Have-nots put on dancing shoes, wait

Mid-major conferences rise in stature, but tourney invites are no slam dunk

March 14, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

In most years, the job of selecting the at-large teams to the NCAA men's basketball tournament is much like being an NFL referee. While your work is done behind closed doors rather than before thousands in a packed stadium, you remain fairly anonymous. Until you mess up.

And there is no instant replay to fix your mistakes.

This year's selection, which will be finalized sometime today and announced tonight on national television, should be among the most widely dissected in memory. The reason is quite simple: The degree of separation between the major and mid-major conferences has shrunk dramatically.

Saint Joseph's and Gonzaga, two teams that fit nearly all the criteria for mid-major status, have been highly ranked most of the season, and one could be the first true mid-major school to win the tournament since Loyola of Chicago in 1963.

The number of other mid-major teams to get a chance to dance will depend largely on the categories to which the committee pays the closest attention. Will it be the Rating Percentage Index or the strength of schedule? Will it be the team's overall record, its past 10 games or its record against the top 50 in the RPI rankings?

The discussions over picking between the haves and the have-nots will be the most heated to take place.

"It is more art than science," Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby, chairman of this year's committee, said in a teleconference last week. "The committee will spend more time on those decisions than anything else - how do you seed those people and how do you decide who gets in and who stays out.

"Those things are the real gut-wrenchers that the committee collectively goes through during selection weekend. They're very, very difficult decisions."

Only the committee members know which 34 at-large teams will be picked, and unless you've been a fly on the wall in the Indianapolis hotel conference room where this group of athletic directors and conference commissioners has been secluded the past three days, you can't be certain.

One thing is clear: Florida State's Leonard Hamilton and Air Force's Joe Scott will be among the coaches sweating the most over those final picks.

Their campaigning has been under way for weeks, but their teams' candidacies may have weakened in the past few days.

"If you are looking for 64 of the top teams in the country ... then I think we qualify as a result of how well we've played," Hamilton said last week before the Seminoles headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, where they lost to North Carolina State in Friday's quarterfinals. "If you put more of a value on teams being successful against weaker opponents, then we might not get the benefit of playing in such a quality league."

Recently, Scott said, "I don't believe in rewarding teams that are in certain conferences. The NCAA tournament is about rewarding the team that has won a lot of games. If the team is under .500 in a [major] conference, the team that wins the regular season in a mid-major is better. I only say that because in order to win their conference, they had to have won on the road."

Florida State finished tied for seventh in the ACC, didn't win a single game on the road, and wound up with five straight defeats. But the 18-13 Seminoles beat three tournament-bound teams (Maryland, North Carolina and Wake Forest) and often played respectably away from Tallahassee. Their RPI (48) and strength of schedule (26) won't hurt.

Air Force won the Mountain West Conference, but the 22-6 Falcons were upset by Colorado State in the first round of the conference tournament Thursday and also lost a regular-season game against Texas-Pan American (211 RPI). Air Force's RPI (56) was lower than that of conference rivals and fellow bubble-sitters Brigham Young (28) and Utah (43), as was its strength of schedule (175).

"One of the things that the committee does in a very meticulous way is look at the portfolio of each individual team," Bowlsby said. "It isn't about the seventh team in the SEC. It's, `Here's Team A and this is what they've done relative to the other candidates for the last few spots in the tournament.' "

So will the committee disregard Florida State's 6-10 conference record (as well as Virginia's 6-10 mark) because the ACC was considered the highest-rated league in the country this season, or hold it against the Seminoles and Cavaliers that they weren't more successful given the numerous chances each had against ranked teams?

Or will teams in the Mountain West, as well as other mid-major conferences, benefit by a decline in power leagues such as the Big Ten and Pac-10?

Said the coach of another mid-major team that's on the bubble: "I don't know how you get in when you can't win a road game and when you're under .500 in your conference. You're rewarding mediocrity."

Southern Illinois coach Matt Painter is confident that his 25-4 Salukis will get in as an at-large team after easily winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title but losing in the tournament.

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