After finishing with a sub-.500 record for the first time in 16 years, Marquette was not selected for the NCAA Tournament. Duh.
This is the second consecutive year Marquette will sit the dance out, so logic would dictate that there isn’t much on the line for the Golden Eagles when the Madness gets going this week. False.
This might be the most important tournament for Marquette since the Final Four run in 2003. You see, while the Blue and Gold have been beaten black and blue lately, the tea leaves show brighter days ahead. With a strong recruiting class in place, the full backing of an administration and stability at the leadership positions, the foundation for improvement, whether it be incremental or monumental is there.
Whether it be in 2016 or 2017, the time is coming when March will matter once again. And when that time comes, MU will want to be in the good graces of the selection committee. What does that even mean? Let me explain.
As long as humans make up a majority of the selection committee (R.I.P., BCS), bias will be a component of the judging process. Now, that doesn’t mean all the committee members are huge homers only looking out for their own. Rather, in general, their perception of a player, a team or a league can sway that bias just enough to where decisions are impacted by it.
Take the AAC as an example. This is a league thrown together in a hodgepodge manner that, being objective, I loathe with an irrational fervor. Last season, the first for the AAC as a conference, the committee seemed to hate it just as much as I did. SMU was the first team ranked in the AP top-25 to miss the tournament in 11 years. Of the four teams that did make the tournament, none were seeded higher than a 4, despite Louisville being ranked No. 5 in the AP poll and No. 1 in KenPom. To make matters worse, three of those four teams were placed in the same regional, a pretty blatant oversight that felt like a straight-up shaft. The committee was sending a loud message that even though there was strength at the top, the weakness at the bottom made the league a “mid-major.”
Despite all these obstacles, UConn went ahead and took the whole damn thing, beating Kentucky for its fourth National Title. You’d think that would have sent the NCAA to the confessional in 2015 to repent for the gross injustices it committed last year, right? Wrong. The AAC was given two slots (a 6 for SMU and an 8 for CCincinnati and Temple was passed over for a mediocre UCLA with a questionable resume. My Big East blinders nodded in approval. SMU hasn’t beat a KenPom top-50 team all season and the league as a whole beat nobody of note in the non-conference, finishing 9th according to KenPom, just ahead of the MAC. It was really, really bad. My objective cap couldn’t believe it, though. For the second year in a row, the AAC was disregarded as a mid-major, not getting any benefit of the doubt afforded to mediocre leagues like the SEC.
How does this relate to Marquette? Hear me out.
Despite a dismal showing in the NCAA Tournament last season (4 bids, 2 wins, 0 teams in the second weekend), the Big East was rewarded handsomely this year for a solid to great non-conference performance. I’m not a fan of embedding multiple paragraphs, but this thought from Grantland writer Mark Titus is too good to simply link to:
Winner: The Big East
Big East fans have been begging for respect all season. The conference is at least the third-best in America, yet it doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as the other big conferences. Big East games aren’t shown on ESPN, meaning its teams are unknown to all the casual fans who just tune into ESPN and watch whatever’s on. When the original Big East broke up, it was called the “death” of the conference, so fans assumed what was left of the conference wasn’t worth paying attention to. Every Big East school is private and more than half have an enrollment of less than 10,000. Villanova — a team with no obvious future NBA players — is head and shoulders better than the rest of the league. These factors all contribute to making the conference underappreciated, and that sparks Big East fans’ paranoid fantasies of a conspiracy to keep the conference down.
As it turned out, the Big East had nothing to worry about. The selection committee LOVES the Big East. Villanova got the second overall 1-seed, which wasn’t a huge surprise but was still nice. Georgetown got a 4-seed (!!!). Xavier, Butler, and Providence all got 6-seeds, meaning the Big East had five teams in the committee’s top 25. Throw in a 9-seed for St. John’s and that makes six bids for the 10-team conference, with all six nowhere near the bubble. Not bad.
The Big East had all the chips fall the right way this year to get to this point. It had a dominant team that went undefeated in non-conference play, wowing the public in high-profile games. It had a fat middle of the pack with quality wins to spare (Notre Dame, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida), high visibility close losses (St. John’s vs. Gonzaga, Georgetown vs. Wisconsin) and a bottom of the barrel that wasn’t dreadful (beating Stanford, Oklahoma, Tennessee) but bad enough to let the middle tier pad the wins column.
Now comes the important part. Let’s game out a situation where Nova is shocked by Northern Iowa in the Round of 32, Hoyas get Hoya’d by yet another 13 seed, and only one team makes it out of the first weekend. This isn’t even a worst case scenario, but it would lead to a massive influx in public and media opinion that the Doug Gottlieb’s of the world were right. The Big East was a big ponzi scheme. None of the teams were actually any good, they were all just equally bad. I mean, DePaul won six times, what other proof did you need?Previous results don’t automatically determine the future, but back-to-back years of postseason flame-outs would certainly impact the perception of the league going forward.
Skip forward to next March, where Henry Ellenson has led Marquette to a 22-10 record and a third-place conference finish. It has a decent RPI of 38, with a huge lopsided victory over No. 2-seed LSU in the non-con, finishing 11-7 in Big East play. These are better numbers than St. John’s amassed this season. Do you feel confident that Team Bubble Watch’s slipper still fits? What if I told you Temple’s numbers were better than that this year and it did not get an invite, how do you feel now?
As flawed as it is to rely on one or two games out of a 30-game season, the NCAA Tournament is the standard by which all leagues must play. Perception matters. The Big East has a chance to prove it belongs in any discussion of “power conferences.” It has to get at least eight or nine wins to match what the seeding would suggest and have multiple teams reach the second weekend. Failure to do so will make gaining respect much harder in the years to come.
As a former president once said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … you can’t get fooled again.”