Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 3/9/13

We are a full week into the month of March. If you’re like me, this is the time of year when you set aside time each day to read up on the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” those teams whose inclusion in the 68-team NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship later this month is possible but not certain. During early March, bubble analysts – amateur and professional alike – examine how teams fared against quality opponents, how they performed on the road, and how their strength of schedule compares to that of their peers. Fans of bubble teams will have dozens of experts telling them how confident or worried to be heading into Selection Sunday. Bubble talk has become an annual college basketball ritual. It is as much a part of the game as pep bands, cutting down nets, and penalizing teams whose coaches make too many phone calls. But it hasn’t always been this way. In the beginning there was no bubble to speak of because the NCAA invited so few teams to play for a national championship. The first twelve tournaments, from 1939 through 1950, invited only eight teams, six or seven conference representatives, and one or two independents. College basketball writers in the 1940s didn’t devote column inches to analyzing dozens of team profiles, breaking down quality wins, bad losses, and strength of schedule numbers. But even if no one in 1940 spent the first two weeks of March wondering if 17-8 BYU (third place in the competitive Mountain States Athletic Conference) would go dancing, early tournament selections were not without controversy. In the first ever NCAA Tournament, in 1939, the tournament committee had the challenge of selecting one representative from the Big Six and Missouri Valley Conferences. Missouri and Oklahoma of the Big Six and Drake and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) from the Missouri Valley had nearly identical records. Oklahoma ended up getting the nod, losing to eventual champion Oregon in the semi-finals. The following year the NCAA invited Indiana (20–3, 9–3) to represent the Big Ten even though Purdue (16–4, 10–2) was the conference champion. Indiana went on to win the 1940 championship. A 1940 Indiana-Purdue game. Purdue won the Big Ten that year, but Indiana won the national championship. The NCAA Tournament expanded to 16 teams in 1951 and to 22 in 1953. From 1953 through 1974 the tournament featured between 22 and 25 schools. Expansion created a more inclusive tournament, but it didn’t create a bubble. Conferences sent only one representative; the rest of the participants were independents. In the early 1970s the rule allowing only one NCAA Tournament team per conference sent some of the nation’s best squads to the NIT. In the 1940s and 50s this wouldn’t have been a problem, as the NIT was nearly equal in prestige to its NCAA-sanctioned cousin. The 1955 NIT, for example, was a meeting of two top-ten teams, Dayton and Duquesne. (The Dukes won 70-58.) But as the NCAA Tournament became the sport’s premier showcase, it became hard to justify excluding teams such as the 1970 South Carolina Gamecocks, who were a perfect 14–0 in the ACC (25-3 overall) and ranked in the top ten for the entire season, or the 1971 USC Trojans, who posted a 24–2 record and finished the season ranked fifth in the nation. (The ACC awarded its 1970 bid to conference tournament winner NC State, sending South Carolina to the NIT. USC in 1971 had the misfortune of being the same league as top-ranked, four-time defending champion UCLA.) When the tournament field expanded to 32 teams in 1975, the NCAA changed its rules to allow multiple participants from the same conference. From 1975 through 1979 no league placed more than two teams in a single NCAA Tournament, and there were still plenty of good teams that didn’t get to participate. This 1978 Associated Press/United Press International article questions why the NCAA would leave out a team like 26–5 Texas while allowing mediocre conference representatives Missouri (14–16, Big 8 Tournament winner) and Western Kentucky (16–14, Ohio Valley Tournament winner) to play for a championship. (Texas tied with Arkansas for the Southwest Conference regular season title. But the Razorbacks and Houston, who won the conference tournament, represented the league in the NCAA Tourney.) The field grew to 40 teams in 1979 and 48 in 1980. The 1980 tournament included four teams each from the Big Ten and Pac-10, and five from the ACC. Leaving out one of the nation’s best teams was no longer a problem. But as the bracket continued to expand, the question of whom to invite became more complicated. Do you award a bid to a 24–5 Bucknell team that won its conference but not its conference tournament, or do you give that bid to 18–12 St. John’s, who finished fourth in the Big East but played a much tougher schedule? (The year was 1984 and the invitation went to St. John’s. I should point out, however, that the 21 available at-large bids in 1984 went to teams from 13 different conferences.) In 1981 the NCAA introduced the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) as an aid for selecting and seeding teams for the NCAA Tournament. (Seeding began in 1979.) The RPI formula is simple: one fourth the team’s winning percentage plus one half the winning percentage of a team’s opponents plus one fourth the winning percentage of a team’s opponents’ opponents. Placing the emphasis not on a team’s record but on its strength of schedule gave the NCAA a metric for deciding that 18–12 St. John’s was probably a stronger candidate than 24–5 Bucknell. The NCAA started using the RPI for women’s basketball in 1982 and now uses it for baseball and softball, soccer, and volleyball. The RPI is flawed and easy to manipulate (racking up easy wins over teams in the 150–200 range instead of the 250–300 range is a good way to get a bump without scheduling top-50 competition), but it has always been one tool among many. The NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (after inviting 52 teams in 1983 and 53 in 1984). And 1985 was the year that “bubble” entered the college basketball lexicon. The fragility of a bubble, which could burst at any moment, was the perfect metaphor for the precarious situation so many college basketball teams found themselves in. One unfortunate loss or one unexpected victory from a fellow bubble team could end a school’s NCAA Tournament hopes. The first published mention of an NCAA Tournament bubble I was able to find comes from a March 7, 1985 article about the SEC Tournament from the Lexington Herald Leader: BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – In the current basketball lingo, Kentucky and Florida are two basketball teams “on the bubble.” That bubble could burst today for the loser when UK and Florida meet in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. (Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. EST.) “On the bubble” refers to the indefinite post-season status of both teams. Kentucky’s bubble that year floated all the way to the Sweet 16, where the 12-seeded Wildcats fell to top-seeded St. John’s. Florida’s bubble popped when the Gators lost to Auburn in the SEC Tournament. In the mid-1990s a Philadelphia-area college basketball fan named Joe Lunardi decided to use his knowledge of the selection process and the tendencies of previous selection committees to create mock NCAA Tournament brackets. He called the practice “Bracketology” and made a name for himself. Conversations about which bubble teams deserve an invitation are pointless if one doesn’t consider how many slots are available. It doesn’t matter how attractive a team’s tournament profile is if 34 other teams can make a stronger case for an at-large bid. ESPN, which was already running a regular “Bubble Watch” column on its website, hired Lunardi in 2002. Today, making NCAA Tournament projections has become a cottage industry (with the best ones located here). We like to know exactly how nervous we should be on Selection Sunday and seek the counsel of any expert who has taken the time to compare our team with other fringe NCAA Tournament candidates. It’s a silly exercise when you think about it, putting hours of research into deciding which team deserves to play for a national championship because it is the nation’s 48th or 49th best. Offices were probably much more productive back when the tournament only had 8 or 22 or 32 teams (and office workers didn’t have access to the Internet). But the bubble has added another dimension to college basketball, making the sport more interesting and giving us plenty to talk about over the next week or so. The post A Brief History of the NCAA Tournament Bubble appeared first on Midwest Sports Fans.

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