This is the time of Championship Week where many of the mid-major conference tournaments crown its champions and reward them with automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament.
However, a few teams have come up short in their quest to secure a spot in the Big Dance despite outstanding regular seasons.
Iona was one such team, losing in the MAAC semifinal over the weekend, and its hopes to now earn an at-large bid were covered here.
Two more teams—who each won 26 games this season—each lost on Monday night and put themselves in the same precarious position Iona already is in.
First, it was Drexel. It lost in the CAA Championship to VCU, 59-56. The Dragons won the league’s regular-season title, and will now have to hope that is significant enough in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.
The other team to fall—perhaps more surprisingly—on Monday night was Oral Roberts. ORU also won the regular-season title, in the Summit League. The Golden Eagles went 17-1 in conference play, but picked a terrible time to lose just their second game against league competition all season.
After being denied a chance at an automatic bid, can Drexel or Oral Roberts still get in the Field of 68? Here’s a look at the case for each.
Updated RPI/SOS Rankings from realtimerpi.com.
Drexel: 27-6, 18-3* CAA; RPI: 70, SOS: 223
Oral Roberts: 27-6, 18-2* SUM; RPI: 49, SOS: 184
Recent NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdowns
4-3 vs. Top 100
Drexel fared very respectably in its seven games against teams rated in the RPI top 100, winning four of them. One of those wins, over VCU, came against a top-50 team.
In terms of winning percentage, Drexel fared better against the top 100 than most power-or-high-mid-major conference teams. Though Drexel played less games than most of those other teams, the Dragons won more of them than they lost, and that has to count for something.
14 and 11
Drexel, much like Iona and other mid-major teams that dominated their conferences this season, won a bunch of games away from home. The Dragons won 14 road/neutral games this year, with 11 of those being true road games on opposing home courts.
In a competitive league like the CAA, winning on the road is never easy. Drexel won seven of its nine games on the road in conference play, which played a huge part in the Dragons locking up first place in the league. All those road wins should show just how much Drexel dominated in the CAA this season.
Though it didn’t win the conference tournament, Drexel was the best team in the CAA—one of the more reputable mid-major leagues. En route to finishing 16-2 in the league, Drexel beat both VCU and George Mason—the second- and third-place teams in the CAA—in their only matchups during the regular season.
Despite losing to VCU in the CAA Final, Drexel battled all the way to the end in what was basically a road game, playing in the Rams’ backyard in Richmond. The de facto home-court advantage for VCU should be factored into the committee’s evaluation of just how good a team it feels Drexel is.
Paradise Jam Losses
Drexel had a good opportunity to pick up some quality early-season wins when it played in the Paradise Jam tournament on the Virgin Islands. However it failed to do so, and its overall non-conference profile suffered as a result.
A loss to Norfolk State in its first game in the tournament was the first blunder for Drexel. The Dragons did get a chance to redeem themselves against a top-50 team in Virginia, but scored just 35 points in a 14-point loss.
A throw-away win over Winthrop in the final game there capped off a massive missed opportunity for Drexel to get some quality wins for itself and its conference.
Quite simply, a strength-of-schedule ranking of that high a number will be very tough for Drexel to overcome in its pursuit of an at-large bid.
Of Drexel’s nine wins outside the CAA, six of them were against teams rated 200 or higher in the RPI. Four of those were teams rated above 250. Perhaps even more alarming, 10 of the Dragons’ 16 wins in the CAA were also against teams rated above 200.
How much does winning 27 games mean if so many of them provide no boost whatsoever to Drexel’s overall profile?
After sending three teams to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the CAA simply is not as strong a league this season.
The league was rated just No. 15 in the RPI among all conferences, down significantly from No. 10 a year ago. Only three of the CAA’s 12 teams finished in the top 100, and only seven ended up in the top 200.
Judging based solely on the strength of the conference as a whole and not the reputation earned through prior Cinderella seasons, Drexel’s CAA title just isn’t quite as meaningful as it may be perceived.
3-3 vs. Top 75
Like Drexel, Oral Roberts fared quite respectably against its toughest competition this season. ORU won three of its games against teams in the RPI top 75, highlighted by a 22-point win at Xavier, a win over Akron in its BracketBusters game and one over South Dakota State—a borderline-top-50 team.
Again, winning half its games against the best teams it faced makes ORU a bit more attractive than the numerous top-conference bubble teams with sub-500 records in such games.
Challenging Non-Conference Schedule
ORU did a good job of adhering to the committee’s message about playing quality teams in the non-conference portion of its schedule. It played a handful of quality, tourney-caliber teams, all away from home, as you might expect.
Traveling to West Virginia, Oklahoma, Gonzaga and Xavier early on was certainly a boost to ORU’s RPI and SOS, and perhaps its confidence as well. The blowout win at Xavier was a huge plus, but close losses at WVU (by seven) and Gonzaga (by six) should raise some eyebrows as well.
ORU was one of just eight teams this season to finish with one or fewer losses in its conference. Of those teams, only Kentucky, Syracuse and Nevada (WAC) pulled off the feat in conferences rated higher in terms of conference RPI. It was truly an impressive feat for ORU to dominate its conference the way it did.
Adding to the credibility of its league record, ORU’s only loss in the Summit League regular season came at South Dakota State. That team won the league’s conference tournament and automatic bid, and currently has an RPI of 51, so that is certainly a reasonable only loss.
No Top 50 Wins
At the moment, ORU has no top-50 wins on its profile, and lost the only two games it played against top-50 teams (Gonzaga and West Virginia).
The fact that it has no wins—let alone only two chances—against tournament-caliber competition could make it very difficult to justify ORU as worthy of an at-large bid. With many other bubble teams having multiple wins against the top 50, the Golden Eagles could easily fall beneath all those teams in line for a bid.
21 150-Plus Wins
ORU won 27 games this season, but 21 of those came against teams currently ranked No. 150 or higher in the RPI. Essentially, three out of every four games it won came against teams who will likely not participate in any kind of postseason play.
Furthermore, ORU had 15 wins—more than half of its total—against teams above 200. Much like Drexel, so many of the Golden Eagles’ wins this season were over teams that pretty much anybody anywhere near the bubble would have beat as well.
While the conference had a better-than-normal year, led by ORU and South Dakota State, the fact is the Summit League has never received an at-large bid to the tournament. Can that really change this year? Despite ORU's great overall and league record, it would still seem unlikely.
The Summit is ranked No. 16 in conference RPI, just behind the CAA. Like the CAA, a very small percentage of the Summit’s teams (20%, vs. 25% with the CAA) are ranked in the top 100. There just doesn’t seem to be enough in-conference quality wins to carry ORU to a potential spot in the field of 68.
With both teams having the exact same record (27-6) in leagues on about the same level this season, Drexel and Oral Roberts have much more comparable profiles than most people seem to give credit for.
Drexel lost just two regular-season games in the No. 15 conference. ORU lost just one in the No. 16 conference. That is very comparable and equally impressive.
Between two teams that won a ton of games against mostly-inferior competition, it comes down to who took more advantage of its opportunities against good teams.
By winning three games against top-75 teams, two of which came out of conference, and one of those two coming on the road in very decisive fashion, ORU has the slightly better profile than Drexel.
Quite frankly, if the committee does ultimately deem Drexel as worthy of an at-large bid, ORU should get in as well. Positive league perception—in the case of Drexel and the CAA—can’t be everything.
Recent NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdowns