Why the heck is Tulsa on the bubble?

With Championship Week winding down, the teams that have the most on the line are those on the “bubble,” where a very thin line separates a berth to the Big Dance from the disappointment of being left out on Selection Sunday.

According to Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, one of those teams is Tulsa – currently in the “First Four Out” section of his projection. The Golden Hurricane have been right around that bubble for a couple weeks now, and they will have the chance to improve their prospects in the American Basketball Championship quarterfinals against Houston Friday evening (7 p.m. ET on ESPNU).

At first glance, Tulsa seems to be a reasonable candidate for an at-large bid: 21 wins, good for second place in a “major” conference, and ranked 45th in RPI, the primary organizational tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee. But a deeper look at the team’s performance shows that those numbers are misleading – Tulsa is not really a tournament-quality team and should be nowhere near the bubble.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) currently has the Golden Hurricane ranked 82nd, far behind pretty much every other bubble team. That means Tulsa would be more than 25 spots out of the tournament if the field was selected by using BPI alone (accounting for automatic bids).

Why does BPI have Tulsa ranked so much worse than RPI and perception? Let’s examine (and in doing so, examine shortcomings of RPI that systems like BPI can help overcome).

No quality wins and a couple really bad losses

Tulsa has no wins against the BPI Top 50, going 0-6 in games against the top level of competition. Frank Haith’s team did sweep Temple, which qualifies as a Top-50 opponent in terms of RPI (ranked 32nd), but not BPI (67th). Temple is itself on the bubble, so if that’s the best point on Tulsa’s résumé, then that’s not a very strong résumé.

In addition, the Golden Hurricane have a couple really bad losses. They opened the season with a loss at Oral Roberts, who is outside the Top 200 of BPI, and later lost to Division II Southeastern Oklahoma State.

The second loss is particularly interesting because non-Division I games are not included in the RPI calculations, but this is the type of performance that should affect the evaluation of a team and its résumé (non-D-I games count in BPI). Southeastern Oklahoma State isn’t even one of the better Division II teams, as the Savage Storm finished 15-14 this year.

Extreme point margins

Another big thing that BPI accounts for is scoring margin in each game. Margin of victory or defeat gives more information about a game than just the final result, and good teams with solid margins generally do better going forward than teams who have won a bunch of close, potentially lucky games.

So it’s not just that Tulsa went 0-6 vs Top 50 opponents, but also that four of those losses came by double digits. That doesn’t even include the 25-point blowout loss at UConn (66th in BPI) a month ago.

Tulsa’s only game that qualified as a “good loss,” as measured by BPI’s Game Score (on a 0-100 scale, where 50 is average), was its recent five-point loss on the road to SMU. Tulsa’s other losses each had a BPI game score below 43.

On the other hand, the Golden Hurricane have a number of unimpressive wins. Six of their wins versus teams in the bottom half of Division I came by single digits, and their overall average margin in wins of 12.1 points per game isn’t that great when accounting for their relatively mediocre schedule.

Weakness of the American Conference

Speaking of that schedule, a lot of Tulsa’s case is based on going 14-4 in the American Athletic Conference, which is still considered a “major” conference. But this isn’t your “very slightly older brother’s” American!

With the departure of Louisville and the decline of defending national champion Connecticut (as well as Memphis), the American isn’t actually nearly as strong it was in its inaugural season of basketball last year. The average BPI of the conference’s teams ranks behind the other six major conferences as well as the Atlantic 10 and the West Coast Conference.

Tulsa’s Rankings in Various Systems

Not only is the conference weak, but Tulsa also drew a very favorable conference schedule, playing Cincinnati only once, while racking up two wins each against four of the conference’s five worst teams. Even if we give Tulsa the benefit of only looking at BPI in conference play, it still only ranks 56th, with the adjustment for schedule and point margin taking a bit of the shine off that misleading 14-4 record.

Putting it all together, it makes sense that Tulsa’s actual performance is not nearly as good as its Top-50 RPI indicates. Its BPI ranking of 82nd may be underrating the résumé (though it’s still in line with other systems like KenPom and LRMC) but is still a much better indicator of the team’s strength.

If Tulsa were to make the tournament as an at-large, it would be the worst ranking for an at-large team in the short history (four years) of BPI. So assuming Tulsa doesn’t win the AAC Tournament (11 percent chance, according to BPI), the selection committee would be smart to go beyond the RPI and discard Tulsa from at-large consideration.