Padding the Stats: Why Bracketologists Don't Like Nebraska
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Why Bracketologists Don’t Like Nebraska

February 26, 2018

With Sunday’s 76-64 win against Penn State, Nebraska’s regular season is officially in the books. 

The Huskers stumbled a bit in the nonconference, going 9-4. Nebraska cleaned up in the Big Ten, however, finishing with a school record 13 conference wins to just five losses. 

Overall, that leaves Nebraska at 22-9, marking just the fifth time in program history Nebraska has won at least that many games. That should mean Nebraska’s an NCAA Tournament team for sure, right?

Most years, that would probably be the case. But this isn’t most years.

A lot of the talk centers around the combination of Nebraska’s record and it’s recent level of play (the infamous “eye test”), but both of those criteria have the same flaw: Nebraska’s schedule. 

First, let’s look at Nebraska’s nonconference schedule. Its nonconference strength of schedule is an abysmal 296. Even worse, Nebraska went 1-4 against opponents from the top seven leagues. The Huskers beat Boston College (96 RPI, 16-13) but lost to St. John’s, Central Florida, Kansas and Creighton. The other eight teams Nebraska beat have a combined winning percentage south of .370 and only one of them (UTSA) has a record above .500. 

Because of the near-misses against Kansas and at Creighton, Nebraska missed out on any chance to add to its résumé in the nonconference. That left Nebraska with a lot of work to do in the Big Ten and, unfortunately for the Huskers, the 2017-18 schedule didn’t offer many opportunities to get that work done. 

With a 14-team league and 18 conference games, each Big Ten team plays five opponents twice. Of the five teams Nebraska played twice, four of them finished below .500. Penn State is the only team in the top half of the conference standings Nebraska played twice, and the Nittany Lions finished 9-9 (and Nebraska split those games).

One of the bottom-six teams Nebraska played twice was Minnesota, a team that made the NCAA Tournament last year, brought a lot of its team back and came to Lincoln ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll in early December. The Huskers beat them handily. However, the Golden Gophers fell apart after that, losing reigning conference defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch to a university suspension and sophomore wing Amir Coffey to injury. The Gophers won just four Big Ten games. 

Minnesota’s slide can’t be tied directly to losing those two starters, though. Minnesota lost to Miami and Nebraska (bubble teams) as well as Arkansas (a tournament team), and the Gophers eeked out a one-point win over Missouri Valley foe Drake all with Coffey and Lynch in the lineup. It could be easily argued that the Gophers were simply incredibly overrated coming into the season based on last year’s success, much like conference mate Northwestern. Was Minnesota ever really a top-15 team? How the committee values that game will be fascinating.

Nebraska only got one crack apiece at the top three teams in the conference (Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue), and all three of those games came on the road. Nebraska lost all three.

The Huskers did get to host Michigan, the only other ranked team in the Big Ten, and they won by 20. After you look past the overall record, the Michigan win is the first thing on Nebraska’s résumé. After that, however, I’m not quite sure what’s second.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Notice I haven’t even used the word “quadrant” here. People are getting way too stuck up on the quadrant system and every other “metric.” All of those things are grouping tools that help the committee determine the prospective field and compare teams against each other. From that point, the individual résumé is what determines whether or not a team makes it, and the most important thing on the résumé is performance against good competition.

What has Nebraska done against projected NCAA Tournament teams? Not much.

The combination of Nebraska’s nonconference schedule (partly in its control) and its conference schedule (outside of its control) left it with six chances (Kansas, Creighton, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State) to secure quality wins. The Huskers went 1-for-6.

Of the 19 teams Nebraska beat this season, 18 of them in all likelihood will not be in the NCAA Tournament. Three of the teams Nebraska lost to also will not make the tournament. So what does that 22-9 record really prove?

What about the eye test, you say? Doesn’t Nebraska “look” like an NCAA Tournament team? I see that logic all the time, and from people I respect quite a bit. The response to that is that it’s not too difficult to look good against bad teams. 

Granted, Nebraska has had quality showings against the likes of Kansas and Ohio State in which they came up just short, but how much credit can you really give for “close losses?” Nebraska has had some close calls the other way as well, such as James Palmer Jr.’s game-winner against Illinois and Nebraska’s six-point win at Rutgers, a team that finished last in the conference.

If you want to point to Nebraska’s domination of Michigan as proof that the Huskers can hang with the big boys, the counter argument would be that it’s just one game and anything can happen in a one-game setting. Why should that one data point be held up as more representative of what Nebraska is than, say, the Huskers’ loss at Illinois?

Recently, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi was asked on Twitter which bubble team he thought had a chance to make a run if it got into the tournament.

After the Huskers handled the Nittany Lions on Sunday, Nebraska fans flooded Lunardi’s mentions even though Penn State was playing without one of its best and most important players in center Mike Watkins. That’s not the same Penn State team Lunardi was talking about.

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel tweeted that Nebraska has “almost no shot at an at-large bid,” which shouldn't come as a surprise if you listened to the first episode of the newly re-branded Varsity Club podcast last week.

"No chance" is hyperbole in my opinion, but Jerry Palm of CBS has said he doesn’t think Nebraska can rack up enough quality wins without winning the Big Ten Tournament, in which case they’d get an auto-bid anyway. One, two, three quality wins isn’t a rock-solid résumé in comparison to a lot of other bubble teams.

That is why national writers are so pessimistic about Nebraska’s at-large chances and why so many bracketologists across the country haven’t pulled the trigger and put Nebraska in the field. The committee doesn’t just pick who they think looks like a NCAA Tournament team. They pick the most deserving teams, and teams prove they deserve to be in the tournament by beating other good teams. 

The Huskers have some work to do this week in New York. Nebraska fans need to be rooting for Michigan to take care of business in the second round and Michigan State to do the same in the quarterfinals. Getting wins over those teams isn’t a cakewalk by any means (and Nebraska got killed at Michigan State in December), but Nebraska needs those quality-win opportunities it didn’t get much of during the regular season. 

A résumé with neutral site wins over Michigan State and Michigan and a home win over Michigan in addition to a 24-10 record suddenly looks a lot more attractive than what Nebraska has right now.

No matter what happens at Madison Square Garden, it’s clear that the wait until Selection Sunday is going to be a long and stressful one in Lincoln.

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