Friday, February 9, 2024

Automatic NIT Bids Are Gone: Now What?

Conference play will be wrapping up before we know it and conference tournaments will be starting. For a long time prior to this season No. 1 seeds that lost in their conference tournament had a fallback option: the NIT. The NCAA had previously reserved automatic bid spots for the No. 1 seed of any conference that lost in its tournament. It was a reward for a strong regular season with a stumble at the end.

That guarantee ended when the NIT announced a new selection criteria prior to this season. Now that we have some sense of what teams might be the number one seed in their conference tournament, I wanted to see which ones lost that safety net. (The CBI has said they'd be happy to take conference winners, but that tournament comes with its own complications for participation. Still it at least offers teams somewhere to go.)

I looked at the projected No. 1 seeds for each conference according to KenPom and tried to assess their chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. The No. 1 seeds in nine conference tournaments seem hopefully headed to the NCAA Tournament. Saint Mary's and Indiana St. would be holding their breath, but would definitely at least make the NIT. Unfortunately, for another 10 conferences it seems the projected No. 1 will likely have no shot at the NIT. These are mostly mid-to-low major conferences. It represents a great reduction in the equity that the old NIT system used to provide.

The Breakdown

Would Make NCAA (9): Big 12, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac 12, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 (Dayton), American (Florida Atlantic)

Probably At-Large (2): Missouri Valley (Indiana St.), West Coast Conference (Saint Mary's)

Might Make NIT (11): Ivy League (Yale), WAC (Grand Canyon), Conference USA (Louisiana Tech), Southern Conference (Samford), Big West Conference (UC Irvine), Sun Belt Conference (Appalachian St.), Coastal Athletic Association (UNC Wilmington), America East (Vermont), Mid American Conference (Akron), Southland Conference (McNeese St.), Ohio Valley Conference (Morehead St.)

Won't Make NIT (10): Big South Conference (High Point), Horizon League (any of the trio projected to finish 14-6), Big Sky (Eastern Washington), Summit League (any of the trio projected to finish 10-6), ASUN Conference (Eastern Kentucky), MAAC (Quinnipiac), Southwestern Athletic Conference (Southern), Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (Norfolk St. or North Carolina Central), Northeast Conference (Merrimack), Colgate (Patriot League)

Let's look at the 11 conferences in the middle. Here's a brief look at each of their cases and where they'd likely stand. [Projected quadrant records come from T-Rank, NET, KenPom and Strength of Record (SOR) are current as of today, Feb. 9.] They're sorted by NET as of today.

Brief NIT At-Large Profiles

Grand Canyon - NET: 49, KenPom: 57, Q1+Q2 Wins: 4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1, SOR: 22

The reality is that in a just selection world Grand Canyon (21-2) would be on the line with Saint Mary's and Indiana St. and heading towards at potential NCAA at-large berth. Bryce Drew's team seems like a lock for the NIT though if they lose during the WAC tournament. They've beaten other NCAA/NIT consideration teams like San Francisco, San Diego St. and Louisiana Tech and their two losses are on a netural court to South Carolina and at Seattle.

UC Irvine - NET: 64, KenPom: 63, Q1+Q2 Wins: 1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3, SOR: 79

The Anteaters played three quadrant one games during non-conference: at Utah St., at San Diego St. and at New Mexico. Not many teams were going to win those contests, which is how they find themselves with just a single projected Quad II win for winning at USC. That lack of marquee wins could hold UCI back in the eyes of the NIT Selection Committee. They seem like a team that would be right on the edge. It is worth noting though that there's a severe lack of West Coast representation in the NIT bracket right now because of the Mountain West's large number of NCAA Tournament bids, which (for conspiracy theorists) could make UCI's inclusion more attractive.

McNeese St. - NET: 69, KenPom: 78, Q1+Q2 Wins: 3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2, SOR: 60

Will Wade's first season at McNeese St. (20-3) has been an unqualified success. The non-conference schedule was... let's say lacking, which means there's not a ton to this profile, but the Cowboys did manage to win at UAB and Michigan. Their biggest concern right now is that the rest of the Southland schedule just offers a lot of downside for their NIT profile. T-Rank projects they'll lose at least one more conference game before the tournament even starts. Even with that downward pressure on their resume, it seems like McNeese St. should be headed towards an NIT bid if necessary. 

Samford - NET: 73, KenPom: 80, Q1+Q2 Wins: 2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2, SOR: 47

Samford's three losses this season are on the road at: Purdue, VCU and Furman. That explains how their strength of record is so high despite the fact that their best win is... at Western Carolina or at UNC Greensboro. The Bulldogs are going to represent a giant conundrum for the NIT selection committee. If the NET and KenPom stay at current levels, it'll be extremely close and they'll have something like SOR to thank if they end up on the right side of the bubble.

Louisiana Tech - NET: 75, KenPom: 71, Q1+Q2 Wins: 2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 5, SOR: 110

These Bulldogs are here because the NET and KenPom numbers will give them another look. When you look at who their wins and losses though I find it hard to make a case for Talvin Hester's squad.

Appalachian St. - NET: 81, KenPom: 89, Q1+Q2 Wins: 4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 6, SOR: 72

Appalachian St. has mixed some awesome wins with some absolutely perplexing losses, such as Wednesday's loss at Texas St. Their extremely confusing profile also includes victories over Auburn (!) and at James Madison. The fact that some of the bad losses happened extremely early in the season and they have two wins that will likely stand up for the rest of the season definitely gives the Mountaineers a fighting chance for an NIT at-large bid.

Yale - NET: 82, KenPom: 86, Q1+Q2 Wins: 3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 4, SOR: 76

Another group of Bulldogs. These ones struggled a bit during a difficult non-conference (they were 5-5 on Dec. 6), but have since rounded into form and become the top team in a top heavy Ivy League race. Yale took some stunning losses, including Fairfield at home, but they've won eight straight games. That winning streak has conincided with them starting to form a legitimate NIT at-large case. James Jones's group has wins at Sant Clara and at home against Princeton and still has chances for impressive wins at the Tigers or Cornell. How they do in those games might forecast if they'll need to win the Ivy League tournament in Levien Gymnasium to play postseason basketball.

Akron - NET: 86, KenPom: 88, Q1+Q2 Wins: 2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2, SOR: 83

Outside of a home win over Bradley during non-conference, the Zips basically beat the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to the ones you'd expect. If that continues during conference play Akron (18-5) should be able to put up a strong record of wins and losses. That accumulation will be their biggest selling point to the NIT.

Morehead St. - NET: 101, KenPom: 108, Q1+Q2 Wins: 0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2, SOR: 88

The NET is probably a bit too high for Morehead St. or the next two teams to receive legitimate NIT at-large consideration, but they should based on their result-based (SOR) metric. Morehead's problem is that their relatively high NET and KenPom are accompanied by zero wins in their premiere opportunities (which in their defense were: at Alabama, at Purdue, at Indiana and at Penn St.). If the Eagles had won one of those we'd probably be having a slightly different conversation.

UNC Wilmington - NET: 106, KenPom: 105, Q1+Q2 Wins: 2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 5, SOR: 77

UNC Wilmington has one of the best wins of any team on this list with their stunning victory at Kentucky on Dec. 2. That victory along with a road win at Charleston gives Takayo Siddle's team two excellent victories to hang their hats on. They've also had some slip-ups too, including 2-game losing streak to start CAA play (at Drexel and at Towson) and an overtime loss at Stony Brook. They also have an ugly 30-point loss against potential fellow at-large competitor Appalachian St. How the committee weighs those strong wins versus the losses will determine UNCW's fate.

Vermont - NET: 109, KenPom: 111, Q1+Q2 Wins: 3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 5, SOR: 85

The Catamounts had things in cruise control in America East until a surprising loss last night at NJIT, 63-61. That defeat was probably the worst of the season for the Catamounts, even if it did come on the road to a conference foe (T-Rank gave them -2.0 WAB for it). Vermont has beaten Yale at home (by a point in a wild finish) and won at Toledo, but there isn't enough for them to slip into the NIT if the fall in the America East tournament, especially considering a loss would be on their home floor.

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