Any shining moments for Louisville and Southern Methodist will come and go before the NCAA Tournament begins. Although the Cardinals and Mustangs each rank among the nation’s top 20 teams according to Ken Pomeroy and others, both were barred from the 2016 postseason amid scandal.
(SMU’s ban, for academic fraud, came from the NCAA; Louisville banned itself in an attempt to avoid harsher sentencing when the NCAA finishes investigating allegations that the team used strippers and prostitutes in its recruiting efforts.)
By the numbers, these are two of the best teams ever to be banished from postseason play. Since the NCAA tourney expanded its field to 64 teams in 1984-85, only one banned team has had a better statistical profile, the 1991-92 Runnin’ Rebels from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (We used adjusted differential between offensive and defensive Pomeroy ratings for seasons since 2001 and estimated the differential for earlier teams using Daniel Myers’s research on schedule-adjusted historical team ratings.)
That UNLV squad wasn’t at quite the same level as the version that went 69-6 over the previous two years under the leadership of future NBA talent such as Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. But its best player was J.R. Rider, a future NBA 20 PPG scorer,1 and a few of his teammates had brief stints in the pros. Louisville and SMU, by contrast, each carry only one top-100 NBA prospect apiece — Chinanu Onuaku (No. 56) and Shake Milton (No. 87), respectively — and even those guys are at the fringes of the mock draft universe. (The Cardinals’ fifth-year senior transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis may eventually get a shot at the NBA but are by no means locks.) Rick Pitino and Larry Brown can punch weight with the towel-chomping Jerry Tarkanian, but in terms of record, efficiency and roster, the ’92 Rebels were probably the best of the three.
Still, it’s a relatively close contest. And let’s emphasize again that two of the top three banned squads in recent memory both hail from the 2015-16 season. In what seems destined to be a wide-open NCAA field this year, the Mustangs and Cardinals could have seized upon that opportunity and produced deep tournament runs. But by running afoul of the NCAA, they’re here instead, hypothetically runnin’ with the ’92 Rebels rather than taking the court against present-day teams in the real-life tourney.