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On Making The NCAA Tournament, And What That Means For WSU

College basketball is my passion. It has been ever since I was in high school, which, sadly, is a while ago now.

Some of my favorite memories from WSU are attending basketball games as a freshman member of the band as Mark Hendrickson, Donminic Ellison and Shamon Antrum were dropping bombs from all over the court, then later watching from press row as Isaac Fontaine -- still my favorite Coug of all time -- set the all-time scoring record of 2,003 points. 

My second job out of college was as a college basketball editor for (evidence!), in which I was paid to watch ungodly amounts of hoop and read insane amounts of copy about every conference in the country.

Basically, I've been following every aspect of college basketball intently for about 20 years, and while I'm not the expert I used to be (wife/kids/job/website will do that to you), I think have a better understanding of its inner workings than most. That might sound arrogant. I don't know. I really wouldn't claim that about any other sport, as I'm still learning lots about football (notably from guys like Chris Brown) and baseball (anything from Jeff Sullivan or Fangraphs will do), but college basketball ... well, that's my sport.

Which brings us to one of my great annoyances.

Bubble talk.

Heading into this season, we all hoped this edition of the WSU Cougars would end up the NCAA Tournament. Heck, even Ken Bone said that was a goal that was within reach. So, we started looking at these guys in terms of a ubiquitous, but flawed, piece of college basketball jargon.

Tournament Team.

I intentionally capitalize the term as a proper noun because it seems to have taken a life of its own. With every win or every loss, it gets bandied about in our comments, usually in the context of, "Boy, that sure looks like a Tournament Team!" or, more recently, "This is not a Tournament Team! A Tournament Team doesn't lose to Oregon! A Tournament Team doesn't shoot 25 percent!"

I do understand, to some degree, where this sentiment -- this idea that Team X either does or does not look like a Tournament Team -- comes from. Many of you have been watching college basketball for a long time as well, so you have a generalized picture of what a team that is selected for the NCAA Tournament usually looks like. And that's fine when making general assessments early in the season, such as "Tournament Teams need to seize opportunities to beat teams such as Baylor early in the season," and "Tournament Teams can't afford to lose games like Santa Clara in the nonconference schedule." Those statements are, more often than not, true. 

But they're not always true. Which brings me to our central question: Just what is a Tournament Team?

Here's the simplest definition: A Tournament Team is either A) One of the 31 teams in the country to secure an automatic bid, or B) One of the top 37 remaining teams as selected by a committee for an at-large bid.

Let's unpack what that really means to try and get a sense of truly how good you have to be to get into the NCAA Tournament. To do that, I'm going to try and paint the scenario that forces the tightest of bubbles.

Of those 31 automatic bids, let's say 10 are coming from conferences where the league champ is getting in whether it wins the conference tournament bid or not: Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, Mountain West, SEC, Atlantic 10 (Temple), WCC (St. Mary's) and Colonial (George Mason). That leaves 21 bids going to one-bid leagues -- 21 bids that go to teams that would not likely be selected for a 68-team tournament under any other circumstance.

When you subtract those 21 bids that are going to one-bid leagues, you're left with 47 bids going to those 10 conferences. Let's assume that half of those leagues have surprise conference tournament champions who would not otherwise be in the tournament. Unlikely, but as I said ... trying to paint the most conservative scenario here.

That leaves 42 bids. 

Why does that number -- 42 -- matter? Because, in the strictest of terms, that's what it really means to be a "Tournament Team." Those 42 bids that are left are going to go to the top 42 teams in the country either through automatic berth or selection by whatever quasi-objective measure the NCAA Tournament committee is using.

Taken even further, it's critical to remember that the committee's mission is simply this: To fill out a bracket with the best teams in college basketball that year. The committee is not concerned with perceptions based on conventional wisdom. The committee is concerned only with making sure the best teams remaining in the country, after automatic bids are handed out, play in the NCAA Tournament. One of the last few teams to be selected in any given year might not be as good as any of the last few teams selected in another year. But that's irrelevant. Each year has to be taken in its own context.

And that should be the only thing that concerns you as a WSU fan: Are the Cougars one of the best 42 teams in the country this year

This is why I generally loathe bubble talk. Most of it reduces it to a laughably trite, ESPN-style conversation of "in" or "out" which makes for great television and message board fodder, but is spectacularly awful for any kind of meaningful analysis. In/out is based on conventional wisdom. Reality is not.

So, how do the Cougs stack up to the other teams this year? To be honest, I can't answer that question myself. I simply don't watch enough basketball anymore and haven't studied the selection committee's tendencies over the years to the degree necessary to have an informed opinion about who the best 42 to 45 teams in the country are. But fortunately for all of us, there are people who do just that. I will gladly defer to them, as you should as well, and most of them seem to agree that the Cougs are still very much in that ballpark. With an identical resume next year? Maybe not. But this isn't next year.  


So as we move forward down the stretch run for the next month, do yourself (and everyone else who comments on the site) a favor. Forget perceptions. Forget whatever preconceived notions you have of what a Tournament Team should play like, or look like, or seem like. Concern yourself only with the quality of the Cougars relative to every other team in the NCAA Division I basketball. Because that's the only thing that actually matters.

Resist the urge to make sweeping proclamations after a singular result. If WSU should happen to lose a game the question shouldn't be, "What has this definitively done to our tournament chances?" because, as we've already established, an NCAA Tournament at-large bid is a moving target. If every other team in the 42 range all go in the toilet, but we go in the toilet less, then we might still be in good shape. So that kind of backward-looking analysis just isn't helpful. Would it have been great to beat Oregon? Sure, because that was a missed opportunity to bolster the resume. But what's done is done, and this is the resume we're now working with.

Instead, we need to be asking after each game, "What does this team now need to do moving forward to put itself in the best possible position to earn an at-large bid?" Because this team still clearly has the opportunity to create a resume that will safely put it in the tournament. Even if it loses to Stanford. Or Cal. Or both. 

We just don't know for sure what's going to happen with everyone else. So, if we're going to start talking about the "bubble," that needs to be the context of the conversation here at CougCenter moving forward.