It was the biggest question on Selection Sunday 2019. What would be the fate of North Carolina State? The Wolfpack were a classic bubble team, whose record -- 22-11 overall, 9-9 conference, 1-1 ACC tournament (with a quarterfinal loss to top seed Virginia) -- seemed to fall on the good side of the at-large cut line.
Except for a single data point: NC SOS No. 353, shorthand for the worst non-conference schedule in all of Division I men's basketball. Worse than Longwood (12-17, No. 352), worse than Western Illinois (8-21, No. 350), worse than Jacksonville (10-20, No. 345), worse than Fordham (11-20, No. 344). Among major conference members only DePaul (15-15, No. 351) was in the same neighborhood, and the Blue Demons have made only one NCAA tournament this century.
Say what you want about the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee -- and I have -- but the most consistent outcome year-over-year is its exclusion of bubble teams with truly embarrassing non-league schedules. Nine of NC State's 22 wins came against sub-200 opponents in home-court "buy" games, a preposterous (and presumably expensive!) number that left the Pack with a pedestrian 13-11 record against meaningful competition.
The Committee was not fooled by NC State's NET ranking (No. 33), relegating the Wolfpack to the NIT as a No. 2 seed. Had the RPI still been in effect, the Pack (No. 83) wouldn't have made the Selection Sunday conversation at all.
The moral of the story is simple: In the NET era, teams probably can't schedule themselves into the NCAA tournament anymore. But they can absolutely schedule themselves out of it. N.C. State was Exhibit A last season, but Indiana (No. 209), Georgetown (No. 248) and Colorado (No. 255) were among those with what I like to call NIT-type schedules who got exactly what they deserved.
With that in mind, we present the mostly annual "You heard it here first..." column. None of these teams should be surprised -- or complain, depending on the category -- when Selection Sunday 2020 comes around.
The consensus preseason No. 1 team will play at least four Quad One games (Kentucky in the Champions Classic, at Seton Hall, a TBD opponent in the Maui Invitational, Duke at the Breslin Center) before the Big Ten gets underway on Dec. 8. Only two opponents are certain to be in Quad Four (Binghamton, Western Michigan), so the Spartans are certainly well-positioned for an NCAA No. 1 seed and national title run.
The Pirates must believe in their preseason press clippings, as this is a serious schedule. Michigan State (home), Oregon (Battle 4 Atlantis), Iowa State (away) and Maryland (home) are outstanding opponents for a veteran team. Throw in quality road games at Saint Louis and Rutgers and you can afford a pair of home dogs (Wagner, Prairie View A&M).
The Gaels may have learned the hard way, leaving at least one recent NCAA bid in the dustbin of weak scheduling (2018). Saint Mary's opens in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as arguably the better team against Wisconsin, and added other quality at-large games against Fresno State (in Sacramento), Utah State (home), Dayton (in Phoenix) and at Arizona State. Very smart.
The apple may have fallen away from the tree in this case. Patrick Ewing, unlike his own college coach John Thompson, has scheduled progressively better in each of his three seasons. Mount St. Mary's and Central Arkansas are the only true dogs, and non-conference matchups against Penn State and at Oklahoma State are perfect. R.I.P., St. Leo's.
Winning the NIT was nice, but Shaka Smart needs more as he enters his fifth year in Austin. The Longhorns have yet to win an NCAA tournament game under Smart, but are set up nicely for an overachieving season this time around. Road and neutral opportunities abound at Purdue, Georgetown (Madison Square Garden), Texas A&M (Fort Worth) and at Providence.
The Gators are a trendy choice for a great NCAA seed and Final Four run, but they don't have a single Quad One lock among their non-conference opponents. Florida State (home) and Connecticut (away) could get there, but better bets might be Xavier (possible Charleston Classic final) and/or Utah State (Orange Bowl Classic).
What do Holy Cross, Oakland, Fairfield and Bryant have in common? They are more than one-third of Maryland's non-conference schedule and that is dangerous Quad Four territory for a program desperate for a major breakthrough season. Maybe Oakland drifts into Quad Three, but why take the chance?
It's better than last year, but not enough to get the Wolfpack off the "naughty list." St. Francis (N.Y.), Alcorn State, Little Rock, The Citadel and Appalachian State are all coming to Raleigh. The Committee all but hit the Pack in the head with a bat last March, and I'm not sure the best response is to buy a helmet.
Potential bubble teams need to avoid Quad Four in any great number. Instead, the Hawkeyes will entertain SIU-Edwardsville, Oral Roberts, North Florida, Cal Poly and Kennesaw in Iowa City before the calendar turns in January. That's a risky proposition for a team that often sneaks into the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed.
Two years ago, the Irish were the first team out. Last year they lost their last seven regular-season games and never had a chance. With five obvious Quad Four home games by the end of December, Notre Dame is just asking for another season on the bubble. Mike Brey usually finds a way to make it work, but it's counterintuitive.
The need to rebuild a Final Four team doesn't excuse this mess. Eastern Illinois, Bethune-Cookman, Houston Baptist, Tennessee State and Long Island all visit Lubbock before Thanksgiving. Two more Quad Fours -- UT Rio Grande and Cal State Bakersfield -- come in December. The Red Raiders better hope they're not close to the bubble.