It’s easier to make the NCAA Tournament than ever before. Notice I didn’t say “easy.” I said “easier.” There’s a big difference.
On the flip side, it’s also harder to make the NIT than ever before. Clemson found that out the hard way last season, and nothing has changed since then.
With the Tigers’ ACC Tournament journey completed and much of the rest of the nation still in competition, nothing is quite as certain as anyone in Tigertown would like it to be. Conventional wisdom says Clemson will be selected into the NIT field and that the only thing in question is the seeding.
Considering there are 20 conference tournaments that still have not crowned a champion, that way of thinking—while satisfactory for the moment—doesn’t paint the same picture we’ll likely be viewing on Sunday evening once the dust settles.
The selection process for the NIT field works a little bit differently than it does for the Big Dance. That committee puts a whole lot of weight on the RPI, an outdated metric that will be going the way of the mastodon next year. Clemson will likely sit between 65 and 70 in the RPI rankings when the postseason tournament fields are revealed. Historically, that’s not a bad place to be, but it makes the Tigers far from a lock to make the field.
Often, the head of the NIT selection committee will tout subjective measures to justify the bracket. Phrases like “eye test” and “team I wouldn’t want to face as a coach” get thrown around a good bit. From that standpoint, Clemson has quite a case to make.
Metrics used to measure a team’s relative performance level are much kinder to the Tigers. Rankings like KenPom.com and ESPN’s BPI would slot the Tigers around 35th in the nation. That seems much more like the kind of team that plays in postseason tournaments.
Clemson’s body of work inside the RPI top 50 and top 100 also compare favorably to other at-large NCAA Tournament and NIT selections. The Tigers have played like they belong in the postseason in every way except actually winning games.
The things holding Clemson back are pretty obvious. Coming close to winning games isn’t winning them, so any committee will have to weigh that. A 6-12 mark in the ACC seems to be low, but given Clemson’s conference strength of schedule, context takes away some of the negative impact.
Perhaps the most important element working against the Tigers has to do with the ACC’s new scheduling format for its tournament. By becoming a Tuesday-Saturday tournament instead of a Wednesday-Sunday one, the league has forced teams like Clemson to watch from the sidelines while other bubble-level squads get to play and win.
That bias toward recent results might end up hurting the Tigers if peer schools close out the season with victories this weekend. Most NIT projections appear to have Clemson somewhere around the 4-5 seed mark in that tournament, but as of Friday night, 20 conferences still had not crowned a champion. Any top seed that loses gets an automatic bid to the NIT, so Clemson will need that carnage to be minimal.
In the end, I would be surprised if the Tigers weren’t in the NIT field. I’d be a little surprised if they weren’t hosting at least one game.
But I’ve been surprised on Selection Sunday before.