Master gamesman Jim Valvano, who played everything from darts to the Japanese arcade game Pachinko during free moments, readily shared his calculation for getting an NCAA tournament bid, a concern of particular interest this time of year.
Valvano’s method depended on crafting a regular-season, nonconference schedule sprinkled with a few big names, a few more “bops,” and liberal portions of home cooking – still N.C. State staples. Don’t worry about winning the ACC regular-season race, he concluded, just aim to finish .500 or better in the league. Then count on the ACC’s overall strength to lift all break-even boats to NCAA participation.
That rule of thumb, which helped the Wolfpack secure seven NCAA invitations in eight years (1982-89), twice with 7-7 ACC records, has demonstrated popular staying power. This season look for it to be trotted out to reassure squads in the middle of the ACC pack such as Florida State, N.C. State and Clemson.
For schools outside the Power Five, however, the formulation provides no comfort, given that most leagues get a single NCAA bid. And, the more at-large teams flood the tournament from conferences like the ACC, the less room is left for others.
Besides, like all rules of thumb, Valvano’s break-even standard is an inexact indicator, especially in these days of the newly adopted NET, a measure by which the tournament selection committee weighs game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin and net offensive and defensive efficiency.
Nor has the break-even model worked so well in the five full seasons since the ACC grew to 15 programs in 2014. Over that half-decade five of nine ACC teams with .500 records got NCAA bids, most recently FSU in 2018. (Syracuse got in last year at 8-10). Since expansion, half of the 10-8 ACC teams were left out of the NCAAs – Clemson in 2014 and 2016, Miami in 2015 and Virginia Tech in 2016.
Complaints from richest leagues
The larger question is why exclusion of middling ACC teams generates as much heat as it does beyond the understandable tugs of familiarity and prejudice.
Sure, competing in the ACC is more demanding than playing in any mid-major league. But we’re arguing over relative crumbs -- it’s not as if the ACC is denied NCAA opportunities. Last season nine members (60 percent) got bids. Since 2014 a touch more than half of all ACC teams not on probation made the tournament (37 of 73, 50.7 percent). That’s about the same portion as NBA clubs making the playoffs (53.3 percent).
Adjust the selection criteria to include all ACC members that at least broke even since 2014, as Valvano’s rule of thumb suggests, and you’d approach two-thirds NCAA inclusion (63.0 percent, 48 of 73). That’s even gaudier than the glut of FBS football teams appearing in postseason bowls (78 of 130, 60 percent).
And still we hear complaints that the richest leagues and programs are not rich enough.
The current system, with its 32 automatic berths for conference champions, and 36 at-large bids -- all but 10 awarded to Power Five teams last year (72.2 percent) – facilitates the unpredictable, egalitarian charm of the tournament. Everyone except the losers savors results like a No. 16 Maryland-Baltimore County upsetting No. 1 Virginia last March, or 11th-seed Loyola-Chicago reaching the Final Four.
Both of those overachievers were league champions. Any mid-majors otherwise earning their way into the NCAAs must build a strong resume with regular-season matchups against Power Five teams willing to play them only on home floors or in neutral-court, in-season tournaments. Now there’s talk of curtailing exempt events (think NIT Tip-off or Maui Invitational) as the ACC follows its power brethren in playing 20 league games starting next season.
“Instead of having the exempt (tournaments), just let the schools have those games,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after a recent win over St. John’s, a Big East member. The Big East, an unacknowledged power league in basketball, got half of the at-large bids available to non-Power Five entrants in 2018. “It’s time to take a really good look, and not only look at it from the perspective of the mid-majors. But look at it from the perspective of the power conferences.”
There’ll be little room left for high-achieving mid-majors, though, if the path to earning at-large NCAA inclusion is further narrowed. That’s why late this month Conference USA will try a different, self-help approach to enhance NCAA consideration for its teams.
Last season, 25-win Middle Tennessee lost in the league tournament and failed to get an at-large NCAA bid. This year, seeking to avoid a similar scenario, the conference will divide its 14 members into three “pods” and conclude the regular-season with four games matching squads with comparable league records, home and away, opponents to be determined.
“We just wanted to make sure we’re giving our top teams the opportunity to play as many good games as they can,” CUSA commissioner Judy MacLeod told the AP. Then everyone plays in the league tournament for the automatic NCAA bid and CUSA hopes a second, deserving member has burnished its case sufficiently to get in, too.
“I think it was worth the league being creative and thinking outside the box,” says Jeff Jones, a former Virginia head coach (1991-98) in his sixth year at Old Dominion. The Monarchs, a Conference USA power, were good enough to upset Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in December. “It’s worth seeing what happens. Why not?”