JMU Men’s Basketball’s Mid-February NCAA Tournament Resume

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU men’s basketball holds a superb 22-3 record through 25 games. It’s a record so good that the Dukes are setting themselves up nicely for a decent seed (10-12 range) in the NCAA Tournament, should they qualify. 

The obvious path into the NCAA Tournament for the Dukes is winning the Sun Belt Tournament, which comes with automatic entry into the field. But given the Dukes’ 22-3 record, could they make a push for an at-large berth?

It’s possible. Let’s break down JMU’s case for at-large consideration. 

The basics

Realistically, the only way JMU receives serious consideration for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament is by winning out in the regular season and dropping a game late in the conference tournament. 

If JMU wins out in the regular season and loses in the Sun Belt final, the Dukes would end the regular season with a 28-3 record and go 2-1 in the conference tournament to finish 30-4. 

Teams with 28+ wins have missed the tournament before, though. Murray State went 29-6 in 2014-15, missing the NCAA Tournament despite appearing in the AP Top 25 during the regular season. St. Mary’s was 28-5 before postseason play began in 2018 and missed the Big Dance. The Gaels ended the season 30-6, winning a pair of NIT games. 

It’s possible to have a great record and be left out of the tournament, but the Dukes are building a resume worthy of consideration for the tournament.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support.

The case for the Dukes

JMU’s NCAA Tournament at-large case has a few obvious arguments. 

  1. JMU defeated Michigan State, which is currently 15th in KenPom, to open the season. That’s a quality road win over a likely NCAA Tournament team from the Big Ten. This is by far the best win on JMU’s resume.
  1. JMU has a .500 or better record against every quadrant in the NET rankings. The Dukes are 1-0 against Quad 1, 1-1 against Quad 2, 4-2 against Quad 3, and 15-0 against Quad 4. It’s a limited sample size, but JMU is 2-1 against Quad 1 and Quad 2. 
  1. The Dukes have blown out bad teams. While the schedule isn’t that hard, of JMU’s 22 wins, 16 of them are by double digits. JMU has more wins of 30+ points (five, including four against D1 teams) than it does losses (3). JMU is in the top 10 nationally in scoring margin.
  1. The advanced metrics actually paint a fairly pretty picture for JMU. The Dukes are currently 63rd in KenPom and 55th in the NET rankings. JMU needs some improvement in both to bolster its at-large case, but finishing the season inside the top 50 in the NET is well within striking distance. 

The case against the Dukes

While there are reasons to include the Dukes in the field, there are also a few reasons that could send JMU to the NIT this March. 

  1. Strength of schedule. It’s baaaad. KenPom says JMU has the 312th toughest schedule in college basketball (there are 362 teams). ESPN’s BPI ranks the schedule as the 285th toughest in the nation. If JMU misses the NCAA Tournament, a weak schedule is mostly to blame. 
  1. App State. The Dukes are currently 0-2 against the Mountaineers, the only other KenPom top 100 team in the Sun Belt. Even splitting with the Mountaineers in the regular season would’ve done wonders for JMU’s at-large case. Instead, the Dukes let chances for quality in-conference wins slide.
  1. Southern Miss defeat. Southern Miss is good at home, and Andre Curbelo played in the game, but this is still a bad loss on paper. Given JMU’s lack of quality wins, any bad loss hurts the resume. 
  1. Best win came in November. Fairly or not, sometimes the NCAA Tournament committee flashes recency bias whether they admit to it or not. JMU’s best win came three months ago. Would the committee favor a comparable team with better February wins? It’s possible. 

The bottom line

If JMU wants to be considered for an at-large berth into the tournament, the Dukes need to win out in the regular season. They can also benefit tremendously from blowout wins, which help boost a team’s predictive metric rankings. Those rankings are factored into the NET. 

Fortunately for the Dukes, the final six games of the regular season set up well for potential blowouts. KenPom (screenshot below) has the Dukes as comfortable favorite in each of the final six games. Can the Dukes cover those spreads?

Additionally, JMU can benefit from its nonconference opponents moving up in the NET. Southern Illinois is currently a Q3 victory, but it’s possible the Salukis become a Q2 win with a strong finish to the season. If Akron ends the season hot, the Dukes’ home win over the Zips could become a Q2 win. 

It’s also possible App State finishes the year with a flurry of commanding wins, which could change a Q2 loss to a Q1 loss and a Q3 loss to a Q2 loss. 

Realistically, JMU needs to win the Sun Belt Tournament for a spot in the NCAA field. If, however, the Dukes finish the regular season with six more wins and move their NET into the top 50 nationally, they’ll deserve at-large consideration from the committee. 

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