On Monday night at Madison Square Garden, a UConn Huskies team that had attracted a great deal of early-season, negative attention, made positive headlines by defeating Syracuse, 52-50. This was easily their best victory of the young season -- their first when not favored by Basketball Power Index (BPI) -- and evened their record at 4-4. The win gave Huskies fans hope that their team has turned the corner after a rough opening stretch.
As if the season-opening loss to Wagner on their home court wasn't embarrassing enough for the preseason No. 18 team in the country, UConn followed that performance by losing to Northeastern for the first time since Jim Calhoun was the coach of the Huskies -- the Northeastern Huskies. In fact, Connecticut underperformed their predicted point spread according to the BPI in six of their first seven games, and by an average of 7 points per game, which ranked No. 324 in the country.
Now, with the positive momentum of the Syracuse win, can we expect to see UConn in the field of 68 come March? The Huskies' projected strength of record may offer a clue.
ESPN's Strength of Record (SOR) is a metric that explains how difficult a given won-loss record is to achieve. It can be thought of as a combination of wins and losses versus schedule strength, and helps answer the question of who deserves to be in the tournament. While it doesn't necessarily predict who will get in, over the last nine seasons, 91 percent of at-large NCAA Tournament teams were deemed deserving of an at-large bid by SOR. Since 2008, the worst SOR rank to get an at-large bid was VCU in 2011, which had the 71st best SOR on Selection Sunday (and famously justified their inclusion by making a run to the Final Four). In an average year, the lowest SOR rank that deserves to be in the tournament is 48.
If we make the assumption that name recognition would help UConn's case if it could achieve an SOR rank of 50 or better, we can perform simulations to determine how likely it is that the Huskies can get to that number.
Unfortunately for Huskies fans, the simulations still tell a bleak story. Strength-of-record simulations show that UConn has only about a 3 percent chance of having a strong enough résumé to be considered for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even if they are as fortunate as VCU in 2011, there is only a 12.3 percent chance of having a résumé at least as strong as the Rams that year.
The Huskies have been known to redeem weak regular seasons with strong conference tournament (and NCAA) runs in the past, including last season when an improbable AAC Tournament victory got them in the NCAA field despite a subpar regular season résumé. Our numbers say they'll likely need a repeat of that scenario. Although beating Syracuse has them trending in the right direction, that Husky March magic may just be their best shot of reaching the field of 68.
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