- Joe Lunardi, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
It's going to happen. For the first time in two years and the 30th time in the 64-plus team era, a school with a losing conference record is going to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
And it's going to make me crazy. Again.
Don't know yet whether it will be a Big Ten team, as Purdue (7-7), Northwestern (6-8), Minnesota (5-9) and reeling Illinois (5-9) are all candidates. It could be a Big East team, too, with West Virginia (7-7), UConn (6-8) and Seton Hall (7-8) all flirting with the bubble.
Heck, we could see Kansas State (7-7), Mississippi State (7-7), Alabama (6-6) and Texas (7-7) all stumble to the finish line. We could have a record number of "losers" in the NCAA field. The 1991 tourney produced three such teams, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit -- especially with three additional at-large slots now available -- if that so-called record falls this year.
To which I can only ask, "Why?" If league play is the cornerstone of any team's season (and it is), is it too much to ask of those selected to compete for a national championship that they, you know, win at least as many games as they lose?
I can hear the howling already. "Our league is so tough." "Half our losses came against ranked teams." "There's no comparison between the level of play in our conference versus some of these other leagues."
All of these statements might be true, and it's still a bad idea for conference "losers" to dance. Consider:
• Most teams in this situation have double and triple the opportunity to post the quality wins required for serious at-large consideration. You can't have only the reward of winning without also factoring the risk of losing.
• Almost half (13 of 29) of the teams selected with losing league records have gone out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Their aggregate winning percentage, despite more favorable seeding, is worse than every test group of "winning" teams -- major and mid-major -- in comparable tourney berths.
• Not a single conference "loser" has ever advanced to the Final Four, much less won a national championship. It's not like any of these teams are being deprived a realistic shot at cutting down the nets.
So what's the harm in requiring all at-large candidates to be "tournament eligible?" Go .500 or better in your conference and you're on the board for consideration. If not, you have to win the conference tournament. Period.
As a compromise (and as a way to add a little "juice" to some of those numbing early-round conference tournament games), I'd consider allowing conference tourney wins to count toward at-large eligibility. So, hypothetically, a 7-9 ACC team that gets hot and reaches its conference championship game has a 10-10 league record and is then NCAA-eligible.
We're talking 1.1 bids per year since the tournament expanded in 1985. About one slot per year for the next VCU or Butler or George Mason. It's a plan that would certainly be bad news for one or more of this year's bubble teams, but a plan that would resonate overwhelmingly well with a viewing public that clearly knows the difference between winning and losing.
As for Iowa State in 1992 (5-9 Big Eight) or Florida State in 1998 (6-10 ACC), I'm sorry. The committee should never have had to opportunity to put you in the NCAA field. It should have been conference tournament championship or NIT. Four games under .500 -- seriously?
The same goes for Minnesota and Illinois now. If your final Big Ten record is 7-11, that's all we need to know.
Joe Lunardi says there could be more than three teams that make this year's NCAA tournament despite a losing conference record, and that's a problem.