When the Division I basketball selection committee released its field, the knee-jerk reaction was to break down which teams were “snubbed” and which ones claimed an undeserved bid.
In the grand scheme of things, the final team to make the field has a small chance to win the tournament, but that does not stop analysts and fans from debating the merits of each team’s inclusion.
For the most part, the debate is over which team is “most deserving” of a tournament bid, and ESPN’s Strength of Record metric was developed in 2016 to answer that exact question. SOR measures how difficult it is to achieve a team’s record, given its schedule, by accounting for both whom a team has played as well as where they played.
Strength of Record is not designed to predict the tournament field. Rather, its best use is to analyze snubs, undeserved bids or over- or under-seeded teams based on their résumé.
Strength of Record "agrees" that 31 of the 36 teams receiving at-large bids are deserving of making the tournament. South Carolina was the biggest snub, based on SOR, after finishing third in the SEC and amassing 24 wins in a major conference.
The key to the Gamecocks’ high SOR ranking is nine wins away from home, including six such wins against teams ranked in the top 100 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). It simply is not easy to win on the road, and South Carolina has a number of wins in a difficult environment.
Like South Carolina, Saint Mary’s ranks in the top 35 of Strength of Record. The Gaels amassed 27 wins against BPI’s 126th-ranked schedule, which is tied with Monmouth (which played BPI’s 155th-ranked schedule) for the most wins for a team that missed the tournament.
The final Strength of Record “snub” worth noting is the Horizon League regular-season champion, Valparaiso. The Crusaders finished the season with 26 wins, including five on the road against teams in the top 125 of ESPN’s BPI, tied for the sixth-most in Division I. For perspective, Vanderbilt and Wichita State each have two such road wins.
Strength of Record is not saying that Valparaiso would beat either Vanderbilt or Wichita State on a neutral court. Rather, based on the difficulty of achieving their record, the Crusaders have a résumé that’s more deserving of a tournament bid.
Least deserving team in the field
Among the at-large teams selected for the tournament, Tulsa has a résumé least deserving of making the field, based on Strength of Record. The Golden Hurricane have a serviceable 20 wins, but only six of those wins came against a team in the top 100 of BPI. Further, five of those six wins were at home.
In contrast, nine of Georgia Tech’s 19 wins were against BPI top 100 opponents, including four such wins away from home.
Vanderbilt, Wichita State and VCU are all teams that might be stronger (top 30 in BPI) than their records suggest. All three lack a number of quality wins, which is reflected in their Strength of Record rankings, but they rank higher in the metrics that project performance going forward. They are all a good example of how the committee likely balances the debate of best versus most deserving.
Did Monmouth deserve a bid?
According to ESPN’s highly scientific fan vote, Monmouth was the biggest snub of the 2016 NCAA tournament. The Hawks certainly have their share of quality wins and challenged themselves in nonconference play, but they still have holes in their résumé because of a number of “bad losses.”
Monmouth lost three games against teams ranked outside the top 200 in ESPN’s BPI (Manhattan, Canisius and Army), the most such losses for any team on the bubble.
Looking at its entire body of work, Monmouth ranks 53rd in Strength of Record, which would have them barely missing the tournament if Strength of Record were used in selecting the field. There’s certainly an argument for the Hawks’ inclusion, but there are other mid-majors, such as Saint Mary’s, that missed the tournament with a more impressive overall record.