NCAA market down on mid-sized teams

Schools like Creighton, Richmond fight to impress amid fewer at-large bids

College Basketball

March 11, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

If you're Mike Tranghese, commissioner of the Big East Conference and the chairman of this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee, the process to select the field of 65, including 34 at-large teams, makes perfect sense.

"I go in with the premise that the 66th, 67th and 68th teams are going to be unhappy," Tranghese said last week before heading to Indianapolis, where the committee met the past two days and where the announcement of the field will be made tonight. "I don't think that's ever going to change."

But the job Tranghese and the rest of the 10-person selection committee have this year might be a bit easier than in the past, simply because there appear to be fewer teams from the so-called mid-major conferences that present compelling cases for inclusion as at-large entries.

It is certainly less confusing than it was for the committee last year, when neither the newly created Mountain West Conference nor the realigned Western Athletic Conference had automatic bids. With more at-large teams to consider, it made for a tougher decision for the committee and its chairman, Craig Thompson.

That Thompson was the commissioner of the Mountain West, and league member Nevada-Las Vegas was perhaps the most controversial pick in the entire field, made things more dicey. Thompson believed that UNLV's overall performance was more important than its Rating Percentage Index (RPI).

The RPI - made up by the team's winning percentage, its strength of schedule and its opponents' strength of schedule - is the most debated criterion used in judging a team's worthiness.

Other criteria used by the committee include a team's performance on the road as well as in its last 10 games overall, and the power rating of the conference to which the team belongs.

"What distinguished UNLV was that it won the regular-season title and the conference tournament," said Thompson, whose five-year association with the committee is over but who is no less interested in the process. "The same thing was true for Fresno State in the WAC."

Among this year's bubble teams from mid-major conferences, those with the best chance of getting in are:

Fresno State, which lost to Hawaii in the semifinals of the WAC tournament Friday night. The Bulldogs should be a lock, given their strong RPI (16). Even coach Jerry Tarkanian has put his squabbles with the NCAA in the past.

Creighton, which lost in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to Indiana State. The Blue Jays, an NCAA tournament participant the past two years, were 26th in the RPI last week and have wins over tournament-bound Providence and Georgia State.

Richmond, which finished the regular season 21-6 but was not eligible to play in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The Spiders were 9-1 in their last 10 regular-season games and 41st in the most recent RPI, but only played two games against teams in the top 50, losing both.

The string of upsets in the major conference tournaments has increased the likelihood of an NCAA tournament top-heavy with teams from major conferences. The Big Ten could get as many as seven teams in, and the Atlantic Coast Conference should get six.

Among schools from major conferences still on the bubble are Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys could be given special consideration given the plane crash that killed two players and eight other members of the school's traveling party earlier in the season.

Many in the mid-major conference believe the RPI is skewed toward the power conferences.

"If you're any good, nobody from a power conference is going to come to your place," said the Mountain West's Thompson. "So you've got to win on the road. Being in a power conference like the ACC gives you an advantage because you are going to have more opportunities to improve your RPI."

Creighton assistant coach Len Gordy, a former Clemson (and Towson State) assistant, has the perspective of someone who has looked at the selection process from each side.

"If you're picking the best 65 teams, a lot of mid-majors should get in," Gordy said. "Look at what some of these teams have done in the tournament."

The poster team for picking schools from mid-major conferences is Gonzaga, which two years ago beat Florida in the Sweet 16 and last year reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Purdue. Then there was Butler, which nearly knocked out eventual title-game participant Florida in the opening round.

According to statistics compiled by the Durham (N.C.) Herald Sun, at-large teams from mid-major conferences have a 110-129 record in the NCAA tournament since 1980 compared with a 114-131 record for teams that finished fourth or below in the major conferences.

First-year Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, whose Yellow Jackets might have secured a bid with a victory Friday over Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, understands the argument from the mid-major teams. He came to Georgia Tech this season from Siena, a member of the Metro Atlantic.

"My perspective has changed a little, because it's so difficult in a league like the ACC," said Hewitt. "I remember [Maryland coach] Gary Williams talking at the league meetings about opening up the field [for all Division I teams]. They might want to look into expanding the field."

According to Tranghese, that is unlikely to happen.

While Tranghese said that the process of separating the virtues of potential NCAA tournament teams from mid-major conferences and major conferences is "probably the most difficult thing we do" as a committee, there are no plans to expand the field.

"Taking more teams would water down the regular season and I'm against doing that," Tranghese said.

There undoubtedly will be some unhappy coaches and teams tonight after the bids are announced.

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