The beauty of the college basketball season is that literally every team is given a chance to win the grand prize. Oh, it's extremely hard to do so, and the vast majority of teams don't have the talent, but it's not impossible. Get hot at the right time, win a few games in a row, and anybody can crash the party at the Big Dance, no matter how tiny their arena is or how little power their conference holds in the nation.
Of course, this also makes for the hilarious possibility of a team getting into the final 68 with a losing record. This year, the Liberty Flames joined that ignominious club, becoming the fifth team since 2002 to do so. They went 12-20 in the regular season and sported a 257 KenPom rating. Yet by winning four straight games at just the right time, they took home the Big South Conference title. Does this make the Flames the worst tournament team of the last decade? Let's compare them to the other teams that got in with losing records in the 21st century:
2011-12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (11-18 regular season, 188th KenPom)
The Hilltoppers were an afterthought heading into the Sun Belt tourney, but they had a run for the ages. In the conference tourney, they beat FIU, Arkansas-Little Rock, Denver and North Texas to claim the automatic bid with a 15-18 record. The powers that be didn't like this, so WKU got banished to the First Four, where they kept the streak going, knocking off Mississippi Valley State to reach the proper Round of 64. They finally fell to eventual champions Kentucky, but it was the kind of ride that reminds us why we love this dumb sport.
2007-08 Coppin State Eagles (12-20 regular season, 311th KenPom)
As the only other team to make the dance with 20 losses, Coppin State certainly gives Liberty a run for the title of worst tourney team ever. They knocked off Howard, Hampton, Norfolk State and Morgan State to claim the MEAC title, never winning a game by more than two points and needing overtime to beat Hampton. Their magical run ended in the play-in game, losing to Mount St. Mary's 69-60
2004-05 Oakland Golden Grizzlies (9-18 regular season, 178th KenPom)
The Grizzlies did one better than any of the teams listed above, not even reaching double-digit wins before deciding to turn it on late. They beat Centenary, UMKC, Chicago State and Oral Roberts to win the automatic bid out of the Summit League. Like everyone else on this list, they got banished to the play-in game, where they knocked off Alabama A&M 79-69 before running into the North Carolina wall.
2001-02 Siena Saints (12-18 regular season)
KenPom's ratings only go back to 2003. Sorry about that. Anyway, Siena stormed through the MAAC against all odds, defeating St. Peter's, Marist, Fairfield and Niagara to punch their ticket. As usual, the Selection Committee furrowed their brow and put the team in the play-in game, hoping they'd go away, but Siena beat Alcorn State to become the first team since 1955 to win a tournament game with a losing record. Maryland would end their run just three days later.
So is Liberty the worst tournament in recent NCAA history? Well, looking at the above, I'd say Coppin State still holds that crown, but Liberty certainly makes a strong case. In all likelihood, they'll be dumped in the First Four graveyard just like their predecessors, having to prove themselves all over again. If they're lucky, maybe they'll get to be a No. 16 sacrificial lamb. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't enjoy the ride, or bask in their moment of glory. Maybe they'll even have a couple wins left in them. It is March, after all.