Mark Story: NCAA was right to pick small-conference excellence over big-league mediocrity

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 18, 2013 

With a day of reflection, the work of the 2013 NCAA Tournament selection committee merits some serious second guessing.

The Midwest Region, home of tournament No. 1 overall seed Louisville, appears ridiculously stacked. The top five seeds in that region — U of L, Duke, Michigan State, Saint Louis and Oklahoma State — are all teams that, pre-bracket, I thought had viable Final Four aspirations.

Shouldn't the No. 1 overall seed have the most hospitable path through the four brackets to the national semifinals?

Meanwhile, if you put any credence in RPI-style power ratings, New Mexico (a three seed but No. 2 in the nation in RPI) deserved to be above Gonzaga (No. 1 seed but No. 6 in the RPI) in the West Region.

With that, the 2013 NCAA tourney selectors got one big thing dead-on right.

For the final bubble choices, give me teams from "smaller" conferences who had outstanding regular seasons but slipped up in league tournament play over mediocre teams from the glamour conferences every single time.

The last four at-large teams into the 2013 NCAAs — the four facing each other in Dayton in the First Four — are Middle Tennessee State and St. Mary's, La Salle and Boise State. All are from outside the big six (for now) leagues.

Bully to the committee for giving the little guys a shot.

I'm especially glad 28-win Middle Tennessee State of the Sun Belt is getting a chance to dance instead of ACC mediocrities Virginia and Maryland.

While it would have obviously been better for fans in our state if the Kentucky Wildcats (21-11) had somehow limped into the field of 68, on principle I'd rather see 27-win St. Mary's of the West Coast Conference in March Madness than lukewarm SEC teams Alabama, Tennessee and — uncharacteristically this year — UK.

The knock on schools from the non-big six conferences (the current football BCS automatic-qualifying leagues) getting at-large bids is they tend not to have as many top-100 RPI victories as even middling teams from the marquee conferences.

In 2013, that is certainly true of Middle Tennessee, St. Mary's and La Salle, though less so for Boise State.

Even in a down year by UK standards, the Wildcats are 7-9 against the RPI top 100. Tennessee is 9-10. Virginia is 8-4 (albeit with horrible early-season losses to RPI No. 141 Delaware and No. 318 Old Dominion). Even Maryland, which is just 4-10 against the top 100, had two victories over Duke and one over North Carolina State.

Conversely, Middle Tennessee, the Sun Belt regular-season champ that was upset in the league tourney, has one victory (SEC tourney champ Mississippi) over an RPI top-100 team. St. Mary's has only four, La Salle five. Playing in a strong Mountain West, Boise State has eight.

Given that, why argue for inclusion of teams with fewer top-100 victories over those with more?

For one thing, the system is rigged against the little guys. Most of the teams from the major conferences will not give so-called mid-majors home-and-home scheduling opportunities. That makes it all but impossible for those teams to accumulate top-100 RPI victories to match the big boys.

Secondly, the NCAA Tournament should reward teams which excel against their peer groups, not mediocrity just because it happens on the biggest stages.

In the case of Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders did make a good faith effort to schedule well in the non-conference. They played a neutral-floor game (a loss) against Florida in Orlando. They played (and lost to) eventual conference champions Belmont (OVC) and Akron (Mid-American).

MTSU may have only one top-100 win, but they also won at Central Florida (No. 102 in the RPI), beat Tennessee State (No. 107) and scored a road victory at Vanderbilt of the SEC (No. 110).

In the NCAAs, the pressure will be on the two teams, Middle Tennessee or St. Mary's, Boise State or La Salle, that emerge from the First Four to make some noise in the bracket of 64 to justify their selection over the big-league mediocrities who were left out.

If they can win some games for all the small-conference schools that never got the chance to get there, maybe future NCAA Tournament selection committees will be enabled to make the same types of bubble choices as were made in 2013.

That would be good for college basketball.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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