NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: The Stealth At-Large Team

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NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: The Stealth At-Large Team
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It's still a month away from the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, yet experts are trying their best to predict the 68 teams that will take part in March Madness. This year, and the last few years, the common theme has been that the bubble is soft. Teams that might not belong in will get in because so many other teams wasted opportunities to prove themselves. Add 3 at-large teams to the tournament from last year and the pool seems even softer.

Most of the writers go through the criteria of teams in the Big 6 conferences and a few Mid-Major teams, like Old Dominion, Utah State and UAB. Amazingly there is a team with a strong RPI with 1 conference loss that is not mentioned in the at-large talk, and I believe they should be.

Last year, I wrote about Murray State being a stealth bubble team, and made an argument that they should make the tournament if they went through the conference undefeated but lost in the conference tournament. They lost 1 league game, won the conference tournament, beat #4 seed Vanderbilt, and lost to the National runner-up by 2. Murray State showed they definitely belonged in the tournament. This other mid-major team at least deserves consideration when looking at the bubble, and that team is:

Harvard

The RPI rankings are not the be-all end-all of measuring the value of a team, but it can provide a useful metric to value a team. Cornell had a strong RPI last year, and their team ran through 2 rounds of the tournament. New Mexico State were 13.5 point underdogs against Michigan State in round 1, yet the Spartans RPI were 27 and New Mexico State's were 51. Michigan State squeaked out a 2 point victory. At the time of writing this, Harvard, the 2nd place team in the Ivy League, has an RPI of 45. Here is a list of teams below 45 that are discussed in the Bubble Watches:

Who is the Best Stealth At-Large Team?

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Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Cincinnati, Marquette, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Washington State, Alabama, Richmond, Missouri State, Wichita State

So many things will happen between now and selection Sunday, and one major problem for Harvard is that in order to need an at-large bid, they will have to lose a regular season game. In theory. Right now Harvard is 1 game behind Princeton in the Ivy League standings, with Princeton owning the head to head victory over Harvard. Both teams still have a lot of road games remaining in league, so the likelihood of both teams not losing before their season ending game is slim, but possible.

Imagine if both Harvard and Princeton win out until the final game of their regular season where they battle, at Harvard. Harvard wins. Now both teams have only 1 loss in league. With no conference tournament, the tiebreaker would be a 1 game playoff at a neutral court site. If Harvard were to lose that game, they would be 24-5, and the 5 and one of the 24 may be the best argument for them as a stealth at-large team.

Right now, Harvard has 4 losses. A season opening loss at George Mason, a team looking to be a strong at-large candidate. Then they lost at Michigan, a team outside of the tournament but a really challenging place to play. Only 3 ranked teams have won at Michigan this year. Harvard did get blown out by UConn, but a bad loss to Connecticut would also eliminate some Big East teams from consideration. The 4th loss was a close loss at Princeton, a team with an RPI currently of 52. The worst loss of the bunch is to a team with an RPI of 56. Most teams can't say that.

The one major win involves a bubble team from the ACC. When the tournament discussion gets to at-large teams, eventually the talk gets to Boston College. With a decent RPI, Boston College looks to be in the bunch of teams that can make a move and get into the tournament. Most of the time, a winning record in the ACC would make a team stand out and be assured of heavy consideration. In most years, the ACC is a lot better than it is this year. Boston College's resume isn't helped by being 0-2 versus the Ivy League this year.

The Ivy League isn't the ACC, but the goal to not to compare the best of the ACC versus the best of the Ivy. It's to compare the 5th best ACC team vs the 2nd best Ivy League team. In most cases, the selection committee doesn't have such a definitive win to work with, and it's not like Boston College has improved immensely since that game. With a lack of teams standing out, a team with 1 loss in conference should be in the discussion. Boston College does have a win over Texas A&M to boost their standing.

The Ivy League should have some credibility going into this year's tournament, since they had a team beat an Atlantic 10 and Big 10 team in the tournament last year. I don't believe that plays a lot into the selection process, but the success of Cornell should at least give some credibility to Harvard and Princeton being discussed with other teams as bubble worthy. Just because nobody sees them doesn't mean they lack skills or unable to compete at a high level. I've seen some of the bubble teams, and they're not very good. I haven't seen Harvard play, but just by the numbers, I'm intrigued and I think given the scenario with them running the table until the one game playoff, they deserve consideration as an at-large.

I feel so weird standing up for those little guys that go to Harvard.

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