwestern in tournament contention and just about unbelievable if Nebraska made any sort of push, all 12 other teams in the Big Ten should at least be in the picture, with Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast currently estimating 8.4 bids for the league.

And while teams like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois have the potential to make this year’s Big Ten stronger at the top than last year, it’s really the depth that comes to play in maximizing tournament bids and potentially getting a team without a winning record into the field.

The Big Ten currently has eight teams in the top 30 of the KenPom rankings, with the 12th-ranked team, Penn State, sitting right at #50. When even a road game against Northwestern could potentially count as a Quadrant 1 matchup, nearly every game on a Big Ten team’s conference schedule will be an opportunity to pick up a quality win.

Out of a potential 20 conference games, a team might play as many as 15 Q1 games with only one or two games outside of Q1/2, which is quite honestly unfathomable. Given that conference games make up a higher proportion of a team’s schedule this season than in a typical year, the strength of schedule for Big Ten teams will be through the roof compared to other conferences.

And these will all be winnable games, too. The thing about having a conference full of strong teams is that everyone is capable of beating everyone. Remarkably, KenPom currently projects the top 12 teams in the Big Ten to all finish at least 9–11 in conference play, while Torvik has 11 teams doing so, with Minnesota going 8–12.

Even in one of the most lopsided matchups on paper between the league’s top 12 teams, Penn State has a roughly one-in-four chance of pulling an upset at Iowa when they play on Feb. 21.

This extreme parity makes it incredibly likely that teams hovering around the .500 overall mark will have resumes that will, at the very least, warrant tournament consideration.

Let’s compare the Big Ten to the Big 12, which projects to be the second-strongest conference this season. At the top, the Big 12 is unparalleled, with five top-10 KenPom teams (Baylor/Texas/West Virginia/Texas Tech/Kansas).

However, the league also has three teams (TCU/Kansas State/Iowa State) who aren’t expected to compete for an at-large bid this season. This means that the two teams in the middle, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (who are ineligible for March Madness this year anyway) will have fewer opportunities at quality wins (also: note that they only have an 18-game conference schedule) with those opportunities being more difficult on average.

With Oklahoma in particular expected to improve to 5–1 this week after games against Oral Roberts and Houston Baptist, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the team finishes at .500 or worse yet still receives an at-large, although they could easily still win nine or 10 conference games and make the tournament regardless.

The Effects of Shorter Non-Conference Schedules

Yes, the Big Ten is a strong conference, but what really makes the idea of a March Madness team without a winning record possible is the fact that teams are playing shorter non-conference schedules this season.

To compensate for moving the start of the season back roughly two weeks to Nov. 25 due to the pandemic, the NCAA set a maximum of 27 regular-season games, four fewer than normal. These games get removed from the non-conference season. Additionally, many non-conference games have been canceled, and some teams have chosen to either not schedule the maximum number of games or leave spots open in case they decide to replace canceled games.

As I’ve already mentioned, having fewer non-conference games will boost the strength of schedule for Big Ten teams. This is because while some power conference schools schedule more difficult opponents than others, their non-conference schedules are always easier than their conference schedules, and typically inflate teams’ records.

For example, this season, the Big Ten has gone 56–13 in non-conference play, winning 81% of their games.

So, just how easily can a reduction in non-conference games influence a team’s record? Let’s take a look at the Ohio State team that received an 11-seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the most recent NCAA Tournament to date.

The Buckeyes entered Selection Sunday with a 19–14 record, including a strong 10–1 record in non-conference play (they went 8–12 in the Big Ten and 1–1 in the Big Ten Tournament). This year, Ohio State scheduled their maximum of seven non-conference games, but one was canceled, likely leaving them with six.

If we take their non-conference winning percentage from 2019 (90.9%), apply it to a six-game non-conference schedule, and then add the nine wins and 13 losses they had against Big Ten teams, that Ohio State team’s expected record with just six non-conference games goes from 19–14 to…14.5–13.5. And that’s with a non-conference strength of schedule ranked just 246th by KenPom.

Two things to note:
1) The Big Ten is stronger now compared to the rest of D-I than it was in 2019, which will make conference wins look a bit better.
2) That Ohio State team wasn’t even one of the last four teams in the field!

So yes, shorter non-conference schedules will both comparatively strengthen the resumes of Big Ten teams while harming their overall records, leaving tournament-caliber teams hovering around the .500 mark.

Of course, this goes both ways. While non-conference play for power conference teams is seen mostly as preparation for conference play, there is much more pressure on aspiring NCAA Tournament teams from mid-major leagues that don’t receive as many opportunities for quality wins.

For these schools, the loss of a few chances to schedule strong opponents and pick up a couple of Q1/2 victories significantly harms their resumes. I should emphasize that this doesn’t mean that these mid-major teams are necessarily any worse than their high-major counterparts, but given the value placed on quality wins, the big dogs are now even more likely to get the bone when there’s a close call to be made.

Let’s also remember that with the Ivy League not playing this season, there will be one extra at-large spot available.

Tournament Trends

There have also been recent changes in both scheduling and the selection process that have influenced the committee’s decisions, benefitting the Big Ten and helping increase the odds of a team receiving an at-large bid without a winning record.

In terms of scheduling, the Big Ten became the first major conference to expand to a 20-game conference schedule in the 2018–19 season, a move done very intentionally to give Big Ten teams more opportunities for quality wins. The ACC followed suit last season, and this year, the Big East and Pac-12 have joined in on the fun. Again, this means stronger resumes, but more losses.

The NCAA has also modified the information the selection committee receives. Starting in the 2017–18 season, a variety of advanced rating systems (the KPI, Strength of Record, BPI, KenPom, and Sagarin Ratings) were all added to the team sheets the committee uses during the selection process.

Of the five new metrics, the latter three are predictive, attempting to estimate a team’s strength and future performance rather than evaluate a team’s existing resume. Predictive metrics frankly don’t care about a team’s win-loss record, and they tend to love the Big Ten.

Then, in the 2018–19 season, the NCAA changed its sorting tool (the metric the committee uses to evaluate the quality of individual wins and group them into quadrants) from the RPI to the NET. The NET, which combines elements of resume and predictive metrics, is a much more effective tool than the RPI, which had been in use since 1981 and was heavily flawed.

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The switch to the NET is another huge boost to the Big Ten. At the end of last season, on average, Big Ten teams were ranked 27 spots higher in the NET than the RPI. Maryland was the only team that managed to rank slightly higher in the RPI, whereas four teams saw decreases of more than 50 spots.

This means that wins against Big Ten teams now appear significantly stronger, and are more often sorted into higher quadrants than they were previously.

I’m always amazed by how different metrics can yield such incredibly different results. Consider how the 2020 Minnesota team, which went 15–16 and 8–12 in Big Ten play before the season was canceled in the middle of the Big Ten Tournament, finished the year with an RPI rank of 118, which puts them miles away from the tournament conversation.

However, the Golden Gophers finished 42nd in the NET rankings, meaning beating them either on the road or on a neutral floor counted as a Q1 win. Additionally, predictive metrics thought highly of Minnesota, with KenPom ranking them the highest, at #27 overall and even ahead of SEC regular-season champion Kentucky (#29).

Before I lose you, Minnesota was never going to make the tournament and didn’t deserve to. They went 2–11 in Q1 games, and while they lost a ton of close ones, as indicated by their ranking as KenPom’s third unluckiest team out of the 353 in D-I (on a game-by-game efficiency basis, the rating viewed Minnesota that would’ve went 19–12, on average), you just can’t blow that many opportunities and still expect to make the 68-team field.

But it’s still worth mentioning that had a few of those games gone Minnesota’s way, they would've had a legitimate tournament case that the committee’s tools did not have the complexity to realize until very recently.

While the system remains far from perfect, the selection committee now has better information than ever and is thinking much more intelligently about which teams should receive at-large bids. A quick look at recent years shows that the committee seems to be placing less of a value on a team’s overall record now, something that’s obviously essential for the hope of a Big Ten team receiving an at-large without having a winning record.

Despite the “four games above .500” barrier holding strong since 2001, we did see the first 15-loss team receive an at-large bid in 2017, and it’s now happened three tournament years in a row.

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Interestingly, like that 2018 Ohio State team, none of these teams even had to play their way through Dayton for a spot in the Round of 64.

Additionally, in 2019, an 18–15 Alabama team and a 17–15 Indiana team both received #1 seeds in the NIT, a tournament that was won by a #2 seed Texas team that entered Selection Sunday 16–16 with five Q1 wins and an actual chance of making the March Madness field.

And while a team’s conference record is not a selection criterion, it’s worth mentioning that before 2018, there have never been more than three at-large teams selected with losing conference records. Then, in 2018, there were five, followed by four more in 2019, including only the third and fourth teams to ever receive at-large bids with conference records four games under .500.

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All of this evidence seems to suggest that it is currently more likely than ever for a team with a poor overall record to receive an at-large bid. Combined with shorter non-conference schedules and an extra spot in the field, the Big Ten seems destined to make a run at getting a .500 or worse team into this year’s NCAA Tournament.

I’m not sure if it will happen, but I think we’re pretty likely to see a Big Ten team without a winning record on the bubble come Selection Sunday. In fact, I think the biggest hurdle could be the committee anticipating a severely negative response to the inclusion of such a team and deciding to play it “safe.”

But even in that scenario, be prepared for the 14–12s of the world to run rampant in your brackets. There are going to be some really good teams that won’t finish four games above .500.

Most Likely Candidates

So, who’s most likely to make this happen? I think the likeliest team is Penn State, a squad currently at 3–1 that recently picked up a big road victory at Virginia Tech and has also beaten VCU. Their only loss came at home in overtime Seton Hall, which will probably stay in Q2 and is far from the end of the world.

If the Nittany Lions go 9–11 in Big Ten play (as likely a result as any), they’d be 12–12, meaning as long as they don’t win twice in the Big Ten Tournament, they’d enter Selection Sunday .500 at best. I can also see some scenarios where they go 8–12 in Big Ten play, leaving them 11–13, where with a win (or two or three) in their conference tournament, they would make things very interesting.

Just slightly behind Penn State for me is Purdue, a 4–2 team without any great wins (some Q2 potential, we’ll have a much better idea once the initial NET rankings are released) but without any bad losses either (neutral vs. Clemson and @Miami (FL), which should both be Q1).

They have one more non-conference game against Notre Dame on a neutral site. Depending on the result there, the Boilermakers will have plenty of scenarios where they win anywhere between eight and 10 conference games and end up an enticing tournament prospect at something like 14–14 or 14–15.

Obviously, these records are assuming all games are played. They probably won’t be, but for our purposes, the more Big Ten games that get played, the more likely a team without a winning record has a solid shot at March Madness.

Maryland is another somewhat less likely possibility, but Minnesota is probably out of the running, considering they’ve started 6–0, played absolutely nobody, and would now need to go 7–13 or worse for it to be a possibility record-wise, at which point it would probably be a repeat of 2020.

I supposed Rutgers could do it, but that requires them winning fewer than nine conference games, which is actually somewhat unlikely (big props to Rutgers).

And lastly, I know I’ve spent this entire article talking about the Big Ten, but across the rest of college basketball, I think the other major contender is Kentucky, believe it or not, as long as they can right the ship before it completely sinks.

It’ll be interesting to track the progress of these schools as the year progresses, and I’ll provide updates on Twitter as we get closer to Selection Sunday.

Connor Groel is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School. He is the editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium and host of the Slept On Sports podcast. His debut collection is available on Amazon.

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