The system isn't fair. But the system is the system.
That's the harsh reality facing Bryce Drew and the Valparaiso men's basketball team on the eve of Motor City Madness, the latest incarnation of the Horizon League tournament.
The Crusaders have won 16 of their last 18 games, have dominated the Horizon League for the better part of two months and have become the first team to win the league by 3+ games since Butler's national runner-up team did it six years ago.
All that said, if Valparaiso doesn't win the upcoming conference tournament at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit -- the backyard of top competition Oakland -- the Crusaders figure to be shutout of the Big Dance and relegated to the National Invitational Tournament.
"Not really," CBS Sports bracketology expert Jerry Palm said when asked about Valparaiso's at-large chances should the Crusaders lose in the conference tournament. They've got bad losses and just not enough higher quality wins. Really all they have is Oregon State and they may end up in the bracket. That's not enough to make up for losing to Wright State twice and Ball State."
Drew did everything he could to get the Crusaders top level competition in the non-conference schedule and for the most part he succeeded. Games against Oregon, Oregon State, Rhode Island, Iona and two against Belmont highlighted the schedule. Four of those were true road games. (For some perspective, Purdue, Indiana and Notre Dame each played just one true road non-conference game this season and all three games were part of a predetermined conference challenge)
Valparaiso finished the non-conference slate with a RPI of 17. Drew called every Top 25 program asking for games this year. Oregon was the only team to follow through and the Crusaders had nothing to hang their heads about following a six-point loss in Eugene last November. Valpo followed up the close loss two days later with a win over Oregon State.
The problem facing Valparaiso is the team is too good for high majors to roll over, but not good enough where a loss could be understandable. There is no shame for the Purdues and Indianas of the world losing to Gonzaga and Wichita State, but lose to Valparaiso and suddenly the fan base gets restless. It's why Purdue schedules teams like Incarnate Word instead of playing Valparaiso.
It's almost as if the high majors are saying to programs like Valparaiso: "We know we'd beat you, but we don't have to prove it to you." And yet we wonder why there are so many upsets in the NCAA tournament.
So what can Valparaiso do to put itself in the at-large conversation. First off, don't lose to Ball State or Wright State twice. In terms of scheduling, Palm says the Crusaders have to get creative.
"Maybe get into a (preseason) tournament somewhere where you can match up with a bigger program," Palm said. "The Oregon road trip was great. It was ambitious and I think successful. Valpo needs more of that. Either that or they need a better league. Nobody in their league who they beat helps them (in terms of a marquee win). Oakland isn't top 100. Wright State isn't top 100. None of these wins help them."
So Valparaiso oddly finds itself in the same boat as the high majors. The Crusaders get no credit for beating mid-major teams, but the consequences for losing are severe. Valparaiso's plight is not unique to this season or to the Crusaders in general.
"Every year something like this happens," Palm said. "There's maybe half a dozen teams this year in the same situation. It's not just Valparaiso. There are a dearth of potential at-large teams. Wichita State has one good win. San Diego State has one good win. Chattanooga, Little Rock. There are a lot of teams dealing with the same thing."
Just because Palm thinks Valparaiso will be left on the outside looking in should the Crusaders fall in the Horizon League tournament, that doesn't mean he doesn't think Valpo could make some noise in the Big Dance.
"Absolutely (they could win a game or two)," Palm said. "In my current bracket I have them playing Iowa. That's a team Valpo could beat."
Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away. The Crusaders hope to once again throw a big party, but given the system in place, that's only likely to happen should Valparaiso win two games in Detroit.