The question as been posed a few times in Sun Belt Conference circles. Does Middle Tennessee State deserve an at-large bid to the Big Dance, should they fall in the conference tournament?
The Blue Raiders are 27-4 with a 19-1 mark in the conference. They’re far and away predicted to win the conference tournament next week and give coach Kermit Davis his first trip to the NCAA Tournament since he took over the program in 2002. But if that doesn’t happen, what’s left for the Blue Raiders?
At first glance, the schedule doesn’t paint the picture of an at-large candidate.
MTSU has one win over a team currently in the RPI Top 100, no. 58 Ole Miss according to RealTimeRPI.com. Other than that, they’ve whiffed, badly, at any other attempt at a quality win, with losses to RPI no. 6 Florida (66-45 on a neutral court), no. 46 Akron (82-77 on the road) and no. 23 Belmont (64-49 on the road).
But after digging a bit, there’s a legitimate case.
First, let’s concentrate on the bad losses. When it comes to a team in a league like the Sun Belt, those mainly come from within your own conference. The Blue Raiders worst loss is their lone conference defeat, at Arkansas State, a 17-11 team that is currently no. 155 in the RPI. Not really what anyone would call a ‘bad loss’.
In a season in which teams like Virginia are losing to Old Dominion and no. 1-ranked programs are falling like they’re in front of a firing squad, there’s something to be said about a team with no bad losses.
Also, while the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee doesn’t do precedents, there’s one set in the Sun Belt. In 2008, the conference got two bids out of automatic qualifier Western Kentucky and South Alabama lucking out with the at-large bid despite losing to, ironically, Middle Tennessee State in the semifinals. The Jaguars were the no. 1 seed entering the tournament.
That season, the Jaguars got a 10-seed with a 26-6 overall record and a 16-2 mark in-conference. Their best out-of-conference wins were over two tournament teams, San Diego and Mississippi State, both teams that made the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They also swept WKU in the regular season.
So in terms of “good wins”, South Alabama’s two don’t exactly make them jump off the page over the 2012-13 version of MTSU.
Then there’s the overall wins themselves. The Blue Raiders are at 27. If they, say, get to the conference title game, they’ll be at 29. Even in a largely-one bid league like the Sun Belt, how can the selection committee overlook 29 wins in a season?
If put on the spot, I’d say Middle Tennessee gets the at-large. They may not have the eye-popping wins that grab the committee’s attention, but they also don’t have the kind of losses that make a team look suspect.
Follow David Harten on Twitter at @David_Harten