KANSAS CITY — Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, still stinging a bit from Thursday’s 82-68 loss to top-seed Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, smiled confidently as he looked out over the room of reporters and media assembled in the Sprint Center interview room.
“I don’t think it’s a question of whether we deserve to play in the NCAA tournament,” Boynton said.
It wasn’t the conversation Boynton wanted to have. He’d rather have talked about beating the Jayhawks for the third time this year, about the Cowboys’ perceived RPI boost from another such takedown, about tomorrow’s semifinal game against Kansas State.
Yet, this is how college basketball coaches must answer the question about their team’s postseason hopes. Football, too, for that matter.
A decade ago, minutes after his team crushed No. 1-ranked Missouri for the Big 12 football championship, then-Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops made a similar case for the Sooners to play in the BCS national championship game.
Conventional wisdom said then that OU wouldn’t be playing for the national title that season, and they didn’t. Yet, Stoops made a compelling case.
Boynton made a similarly strong case on Thursday, despite his team’s lagging RPI from a non-conference schedule that was, through no fault of the Cowboys, ridiculously soft. OSU went into Thursday with an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) ranking that had climbed just three spots to 85th following a Wednesday victory over Oklahoma.
History tells us that Syracuse, with its 2016 RPI ranking of 71, is the lowest-ranked team ever to make the NCAA Tournament without an automatic bid. That Orange squad beat the odds to make the Final Four that season, even though most thought they had no business in the field.
This orange squad, however, may face even longer odds.
OSU finished tied for sixth in the Big 12 standings and went 8-10 in league play, then beat Oklahoma on Tuesday for its ninth victory against a conference that has the nation’s best RPI ranking for the fourth time in five years.
But the Cowboys’ non-conference strength-of-schedule ranking was 311th in the country, bringing the overall season SOS to 70th.
OSU does have eight wins over the RPI Top 50, which is two more than any other of the Big 12’s bubble teams (OU, Baylor and Texas each have six).
But enough about the math. Let’s let Boynton tell us why Oklahoma State deserves to be in the Field of 68. The first reason, he suggests, is a bias based on preconceived notions about how good this team is supposed to be.
“Let’s be realistic,” Boynton said. “We had a guy (Brad Underwood) who came into our program after it was down for a couple of years, who was essentially going to be the guy to save the program and resurrect it, and we had some good success with some really good players last year, and he left and they hired me and nobody in this room knew who I was. That’s the truth. So you’ve got a program that looks like it’s unstable, and you’ve got a guy who has never been a head coach before, coaching it. No way they’re going to be good. No way they can win eight games in the Big 12. If they can finish 11th, they will do that.
“As opposed to (the reality of) we finished with the sixth-best record in the best league in America. And so instead of accepting that as truth, because that’s what happened, we say, ‘Well, they played Pittsburgh, who lost every game in the ACC.’ Well, (that’s) never going to happen again. So, again, it’s confirmation bias, in some ways, that people just can’t accept what they see because then it invalidates what they said a long time ago. Humility. It’s OK, we can be wrong every now and then.
“Our team competed really well. We dismissed two guys mid-year. We went the next game and beat a top-20 team (Florida State) on the road. NCAA tournament teams do that — figure out a way to go have success even with all the distractions, and we had a lot of them. There was a little (FBI) investigation going on (then-assistant coach Lamont Evans was targeted for fraud). We happened to be part of that. Our kids could have easily — they had every reason in the world not to compete the way they did.
“It goes to show the character of the people in that locker room, and I’m really proud to be their coach.”
Boynton was also asked about the notion of the NCAA Tournament selection committee introducing a new metric, or at least a new way of measuring the existing metrics: the quadrant system. There are now four tiers the NCAA uses to determine the quality of a team’s wins and losses. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Quadrant 1: Home games vs. teams with RPIs ranked in the top 30; neutral games vs. 1-50; away games vs. 1-75;
- Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75 teams; neutral vs. 51-100; away vs. 76-135;
- Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160 teams; neutral vs. 101-200; away vs. 136-240;
- Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161-plus teams; neutral vs. 201-plus; away vs. 241-plus.
“If that’s what truly matters,” Boynton said, “if that’s the reason they created it, to evaluate how you do against the best teams, teams that will essentially be playing in the tournament, then, again, it’s not a question. We won at Kansas, at West Virginia and at Iowa State. And I’m not sure the last time anybody in our league did that all in one year. We also beat Texas Tech, who will be probably be a top 3 or 4 seed. We beat Florida State, who is certainly going to be in the tournament. And beyond that, the losses we have, there is nobody who is not going to be in The Dance that we lost to.
“So sometimes I think people try to bring arbitrary numbers into the equation to justify, again, ‘Back in October, they weren’t supposed to be any good, so let’s figure out how they can still not be any good even though we watched them play and they were pretty good.’ ”
Then Boynton rightly took to defending the Cowboys’ horrendous non-conference schedule — a schedule they went 10-3 against, by the way, including an 8-0 mark against all those awful teams, with an average score of 86-64.
“Well,” Boynton said, “we scheduled a game against Pittsburgh two years ago when they were a top-25 team every year, and then they had the worst year in the history of their program. That is bad luck, and I don’t think they will ever have a bad of season ever again.
“We played a Charlotte team who is usually in the top 150. They fired their coach. Three games after we played them, they fired their coach. So those are things outside of your control that, when we scheduled those games, it was within (our) mind that those are quality opponents that you’re going to play and all of the sudden they turn into ‘bad games,’ or ‘bad scheduling.’ Since when has Pittsburgh been a bad game to schedule? First time ever! We just happened to play them this year.”
OSU’s three non-conference losses were to Wichita State, Texas A&M and Arkansas, three teams that most bracket scholars have firmly in the tournament.
But enough from Boynton for a minute. Let’s ask Kansas coach Bill Self, a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer whose team won its 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title and widely projects as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA field and yet suffered two losses to his alma mater.
“Well, I’m biased, because they played us better than anybody has all year, twice,” Self said. “I think they’re without question a tournament team. I look he at the things the pundits put up there, the blind resumes, whatever, surely how you have played down the stretch and those sorts of things matter. In our league, if you go 6-4 down the stretch, you’ve played well considering all 10 games are monster games. So I don’t think there is any doubt Mike and his team deserve to be in, and I would be very disappointed if they’re not.”
Boynton couldn’t agree more. And he’s right. The NCAA Tournament isn’t an easy thing to construct, nor should it be. Building a bracket with 32 conference champions and 36 at-large berths should include thoughtful consideration, not blind resumes and cold calculations.
“Obviously, I think we’ve done what we’re supposed to do,” Boynton said. “We play in the best league in America, without question. If people can get over the fact that they didn’t think we would be any good in October, with all that was going on in our program, and open their eyes and watch what we’ve done and the team that played the last two days and the last couple of weeks.
“Really, over the course of the season, we have done some really good work.
“If you just look at our team — watch us play. We have beaten the best teams that we’ve played all year, and that should count for something.”
When the questions had subsided, Boynton said his goodbyes to the press contingent. Take it however you want, NCAA or NIT, but he’s still planning ahead:
“See you somewhere,” he said, “next week.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.