In 2001, the Georgia Bulldogs lost seven of their last ten games—including four to teams that didn’t make the tournament—and finished the season with a 16-14 record. Oh, and they made the tournament. In fact, not only did they make the tournament, they were an eight-seed. They weren’t even close to not making it. Georgia obviously had a lot of things on its side most notably the #1 SOS in the country, eight wins over the RPI 50, three road wins over the RPI 14, and an RPI in the mid-20s. That was enough to overshadow a record that I believe is the worst by an at-large team in NCAA Tournament history. It’s not easy getting into the tournament with 14 losses but the fact that it has been done with a similar resume should give hope to a Michigan-team that will—at best—finish its season with 13 losses. A win over Minnesota on Saturday should all-but-guarantee Michigan a spot in the field assuming a first round win in the Big Ten Tournament; let’s not talk about what a loss would do because that’s not fun.
Michigan’s 2009-resume isn’t as robust as Georgia’s was in 2001 but it is somewhat similar. Georgia played in the #1 conference in the RPI. Michigan plays in the #2 conference. Georgia had the #1 SOS. Michigan has the #9 SOS. Georgia had an RPI in the high-20s. Michigan has an RPI in the high-40s. Georgia had eight wins over the RPI 50. Michigan has five wins. Remember, though, Georgia easily made the tournament in 2001. Michigan’s resume certainly isn’t that much worse. A win over Minnesota on Saturday would bring the two even closer together. Michigan would pick up another win over the RPI 50. Its SOS would inch towards the top five. Its RPI would approach the high-30s. Plus, Michigan would compare favorably to a number of teams in terms of marquee wins. There are only 17 teams in college basketball with more wins against the RPI 50 than Michigan. Duke is the only team in the country with more wins against the RPI 25. All of the supporting numbers for a bid are present. The only thing missing from a near-guarantee is a .500 conference record and one win in the Big Ten Tournament.
In the event that some of you think the resume-gap between Georgia ’01 and Michigan ‘09 is too big to compare—Georgia clearly had the better resume, I just don’t think it’s by that much—there is more recent precedent that also favors Michigan. Last season, Arizona limped into the NCAA Tournament with an 18-14 record—one of the worst at-large records in NCAA Tournament history. The Wildcats went 4-8 over their last 12 games. Two of those four wins were against the 269th rated team in the RPI (Oregon St.). Like Georgia in ’01, Arizona easily made the tournament with a 10-seed. If Michigan beats Minnesota on Saturday, the Wolverines will have every bit the resume that Arizona had least season. Michigan would hold the advantage in “record in last 12 games”, and “wins over RPI 50.” Arizona would hold a razor-thin edge in SOS. “Conference rating” and “RPI” would be virtually identical. A win over Minnesota should get Michigan the precedence forged by Georgia and Arizona.
A loss at Minnesota would be a deathblow. Even though Arizona got in last season with an 8-10 conference record, there are too many indistinguishable bubble teams vying for too few at-large bids. There is no way the Big Ten is getting eight bids. There is no way the committee is going to take an 8-10 Michigan-team over Minnesota and Penn St. both of which will have at least.500 records in the conference. Georgia ’01 and Arizona ’08 got into the tournament with shady records because of one distinguishing factor: their schedules. They boasted the #1 and #2 schedules in those respective seasons. It remains to be seen whether the #9 SOS holds the same weight. Unfortunately, Michigan might not be in this situation if it hadn’t scheduled an NC Central Eagles-team that went 3-23 last season. Not surprisingly, the Eagles are 2-29 this season with an RPI of 338. There are only 343 teams in I-A basketball. Not unlike the educational concept/scare tactic taught in health classes around the country, in college basketball you “sleep with” everyone your opponent plays and everyone your opponent’s opponents play. There is no doubt that “beer goggles” were in full effect when NC Central was scheduled. It would be interesting to find out how much better Michigan’s SOS would be without that one game. Maybe simply not playing NCCU would’ve gotten Michigan in with an 8-10 conference record. Hopefully, this is a sobering lesson in RPI education.
In the past, I have tracked the projected tournament field on a week-to-week basis starting in January. I decided not to do that this year since things change so much from January to March. I’ll be putting together my first tournament projections next week. This weekend should burst a number of bubbles.