NEW YORK -- Is a gaudy Big Ten record enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament?
After losing to Michigan in the Big Ten quarterfinal on Friday, Nebraska will have to wait nine days to find out the answer.
The Cornhuskers had their big bubble chance Friday. They had already defeated Michigan once, and a second win over the Wolverines would have given Nebraska two things: a second quality win over a surefire NCAA tournament team, and a shot at top-seeded Michigan State on Saturday. A win over Michigan and a loss to Michigan State would have still left the Cornhuskers sweating next Sunday, but Friday’s 77-58 loss might have popped their bubble.
"I believe we're an NCAA tournament team," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "I don't think [today] undoes what we've already accomplished.
"We've won games away from home. We've beaten teams that we should beat. To go through that type of season, won eight of our last nine, we showed we can win away from home. Thirteen league wins."
In recent years, Nebraska’s at-large candidacy would be an open-and-shut case: 22 wins overall, a 13-5 record in the Big Ten and finishing fourth in the league would be good enough.
And coaches around the conference would agree with that assessment.
“To be 13-5 and we’re sitting here asking if they’re going to be in the NCAA tournament, almost sounds ridiculous to me,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the Spartans’ win over Wisconsin.
In the past 15 years, no Big Ten team with a conference record like Nebraska’s has been left out of the NCAA tournament. Michigan was left out in 2003 and Indiana missed in 2005 after going 10-6, while Ohio State missed in 2016 after finishing 11-7. But 13 Big Ten wins? Hasn’t happened.
The problem is the selection committee doesn’t generally weigh conference record heavily, and conference affiliation doesn’t come up when comparing teams. So the fact that Nebraska went 13-5 in the Big Ten probably won't be much of a factor. The committee is going to look at how the Cornhuskers reached those 13 conference wins, those 22 overall wins, and see it’s a mostly empty and hollow total.
"We had some bad luck with the Big Ten schedule," Miles said.
It happened with Washington in 2012, which won the Pac-12 Conference outright with a 14-4 conference record but didn’t make the NCAA tournament. The league was ranked sixth at KenPom that season, and Washington lost to California and Colorado, the lone NCAA tournament teams from the Pac-12.
It was the same for Alabama in 2011, as the Crimson Tide won their division with a 12-4 SEC record but were left out of the NCAA tournament.
An impressive power-conference record doesn’t automatically mean a bid.
The Big Ten isn’t the usual Big Ten this season in terms of depth. The league is ranked No. 6 in conference RPI and No. 5 at KenPom. It has only seven of 14 teams ranked inside the top 60 in the BPI and at KenPom.
As a result, the committee will look at Nebraska’s at-large résumé like every other team on the bubble, which isn’t good news for the Cornhuskers. They’re 1-6 in Quadrant 1 games, and 3-9 against Quadrant 1 and 2 teams. For comparison, here are the Quadrant 1 and combined Quadrant 1 and 2 records for some other bubble teams that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has in the field: Providence (4-8, 8-9), Louisville (3-9, 4-11), USC (4-5, 8-8), Texas (5-10, 7-13), Kansas State (3-9, 8-10), Baylor (4-10, 7-12), St. Bonaventure (3-2, 7-4).
"At the end of the day, if Quad 1 is the holy grail, that's a tough deal," Miles said. "But I don't think that is the holy grail. You just have to see where it goes."
Nebraska has an RPI in the 50s, an awful nonconference strength of schedule in the mid-to-high 200s, and the Cornhuskers are just 6-9 away from home. Their best win is the home win over Michigan on Jan. 18. Outside of that, the Cornhuskers haven’t done much. Home wins over Maryland and Penn State don’t move the needle at all. They also have a bad road loss to Illinois two weeks ago.
The only metric that puts Nebraska in the field would be ESPN’s Strength of Record, which was at 33 entering the day. KenPom, BPI and Sagarin are all in the 50s.
But here’s the biggest advantage those other bubble teams have over Nebraska: They’re all still playing. All of them still have regular-season games this weekend plus the conference tournament next week. They’re all still able to improve their profile and secure their bid. Moreover, there are teams around or behind the Cornhuskers (UCLA, Syracuse, Washington, etc.) that can jump them and move into the field.
“We’re just going to wait and see what happens," Nebraska junior James Palmer said. "I don’t think this loss should affect us.”
Nebraska can’t do anything but sit and watch the other bubble teams for the next nine days, hoping they all lose. The Cornhuskers don’t have another chance to improve their résumé.
Friday was their chance, and they came up short.