College football is in high gear but there was an interesting development that happened right before the college basketball season tipped off. The NIT has a new method of selecting its 32 teams. The NIT will no longer award automatic qualifying bids to conference champions who were not selected for the 68-team NCAA Tournament. Instead, the NIT will award two automatic bids to the top two teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC that were not selected for the NCAA Tournament. Those two teams from each conference will be selected based on NET rankings. The reason for the change is to placate the larger schools for additional tournament access and to prevent Fox from creating its own tournament to rival the NIT.
There’s no doubt this is a huge blow to any conference outside of basketball’s Power 6. The mid-majors once again lost out to larger schools, which was already an issue with selections for the NCAA Tournament. The NIT represented a chance for these schools to cap off their season with a tournament title and good momentum, even if it wasn’t the exact tournament they had in mind before the season.
The question becomes, how much will this hurt the mid-majors in the NIT? Well, let’s take a look at the distribution of NIT bids going back to 2007 when the field was limited to 32 (excluding the abnormal 2020 and 2021 seasons that did not feature 32 teams).
Data and Basic Numbers
We went back to 2007 to collect information on all bids awarded by the NIT. This includes the type of bid (automatic or at large) and which conference the school was in. We did not include the 2020 season in which no NIT was played nor was 2021 included when only 16 teams were selected. That gives us 15 seasons’ worth of data, which totals up to 480 bids.
Due to the previous format used by the NIT, the number of AQ bids would vary from season to season. From 2007 through 2023, it was as few as 5 AQ bids (2009) and as many as 14 AQ bids (2011). The average during that time was 10 to 11 (10.5 to be exact ). Overall, of the 480 bids from 2007 through 2023, 33% of them went to automatic qualifiers and 67% went to at-large teams.
In terms of Power 6 bids versus non-Power 6 bids, it’s a slightly different story. Obviously, none of the AQ bids went to Power 6 teams as their regular season champions would have been selected for the NCAA Tournament. Power 6 teams accounted for 39% of the bids handed out between 2007 and 2023 while the non-Power 6 schools accounted for 61%. With a little math, we can deduce the following breakdown in the table below.
What's the Impact on Mid-Majors?
Overall, there were 189 bids awarded to the Power 6 conference teams from 2007 through 2023 and the new rules state each Power 6 conference will receive two bids automatically. Using the breakdown of the bids for Power 6 teams and the new rules, we can estimate roughly how many mid-major bids will be lost as a baseline. From 2007 through 2023, not every Power 6 conference had two bids to the NIT each season, which means the mid-majors will lose a bid (this may not always be true but we'll discuss that below in the caveats section).
In total, there are 37 bids that would have been redistributed to the Power 6 conferences as a result of the new rules. In terms of percentages, there are two ways to calculate this. The first is dividing the lost bids by the total number of mid-major bids (37 out of 291, which equates to 13%). The other is to divide the number of lost bids by the automatic qualifying bids in the old format (37 bids out of 157, which equates to 24%).
There is an argument for using both methods. Using a percentage of total bids is more encompassing because it's a general percentage applied to all mid-major bids and a majority of lost bids are likely to impact the non-conference champions as they have a worse resume in most cases. On the other hand, the new rules allow for mid-major conference champions - previously AQ teams - to be left out if they aren't considered one of the "best" 20 at-large bids. The actual number will probably lie between the two percentages above.
Below is a table showing the number of bids each year from 2007 through 2023 for the Power 6 conferences and the mid-majors. The last column on the right shows the number of lost bids the mid-majors would have as a result of the new rules.
As bad as the new rules are, there is the possibility for it to be worse. We calculated the percentage of lost bids for mid-major conferences by adding two bids to each Power 6 conference compared to the actual bids received and decreasing the number of mid-major bids by the corresponding amount. For example, the ACC had 2 bids in 2023 and we added two to give them 4 and we repeated that for each Power 6 Conference (and subtracted 12 from the mid-majors). In that scenario, the mid-majors would see their bid percentage plummet by 62% resulting in just 23% of the bids (111 total) going outside the Power 6 conferences. The chances of that happening are remote but never count out the absolute worst from happening when the NCAA is involved.
While we did a general overview of the bid distribution changes, there are some drawbacks. The first is that not every season and every mid-major is the same. A mid-major team that makes the NIT in 2024 may not make the NIT in other years with the same resume. The opposite also holds true. A year with a group of strong mid-major teams that weren't selected for the NCAA Tournament may crowd out other mid-majors from the NIT or prevent Power 6 teams from getting a bid. Certain mid-major resumes - especially those with a regular season title, plenty of wins, and a conference tournament loss - will make the NIT regardless of the new rules.
Not all conferences are the same either although this can be more difficult to quantify. A team like BYU is classified outside the Power 6 under the new rules but would be highly likely to make the NIT regardless of the rules. On top of that point, the bids we counted were based on the conference they were in at the time. Keeping with the BYU example, they went from the West Coast Conference to the Big 12 this year. Realignment changes have impacted the strength of conferences, which in turn has impacted how two different teams are viewed by the NIT selection committee.
Finally, there's no guarantee that the teams selected from the Power 6 conferences would necessarily be taking bids away from the mid-majors in every case. For example, the SEC has had at least two teams selected in each NIT from 2007 through 2023. The new rules wouldn't have resulted in any "stolen" bids from the mid-majors. This isn't always true though and is discussed in more detail below.
Summary and Discussion
Based on what we provided above, the mid-majors are set to lose at least 13% of their bids (on average) based on data from the 2007 through 2023 seasons. In turn, the Power 6 conferences will gain about 20% compared to their previous bid distribution. It's also important to state this again: we are using averages from 2007 through 2023 to calculate the baseline numbers. There's a lot of variance from year to year that may result in mid-majors having a lower or higher number of NIT selections. However, the baseline change is bad for mid-majors and there are some huge concerns about the rules.
The first is how the new rules even came to be put in place. There may not have been much (any?) input from conferences about the possible changes leaving many non-Power 6 conferences to be blind-sided by the decision. Secondly, the changes make it incredibly easy for the NIT selection committee to obfuscate their decisions, which is true when dealing with any selection committee, regardless of sport.
Above we said the new rules wouldn't have precluded any SEC teams and that's true. The problem is that we don't know how the committee would have selected other Power 6 teams without the rules. For example, a 16-15 ACC team that makes the NIT in 2024 may not have made the NIT in previous years. By virtue of the new rules, they are now included as an automatic qualifier. Of course, the committee won't give us two sets of rankings based on old and new rules because that would undermine their changes so we're left to speculate as to the actual extent of the bid redistribution beyond the 13% baseline.
Then there's the Pac-12 and how it will be classified going forward. Only Oregon State and Washington State remain in the conference and what happens to its 2 bids is unknown. If there's a reverse merger with the Mountain West, does the new entity keep the two bids? The fate of the Pac-12 is already causing a stir with the expanded College Football Playoff and a similar issue can't with the NIT can't be ruled out.
We mainly cover realignment here so it's natural to wonder if there are any implications. The answer is yes because schools want to move up for a better chance at making the NCAA Tournament. The unit payouts are extremely lucrative and if you have to team up with other mid-major schools to get a bigger slice, can you blame them? The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal in college basketball because anything can happen in March. The NIT changes clearly hurt the non-Power 6 conferences and will only intensify the efforts to expand the NCAA Tournament, which might provide mid-majors more chances to make it.
There have already been calls for the NCAA Tournament to be expanded before the recent changes and this will only cause those calls to get louder from outside the Power 6. One major issue with that is any expansion will greatly benefit the Power 6 conferences in a similar way the NIT changes did. It's the same cycle we've seen with football with the consolidation becoming more and more apparent. That's not to say non-Power 6 conferences shouldn't press for changes. It's more of a reminder to ensure they get what they believe is a fair deal but that may only be a temporary solution to something less fair.
Photo Courtesy of North Texas Athletics