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The case for NC State in the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Even after the Clemson win and the good effort against #1 Virginia on short rest in the ACC tournament, I’m still hearing pundits say that NC State doesn’t deserve to be invited to the NCAA Tournament. “They have the worst non-conference strength of schedule. They only scored 24 points one game. They don’t have many Quad 1 wins. They have two Quad 3 losses. They have a terrible RPI.”

Preposterous. Insanity. We deserve to be in the tournament. We even deserve a 9 seed.

Let’s start with the basics. How good does a team need to be to get in the tournament? Of course, there are 68 bids. You can expect 18 to go to teams that never had a chance of being selected at-large. So there are 50 bids left. If the remaining 14 conference champions are top-50 teams, then the 36 remaining spots will go to each of the other top-50 teams. But there will be between zero and five “bid thieves”, where a sub-50 team wins a conference championship against a top-50 team and they both get bids. So, you basically need to be in the top 45-50 of the most deserving teams.

Is NC State a top-45 team? Yes, of course it is.

Oh, but what about the non-conference strength of schedule? #353 on the team sheet! Tsk, tsk, tsk. We started the season by barely being mentioned in the human polls (50th in AP votes, 31st in Coaches votes.) Then we embarrassed ourselves by playing thirteen lousy non-conference opponents, ending with Loyola Maryland on December 28. And we were mocked and jeered and blasted into the...

Top 20? Just ten weeks ago, we were top-20 after the non-conference schedule and now those exact same thirteen games make us deserve to miss the tournament? Whaaaaaaaaaat? Would we deserve the tournament more if we did what we did last year and lost to Tennessee, Northern Iowa, and Greensboro?

Going 3-1 against Wisconsin, Auburn, Penn State, and Vanderbilt is worth something. I’m not saying people should be impressed by the other nine games, but it seems dumb to say that we’d be in the tournament if we went 7-2 and played more sub-50 teams but we should be out of the tournament for going 9-0 against sub-200 teams. It’s also stupid when people say things like “The average of Auburn and St. Peter’s rankings is 170 and that’s bad. But let’s appreciate Minnesota for playing Texas A&M and Omaha, where their average ranking is 130! And Seton Hall played Nebraska and Saint Louis with an average rank of 80! Such incredibly hard scheduling there!”

Using the December 31 rankings as a measure of non-conference performance, let’s compare some bubble teams:

  • #14/12 Ohio State: Later 8-12 Big Ten.
  • #18/19 NC State: Later 9-9 ACC.
  • #21/22 Indiana: Later 8-12 Big Ten.
  • #23/25 Oklahoma: Later 7-11 Big 12.
  • #25/20 Iowa: Later 10-10 Big Ten.
  • Unranked Iowa State (10/23 votes): Later 9-9 Big 12.
  • Unranked TCU (20/27 votes): Later 7-11 Big 12.
  • Unranked Florida (6/12 votes): Later 9-9 SEC.
  • Unranked St. John’s (1/1 vote): Later 8-10 Big East.
  • Unranked Minnesota (0 votes): Later 9-11 Big Ten.
  • Unranked Texas (0 votes): Later 8-10 Big 12.
  • Unranked Alabama (0 votes): Later 8-10 SEC.
  • Unranked Georgetown, Seton Hall, Creighton, and Xavier: Later 9-9 Big East.

If you had this information on January 1, you would put us near the top of these teams, right? Instead we’re supposed to be hoping for a play-in game? Whaaaaaaaaaat?

We were ranked all the way up to when we were 4-4 ACC, but at 9-9 ACC and 1-1 in the ACC tournament, we’re out of the top 40? What happened?

Okay, that did happen. That was weird and bad. But it’s still just a 23-point loss to a top-15 team. Is a 23-point loss unforgivable?

Many tournament teams have games as bad. Baylor lost by 25 to Texas Tech. Kansas lost by 29 to Texas Tech. Kentucky lost by 34 to Duke. Nevada lost by 27 to New Mexico. Syracuse lost by 26 to Virginia. Villanova lost by 27 to Michigan. UNC lost by 21 to Louisville. Wofford lost by 25 to Kansas.

And then there’s the bubble teams:Alabama lost by 21 to Auburn. Arizona State lost by 28 to Oregon and by 21 to Washington State. Florida lost by 21 to Florida State. Furman lost by 23 to ETSU. Georgetown lost by 32 to DePaul. Indiana lost by 23 to Michigan, by 21 to Duke, and by 21 to Minnesota. Iowa lost by 22 to Michigan State, by 20 to Ohio State, and by 20 to Wisconsin. Minnesota lost by 27 to Illinois, by 24 to Michigan State, and by 20 to Ohio State. Ohio State lost by 35 to Purdue. Oklahoma lost by 30 to Baylor and by 20 to Wisconsin. Ole Miss lost by 21 to Alabama. Seton Hall lost by 28 to Villanova and by 23 to Nebraska. St. John’s lost by 30 to Duke and by 32 to Marquette. TCU lost by 26 to Baylor. Utah State lost by 23 to Nevada. Washington lost by 22 to Auburn. Xavier lost by 22 to Creighton.

Imagine how many more 20-point losses these teams would have had if they had to go into Durham, Chapel Hill, Louisville, Tallahassee, and Madison. But sure, we’re the ones with the soft schedule.

Then there’s the lack of “Quad 1” wins. There’s only Auburn, Penn State, and Clemson. We don’t have to apologize for anything. You get a Quad 1 win for beating top-30 teams at home, top-50 neutral, or top-75 away. We won three of the games available to us. We lost nine others. ALL OF THOSE NINE ARE AGAINST TOP-22 TEAMS! We didn’t have a dozen opportunities against teams in the 25-75 range like the Big East and Big Ten did. (But sure, we’re the ones with the soft schedule.) We did also win against Clemson and Syracuse at home, and Miami, Notre Dame, Pitt, and Boston College on the road. But those are just lowly Quad 2 wins. (Big thanks to Penn State for moving up to #47 and staying in Quad 1!)

Okay, but we do have to answer for the Quad 3 losses. Here’s the answer: We were still ranked two weeks after the Wake Forest loss and we lost at the last second to another ACC team. That’s a normal thing to happen to a top-40 team.

Other bubble teams have bad losses too:

Texas lost to Radford. Washington lost to California. Alabama lost to Georgia State and Texas A&M. Florida lost to Georgia and South Carolina. Georgetown lost to SMU and Loyola Marymount. Seton Hall lost to DePaul and Saint Louis. St. John’s lost to DePaul and Georgetown. Syracuse lost to Georgia Tech and Old Dominion. Xavier lost to DePaul and San Diego State. Baylor lost to Oklahoma State, Texas Southern, and Stephen F. Austin! Arizona State lost to Utah, Vanderbilt, Princeton, and Washington State. Oklahoma lost to West Virginia twice.

And last there’s the RPI. The RPI is a bad metric. The RPI has Kansas #1 and Harvard and Georgia State ranked in the 50’s. The RPI thinks it’s better to lose to Duke than it is to beat Asheville. Lose by 100, win by 100, doesn’t matter. The RPI isn’t on the NCAA team sheets anymore but the KPI is and it has us at 65. That looks bad for us, but the KPI is another ranking that hates you if you play bad teams no matter what. It was made by a guy with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism that uses the phrase “50 MB Excel file with literally millions of cells of data” in development of his system. That... that does not inspire confidence. There is no point this century where a professional in managing or analyzing data would have thought that was a good idea.

There are five other metrics on the official team sheets. We are #33 in the NET, which was “developed in partnership with the NCAA and Google Cloud”. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the company that made a trillion dollars ranking websites can rank basketball teams with decent results. We are #29 in the “strength of record”. I’m not clear what that is but I’ve read that it’s some measure of how likely other teams would have gotten as good of a record if they had played the same schedule. The remaining metrics are about how good we are, not about how good our resume is. (Subtle but important difference. Texas is a good team with a bad resume.) The BPI has us #27 and the Sagarin ranking say #24. The KenPom rankings are probably the most respected and it has us at #32. All the metrics are adjusted for strength of schedule, by the way. So yes, I would call us a top-40 team.

It’s not on the team sheet, but we’re also #29 on something called LRMC, developed by professors of Analytics and Math at Georgia Tech and Richmond and published in scientific journals. I won’t go into the details here (markov chains!) but it’s kicked the pudding out of other rankings systems for predicting NCAA tournament results for over a decade.

A journalist I see on Twitter likes to say “Well, if all you have are metrics, you have nothing.” LOL, what? Just... facts are stupid, basically? You think you can rank 353 teams playing 5000 games better than Google or people that understand network algorithms? No way. We’re clearly a top-40 team. Put us in the tournament.

I also want to campaign for Clemson. The Pac-12 deserves one bid, the Big East deserves three, and the ACC deserves nine. Clemson was four possessions away from being 13-5 in the ACC. It’s crazy for a team like that to miss the tournament. The metrics show that they’re a top-40 team too. #35 in the NET, #42 strength of record, #30 KenPom (with #323 in luck), and #30 LRMC. Put them in!