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Processing the Numbers, Basketball Edition | NIT Bracketology Special

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The Crimson Tide are likely NIT-bound, but where will they be seeded?

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

RPI information courtesy of CBS Sports.
BPI information courtesy of ESPN.
All other statistics are courtesy of KenPom.com, Ken Pomeroy’s outstanding basketball analytics site.

There’s still one game left in the regular season, as well as the SEC Tournament, but it’s time to start thinking about postseason play. The big dance has been off the table for the Tide for quite some time, but as you are undoubtedly aware March Madness is just the biggest — not the only — postseason tournament out there.

For all of the heartache over Coach Anthony Grant and the regrettable injuries to Ricky Tarrant and now Shannon Hale, the Tide’s likely 17-15 record is not nearly as bad as you think it is. True, many of those 15 losses were eminently winnable contests, but considering the Tide’s hellacious schedule and the overall strength of the SEC this season, it’s certainly understandable. Barring some unforeseeable insanity on the part of the selection committee, the Tide will likely be bringing hot, hot Grantsketball action to the NIT this season.

So what exactly is the NIT?

The National Invitational Tournament is college basketball’s oldest postseason tourney[1], founded in 1938 and pre-dating the NCAA tournament by a year. While the NCAA tournament is by far more prestigious and better-known in 2015, the NIT has a rich history, and for many years was college basketball’s premier postseason event. One of the major reasons for that is its deep ties to New York City, where the tournament originated and continues to hold its final rounds to this day in the world’s most famous basketball arena — Madison Square Garden.

1 | Among major college ball — the NAIA tournament’s been around since 1937.

The original operators of the tournament were the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association. Since a collection of sportswriters undoubtedly had no idea how to run such an extravaganza, in 1940 responsibility for holding the tournament was transitioned to an organization that would become the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association (MIBA), which consisted of representatives of five colleges in and around the NYC area. MIBA would operate the event for the next 65 years, up until the NCAA purchased rights to the tournament as part of an antitrust settlement with MIBA. That purchase was only for 10 years and was orchestrated in August of 2005, which means it runs out this year. I spent probably… gosh… 3, maybe 4 minutes attempting to Google what is happening with the 2016 tournament, but for some reason I kept getting stuff about the presidential election and just ragequit[2].

2 | The NCAA/ESPN television contract for the NIT runs through 2024, so that should tell you all you need to know.

So, how are the teams selected?

This is important, but what’s more interesting is how the teams used to be selected. You see, the reason the NIT has existed for so long, despite being usurped by the NCAA tournament in prestige, is it served to financially support the MIBA. A good portion of that financial support came from our good friends at ESPN, who’ve held the rights for televising the tournament for quite some time. Shockingly enough, this arrangement resulted in ESPN consulting on the selection process[3], and eventually the NIT became the home of big-name teams with middling records that were not good enough to make the big dance, yet still brought strong attendance numbers at the games and good ratings on the television. Amazing how the world works.

3 | This definitely doesn't happen with bowl season. Absolutely not.

That all changed when the NCAA bought the tournament. Bristol’s long shadow is nowhere to be found these days — at least, not officially — and the whole shebang has rules and regulations. The main ones to consider for the 2015 are as follows:

  • Much like the NCAA tournament, the NIT now has an official Selection Committee comprised of former coaches; former Tide coach C.M. Newton was the chair of this committee as recently as 2010.
  • There is no requirement that a team have at least a 0.500 record to receive an invitation, but in practice all participants are at 0.500 or better.
  • Teams that win their conference’s regular season title but fail to make the NCAA tournament receive automatic bids to the NIT.
  • There is no cost to the teams to participate in the NIT, as opposed to the CBI and CIT tournaments, which are pay-to-play.

So, who’s getting in to the NIT this year?

To start that process, we first need to identify who’s not going to the NIT. I scrapped any team under 0.500 as of March 3rd[4] — that narrowed the field down to merely 194 teams. Next, I consulted Chris Dobbertean’s current NCAA bracket projections over at the Mothership, and removed the 68 teams he currently has pegged for the tournament, reducing the potential NIT field to 126 teams. You should definitely read Chris’ piece; not only is it well-written and of a delightful length, but he actually knows what he is doing — always a bonus.

4 | When this article was written, and thus the date from which all records and statistics were gathered.

Chris’ projections currently have conference leaders as winning their postseason tournaments and thus capturing the automatic NCAA bids for those conferences. While that makes sense for juggernauts like Kentucky, it’s much dicier for say Tulsa, currently leading the American but likely missing the big dance if they don’t win the conference tourney. What that means is that a handful of the teams you see below are getting bumped in favor of teams that don’t make the NCAAs, but there’s no way to know that for sure until the conference tournaments are complete.

I used four metrics to make my picks: Win Percentage (%), RPI, Combined Rating (RTG), and Combined Schedule Rating (SRTG). The latter two should be familiar to the dozen or so of you who read Advanced Stats Rundown: Combined Rating is an even combination of BPI and PYTH ratings, and Combined Schedule Rating is the even combination of the BPI and PYTH SOS ratings.

Given all of that, below is my stab[5] at the 32 teams making it into the NIT for 2015:

5 | Did I mention I’ve never done this before? I’ve never done this before. Grain of salt, all that.

THE FIELD OF 32

DEFINITELY IN (12)

Why They’re In: These 13 teams are solid regardless of how you slice it. Each had a strong percentage (% >= 60), a decent RPI (RPI >= 0.52), and a high Combined Rating (RTG >= 66) and Schedule Rating (SRTG >= 56). Advanced stats like them, RPI likes them, the records aren’t hideous, and most are big-name teams you’ve definitely heard of. Easy calls.

LOOK AT ALL THOSE WINS (5)

Why They’re In: These are the five teams with the most wins (at least 22), which tends to jump off the page at this stage of the season, regardless of what conference you play in. The two diciest picks of the field are here in Chattanooga and High Point, who don’t have the most sparkling of resumes outside of their win totals.

THE SCRAPPERS (8)

Why They’re In: These teams played some of the toughest schedules in the country (SRTG >= 60) while also turning in decent records (% >= 55). Most are part of major conferences (hence the high schedule ratings), and thus have the name recognition that draws ratings and crowds. They have pretty decent RPIs and Combined Ratings as well; for the most part, they fell short of “definitely in” due to their win-loss records.

ON THE BUBBLE (7)

Why They’re In: Of the remaining teams, these are the six seven with the best RPI ratings. I don’t think much of RPI, but the selection committees do, so here you go. You’ll also note these are all teams right around that magic 20 win mark.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN (5)

Why They’re Out: Northeastern and UTEP have the wins, but against mediocre schedules — the Huskies have a poor Combined Rating, whereas UTEP is right on the cusp of being in. Kansas State and Michigan had schedules that were just a bit too tough, and didn’t quite do enough to get in — KSU’s big win over Kansas notwithstanding Michigan is not very good at basketball. UNLV and Memphis are the best of the rest.

The Seeding

The NIT is set up very similarly to the NCAA tournament in that it has four regions, but with just 32 teams there are only eight teams per region. To figure out the seeds, I took the teams and ranked them 1-32 by Record, RPI, and Combined Rating, and then found a weighted average of those ranks based on 25% Record and Combined Rating and 50% RPI. After a few tweaks here and there, I came up with this:

  • 1 — Old Dominion, St. Mary’s, Texas, Temple
  • 2 — Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Stanford, UCLA
  • 3 — Green Bay, Illinois, Rhode Island, Yale
  • 4 — Richmond, Miami, UConn, Illinois State
  • 5 — Minnesota, Seton Hall, George Washington, Vanderbilt
  • 6 — Alabama, High Point, Same Houston State, Massachusetts
  • 7 — Eastern Washington, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Wyoming
  • 8 — Kansas State, Clemson, Chattanooga, California
UPDATE: When this article was published, I had mistakenly included Syracuse, who have banned themselves from all postseason play, including the NIT. The seeds shifted around to compensate for their removal, and Kansas State is now in.

This seems reasonable to me. My seeds are different, but most of the teams line up with what the folks at Bracket Matrix came up with a few days back, so I think I’m on the right track. Some of these teams will claw their way into the NCAAs, as noted some will be bumped because of regular-season champs that didn’t win their conference tournaments, and some of the smaller schools will be dropped in favor of the Arizona States and Washingtons of the world[6].

6 | Ok so half of this is probably wrong. Leave me alone, I’m a football guy masquerading as a basketball guy.

Once the brackets are officially settled I’ll be posting my picks for both the NCAA and NIT, and in the NIT post we’ll look specifically at Alabama’s chances of winning the whole thing based on win expectancies. I know you’ve all spent as much time as I have thinking about NIT bracketology, so what do you think of these picks? Let me know in the comments!

ROLL TIDE