Will a Big East team win 10 games and not receive a bid?
It has happened before: with Syracuse in 2007 (10-6 when the league played 16 games) and Seton Hall and Boston College before that.
Louisville is 9-6 with three games remaining, all of them daunting: at Connecticut on Sunday, at Marquette on Tuesday, then closing Freedom Hall on March 6 with Syracuse, the Big East's best team and a possible NCAA tournament 1-seed. Winning just one of the next three games is obviously a plausible scenario.
Louisville beat Syracuse in one of the best road wins of the season and clearly UL's best win of the season. Last year, Providence was in a similar predicament. The Friars finished Big East play at 10-8 with home wins over then-No. 15 Syracuse and No. 1 Pitt. West Virginia also finished 10-8 in the Big East.
"West Virginia was a 6-seed in the NCAA, we were a 5-seed in the NIT," said second-year Providence coach Keno Davis. "That shows how important it is to schedule better in November and December and how important those games are."
Providence had an RPI of 70 on Selection Sunday 2009 with a strength of schedule of 48. The Mountaineers had an RPI of 21 with an SOS of 9.
In the unbalanced schedule of a power-six conference, all 10-8 records are not treated the same. There is no longer a magic number to get into the Dance.
"If a 10-win team doesn't get in out of the Big East, it will be because they weren't playing well enough in November or December, right or wrong," Davis said. "If you took care of business in November and December with quality wins, then 10 wins can be enough. But I think we'll see this happening more and more. There is precedent for it."
Davis has a unique perspective because he was in the Missouri Valley Conference at Drake as an assistant and head coach. In 2007, the Bulldogs had to go on an unbelievable run in the Valley (winning the regular season and the conference tournament) to get a No. 5 seed.
"If somebody in the Missouri Valley is 24-6 or 23-7, is that better than a team that is 20-8 in the Big East?" Davis said. "It's tough to say. That's why there has been a lot of discussion about getting more teams in the NCAA tournament. There are a lot of bubble teams that couldn't just win one game but could win a few."
Whether it's fair or not -- and I've debated with my colleague Doug Gottlieb on this -- the conferences outside the power six get less of a leash to lose conference games. That's why Northern Iowa's loss at Evansville will be treated differently from Marquette losing at DePaul or even Louisville falling at St. John's. The same is true of Duquesne winning at Charlotte and beating Dayton at home in the A-10. Each committee member may look at that differently, but we are all quick to point out the failings of these teams that fall on the road outside a power six league.
But the court isn't totally skewed toward every major-conference bubble team. Providence's situation in 2009 is a prime example. This season's Louisville squad, which lost to Western Carolina at home and to Charlotte by 22, could be another one.
Davis said he watched last year as a few upsets rolled in, knowing that if the Friars were even in one of those last four out spots, they would be quickly gone from the conversations after the surprising results.
"We were 10-8 last year in a league that had three No. 1 seeds, and ended up as a 5-seed in the NIT," Davis said. "I don't know how much [the committee] looks at how you're playing at the end of the year because you could argue that in the best conference we were 10-8 and passed the eye test. We beat the No. 1 team, and you would think that should be automatic. Yet we weren't even seriously looked at for that position."
Taking down a No. 1-ranked team doesn't guarantee anything. South Carolina beat Kentucky when it was No. 1 and won't get in the field unless it wins the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks (5-7 in the SEC, 14-12 overall) could reach only 9-7 in the SEC in a best-case scenario. And in the SEC, 9-7 guarantees nothing. Connecticut knocked off then-No. 1 Texas, and had it not ripped off three straight wins (at Villanova, at Rutgers and against West Virginia), the Huskies wouldn't still be in the discussion for a bid.
UConn (17-11, 7-8) finishes up with Louisville, at Notre Dame and at South Florida. The Huskies could easily go 1-2 in this group of games, finish 8-10 in the Big East and get into the field because of the wins over Texas, Nova and West Virginia combined with a strong schedule that included Duke and Kentucky in New York.
All conference records are not created equal. We have learned that throughout the years.
That will become even clearer during this year's selection show.