Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Selection Committee should say no to major conference mediocrity and yes to Murray State

By some of the underlying metrics, it is hard to make the case that Murray State deserves an at-large bid to the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The Racers — whose 25-game winning streak was snapped in the finals of the OVC Tournament by Belmont on a game-winning three-pointer by Lexington Christian product Taylor Barnette — have no wins (0-1) against RPI Top 50 foes.

Murray State (27-5, No. 67 in the official NCAA RPI) played only three games (1-2) against opponents presently in the RPI Top 100. Murray is just 4-4 against the RPI Top 150. All of which means Murray State played 24 of its 32 games against teams not presently in the RPI Top 150.

The lack of schedule strength is no doubt the reason that none of the major "bracketologists" I checked Monday had Coach Steve Prohm's Racers in the Big Dance.

Yet, I think Murray State deserves to play in the NCAA Tournament. I say that not because they are a Kentucky team (though that is why I'm writing about it) but from a point of philosophical principle.

To my way of thinking, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee should empower teams from small conferences that have produced excellence — and a 25-game winning steak is that, I don't care who you played — rather than reward programs from power-five leagues that have produced mediocrity.

According to ESPN brackets maven Joe Lunardi, Texas of the Big 12 and Indiana of the Big Ten are currently the last two teams projected to be at-large entrants in the field of 68.

That's 19-12 (8-10 in the Big 12; No. 43 in the RPI) Texas and 19-12 (9-9 in the Big Ten; No. 58 in the RPI) Indiana.

Those who advocate for the middling teams from the glamour leagues always point out that even so-so Power Five teams tend to have better RPI profiles than teams from leagues farther down the conference food chain.

In this case, Rick Barnes' underachieving Longhorns are 3-11 against the Top 50; Tom Crean's sagging Hoosiers are 4-8.

The way I look at that, however, is Murray State went up against programs that have similar resources to it and produced an outstanding season. Texas and Indiana went up against programs of similar resources to them and produced meh.

Which should be rewarded?

It obviously behooved Murray not to put itself in the position of needing an at-large bid by losing in the OVC Tournament.

Why traditional one-bid conferences such as the Ohio Valley Conference persist in putting their league champions through conference tourneys is a subject that ought to be the topic of far more debate than it is. Is providing ESPN's myriad platforms with programming for "Championship Week" worth having a regular season champion — one that, in Murray's case, went through its league unbeaten — on the outside of the NCAA tourney looking in?

One never knows from year to year what the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will choose to emphasize. In recent years, there have been examples of giving "the little guys" the benefit of the doubt.

The last four at-large teams in 2013, Middle Tennessee State, St. Mary's, La Salle and Boise State, all came from outside the power leagues.

This was true even though La Salle (five), St. Mary's (four) and MTSU (one) had far fewer RPI Top 100 wins that season than major-conference also-rans Tennessee (nine), Virginia (eight) and Kentucky (seven), all of which were left out of the Big Dance.

In 2012, Iona lost in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals yet, at 25-7, the Gaels were the recipient of a surprise NCAA tourney invite.

Most famously of all, in 2011, the Selection Committee stunned much of the college hoops commentariat by inviting UAB (one Top 50 victory) and VCU (3-5 in the month of February). ESPN's Jay Bilas called the inclusions of UAB and VCU "indefensible" and questioned if the Selection Committee even knew "if the ball is round."

UAB got rocked in its NCAA tourney game by 18 points by Clemson; VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four.

If it gets in the tournament, I'm not predicting a Final Four run from Murray State.

Off a stellar regular season, however, the Racers are more deserving of getting that chance than power conference also-rans like Texas and Indiana.

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