This doesn’t feel right. They just announced the field for the men’s NCAA Tournament and I’m not whining. I’m not screaming at the TV set and cursing the elite BCS leagues for sticking it to the little guy again.
What’s going on here? Have I drifted into some alternate universe? What’s next, the country’s richest 1 percent volunteering to hand over half of their wealth to the less fortunate? Equal time for the women’s NCAA tourney? The silencing of Dick Vitale?
Come on, we’ve done this Big Dance thing before. Every year at tournament time, you could set your watch and listen for my annual crusade on behalf of the mid-majors, who never seemed to get sufficient bids or proper respect.
But this time, the committee actually did the right thing. It didn’t exactly punish the Big East for breaking into pieces, but at least it gave the mid-major leagues their due. It gave a stunning 11 at-large bids to teams outside the six elite BCS football conferences.
La Salle, Butler and VCU all got at-large berths from the improved Atlantic 10. Middle Tennessee, which lost in the Sun Belt title game, got rewarded for winning 28 games. The reward is a play-in game with Saint Mary’s, which went 0-3 against Gonzaga and 26-4 against everyone else. Hey, at least they’re both in.
The Mountain West got five teams into the tournament. The league, which is ranked first in the conference RPI, received four at-large berths: Boise State, Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State. New Mexico, the conference champion, got the No. 3 seed in the West.
Of course, it’s hard to keep track of these conferences anymore. If you know which schools are still in the Big East, congratulations. I realized only a few weeks ago that West Virginia was gone. Tell me again, which teams are fleeing for the ACC next season?
I have to admit, my sentiment for cuddly little Boise State dims when I’m reminded that it had agreed to join the Big East as a football-only member in July – before the swirl of events caused it to reconsider and go running back to the Mountain West.
Sorry if this is hard to follow, but college sports are one big ball of confusion nowadays. I’ve asked some of the smartest college sports fans I know where UConn fits into all this, and all I got was a befuddled look.
UConn, which won the national championship two years ago, isn’t in the tournament this year. It is one of the schools penalized for a lack of academic progress, one more beacon of sanity in the sport. Kentucky, the defending national champion, didn’t make it, either. We’ll have to do without the smarmy presence of John Calipari for a year.
But Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed, the first mid-major to get one since Calipari’s Memphis team in 2008. The selection committee dismissed the notion that the Zags hadn’t played enough strong opponents (their strength of schedule was 76), and rewarded them for going 31-2 at a time of growing parity.
I could complain that Gonzaga was placed in the West with New Mexico, the only other mid-major with a top three seed. Or that Butler and Bucknell, who have a history of pulling off first-round upsets of major conference schools, got matched in a 6-11 game. But remember, no whining this year.
Gonzaga is richly deserving of its top seed. So it didn’t play as tough a schedule as Ohio State or Georgetown. That’s hard to do when you play in a mid-major conference and the big boys won’t come to play you.
You can bet Butler’s strength of schedule wasn’t all that high when the Bulldogs made their consecutive Final Four runs in 2010-11. Or VCU, when the Rams ran through teams from five different BCS leagues on the way to the Final Four in ’11. Or George Mason in 2006.
Gonzaga did just fine outside the West Coast Conference. It beat Oklahoma, Davidson, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Pacific – all NCAA tourney teams. It has three wins over conference rival Saint Mary’s, which got an at-large bid. The Zags lost by a point at Butler and by 11 at home to Illinois.
It’s amazing to think Illinois would even play at Gonzaga. It’s virtually unheard of for BCS schools to play true non-conference road games. But Gonzaga is so good, it has risen above the lowly “mid-major” label and become a TV draw that doesn’t hurt an elite opponent’s power rating.
The Zags are an inspiration for the little Catholic schools, whose stature has been diminished by the expanding influence of the football schools. Anyone who was around for the rise of the Big East in the 1980s (as I was) had to be saddened by the sudden demise of that league.
The seven Catholic schools from the Big East (Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova, DePaul and Marquette) are breaking off to form their own hoop-centered conference, the “Catholic 7.” Their presidents met in New York last week, reportedly to consider Xavier and Creighton for the new league – and maybe even Butler, a secular hoop power.
Suddenly, I find myself sympathizing with the Catholic 7 as if they were underdogs, nouveau mid-majors. I grew up rooting for Providence, which is where the Big East was founded. But something tells me there will be a monstrous TV contract waiting when their cuddly league gets going.
Anyway, I’ve strayed from the main point, which is to applaud the NCAA selection committee for a job well done. A few years ago, Jim Boeheim said there were only 12 to 15 teams capable of winning the NCAA championship.
Then Syracuse lost to Butler in the Sweet 16.
This year, it seems as if 30 to 35 teams could get hot and go all the way. A mid-major or two could make a run, the way Butler and VCU did two years ago. The gap between the so-called elites and the mid-majors keeps getting smaller. It’s about time the committee recognized it.