How USF could make – or miss – the NCAA tournament

Despite making the AP Top 25 and leading the conference, the Bulls are still at risk for missing the NCAA tournament. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

For the first time in program history, the Bulls find themselves included in the AP Top 25. 

Related: Historic USF men’s basketball team cracks AP poll

It’s a dramatic turnaround for a team with a first-year head coach and largely retooled roster. 

Despite a nearly flawless conference record, there still remain questions over the Bulls (21-5, 14-1 AAC) NCAA tournament resume. There is the potential that a few non-conference losses come back to haunt USF. 

Here’s how the tournament could shape up as the Bulls remain a couple of games from concluding the regular season. 

Current tournament predictions

There are mixed opinions on the Bulls tournament outlook. 

Some experts have USF as an automatic qualifier, while others are less optimistic about its chances. 

ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi currently has the Bulls as a No. 11 seed in the Omaha region. Last season, Lunardi correctly predicted 67 of the 68 teams included in the bracket. 

Other analysts currently place USF ‘on the bubble,’ otherwise known as being on the cusp of tournament selection. 

NET rankings

The NET – which stands for NCAA Evaluation Tool – is arguably the most important analytical factor when it comes to determining a team’s tournament validity. 

It takes into factor a variety of metrics, including strength of schedule, game location, team efficiency and the quality of wins and losses. 

NET rankings are also broken down into four quadrants – with one being the highest and four being the lowest. Quad one wins are against teams with higher NET rankings, while quad four wins are inversely against teams with the lowest wins. 

The Bulls currently have a NET ranking of 84 – the lowest of all AP Top 25 teams.  

Over the last four NCAA tournaments, the team with the lowest NET ranking to make the final bracket was Rutgers in 2022, which had a ranking of 77. 

Quad four losses are notoriously damaging to a team’s postseason resume. USF has lost two quad four matchups against Central Michigan on Nov. 15 and Maine on Nov. 22. 

The Bulls also currently have zero quad one wins. Quad one wins are considered the best indicator of a tournament-worthy team. 

A road victory against Charlotte on Saturday would give USF its sixth quad two win of the season. 

A crucial conference tournament

With its win over SMU on Sunday, the Bulls have clinched at least a share of the regular season conference title. 

Related: USF men’s basketball achieves longest win streak in program history

With two games remaining, they remain one win away from clinching the No. 1 seed in the AAC outright. 

The AAC regular-season champion has never been left out of the NCAA tournament. That still may not be enough for the Bulls. 

That No. 1 seed may be crucial as the Bulls arguably need a deep conference tournament run to solidify their chances to be included in April.  

Last season, USF was bounced in the first round of the conference tournament by East Carolina. That fortune cannot be repeated if the Bulls want to appear in the ‘Big Dance’.

A solid tournament run or championship could be the key for the program’s first March Madness appearance since 2012. 

       Strength of schedule 

Besides NET rankings, a team’s strength of schedule is also a crucial factor when determining ‘March Madness’ viability. 

Often, teams with a harder schedule are more prone to deep tournament runs. 

The 10 teams with the average highest strength of schedule from 2012 to 2020 have earned 89 tournament bids and have won 70% of their tournament matchups, according to the NCAA. 

The AAC is one of the lowest-ranked conferences in the nation, sitting 10th in current conference NET rankings. 

That metric could also be used to discount the Bulls’ tournament chances. 

USF’s NET strength of schedule is ranked at 95, one of the lowest rankings for an AP Top 25 program. 

Men’s basketball will face Charlotte on the road Saturday at 4 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and BullsUnlimited.