It's not selection committee with egg spread across face

March 23, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Entering the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, your bracket is officially busted.

You've blamed the refs, the selection committee, Bradley University and even the dryer for swallowing one of your lucky socks.

Even the weekly bible of the sports world, Sports Illustrated, led us astray, correctly predicting barely half of the Sweet 16 teams.

But who in the world could have predicted some of these teams would be competitive, that Tumbleweed U. had a shot against the traditional powers? Well, I guess there were at least a couple of people ...

"We were always very confident," Craig Littlepage said yesterday.

Littlepage is the head of the NCAA tournament selection committee. You heard his name a lot in the 48-hour period after the brackets were announced - though not usually in a positive light. CBS analyst Billy Packer and broadcaster Jim Nantz blindly led the charge, skewering Littlepage on live TV just seconds after the field was revealed.

I spoke with Littlepage yesterday and he wasn't gloating, even though he had every reason to. A field that was roundly criticized for favoring mid-major conferences has produced an exciting tournament.

As the Sweet 16 round gets under way today, we're left with one stern lesson and a not-so-subtle peek into the tourney's future.

Before we look ahead, though, we should reflect on what we learned through the first two rounds of the men's event. The success of the mid-majors didn't vindicate the selection committee as much as it ratified reality.

"There was great confidence based on the hours of discussion and the intensity of debate in the teams that got in," said Littlepage, athletic director at Virginia. "We just knew we had a great field."

I pressed him lightly, knowing better, but still hoping Littlepage might let slip a "Pack that Packer!" or a "Nantz, you ninny, focus on golf!" But Littlepage wouldn't go there.

"On a personal level," he said, "the only thing I hoped for were great games throughout."

And he got them. Remember those questionable bubble teams, the ones that didn't belong? Arizona lost by just four to top-seeded Villanova in the second round, Alabama was a three-pointer away from tying No. 2 UCLA in the second round and Texas A&M lost by one to fourth-seeded LSU, also in the second round.

You can still whine about the inclusion of Air Force, Marquette and Utah State, but the first two rounds confirm that committee members did their job.

They were bashed on the Internet, talk radio and in newspapers for several days. Everyone seemed to ignore the fact that since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams more than 20 years ago, this year marked the third-fewest at-large bids awarded to mid-majors. Despite the relatively low number of mid-majors that began the tournament, five reached the Sweet 16.

The knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that this March is simply an anomaly. After all, starting this year, the NBA can no longer pick the top college players until they've completed their freshman seasons. Reason suggests these former preps-to-pros blue-chippers will only bolster the lineups at the top-tier schools.

But don't take the NBA's new rule to mean the good will only get better. I'm hardly the only one who thinks the new freshman rule will actually make it tougher for the elite schools from the big conferences. We'll see more players make names for themselves as underclassmen and leave early.

What does this mean come tournament time? Just look at this year's field. The programs that have reached the deeper rounds aren't always the most talented, but they're often the ones with veteran players.

Otherwise, No. 4 Kansas and No. 3 North Carolina might still be playing. The Jayhawks, dependent on three freshman starters, were first-round losers to No. 13 Bradley, and the Tar Heels, with four freshman contributors, lost to No. 11 George Mason in the second round.

With few exceptions, the teams that have advanced deep into the tournament are the ones featuring mature decision-makers and teammates who've played together for a couple of years.

Littlepage said the biggest difference this year has been that the mid-major conferences didn't feature just one or two teams that stood above the rest. The middle of the pack has caught up.

We've talked about the parity across the national landscape for the past several months, and even though Joe Fan has already lost $5 in his office pool, it's good to see some semblance of competitive equality carry into the postseason.

There haven't been the lopsided blowouts and the predictable finishes. Even top teams such as Connecticut and Villanova have been pushed to the wall.

As you watch this weekend and follow an intriguing field of 16 - a group that few would have predicted - kudos goes to those same people we were blaming just a week ago.

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