This year's NCAA Tournament Field features only 4 at-large bids from non power conferences. It's created a bit of a stir, including some comparisons to football's BCS system. Dick Vitale and Michael Wilbon are two experts of note to cry foul. While I agree in general terms that the little guy gets snubbed, this year I don't think that many more than four "mid-majors" deserved an at-large selection...and honestly it was quite hard to find 65 worthy teams, period. One also must consider that in this format, they supposedly get the best team from every conference. While the field may not contain the 40th or 50th best team (see Creighton, St. Mary's, San Diego State) it will contain teams somewhere around the 250th best (see Morehead State, Alabama State) to compensate. Now, of course when there's a conference tournament upset, the field may wind up with the second-best, or even the eighth best or so, team from some leagues while missing out on the best...but that's a product of the automatic bid rules and not the Selection Committee. I'm one who advocates modifying, rather than discarding, the automatic bids but that's a tangential point. A second argument for the little guys is that Memphis deserved one of the one seeds for being the only team with 3 or fewer losses. As we'll see later, I think Memphis was seeded exactly correctly and if anything is less talented than the best of the 3 seeds.
Consider this year's field, and how we got to so few non-power teams. First, Southern California and Mississippi State snagged unexpected bids for the 'BCS' leagues. Some conference winners like Temple and Cleveland State snagged bids, probably from more deserving little guys. Once the bracket came out, the only team in that really surprised anyone was Arizona...and maybe Wisconsin. While I find Arizona's inclusion a minor travesty, I still think they will either beat Utah or give them a tough game, and that very belief begs the question: is it really so out of line? The thing people are missing is that Arizona wasn't included because they play in the Pac 10. They were included because they're ARIZONA. It's an equally bad reason, but the distinction is important. I'm not sure why the college basketball world is turning a one-team argument into a conference argument. Returning to the other "surprise," I'll discuss Wisconsin in relation to the 3 closest representatives of the little guy. San Diego State got their profile by scoring one truly good win and avoiding any horrible losses. They added a second good win in the league tournament, but apart from that they really just beat a lot of teams below RPI 50. Now, I believe they should have been in over Arizona, partly because of a 3-game sweep of UNLV (whose RPI WOULD have been top 50 if not for those 3 losses) but stacked next to Wisconsin a case can be made that the Badgers did more to impress despite their lower RPI. Then there's Creighton, who notched zero top 25 wins, 2 top 50 wins, and lost twice to teams outside the top 100. Oh, one of their top 50 wins was RPI 47 Illinois State...a team that BEAT them twice in three chances and went on to lose the conference tournament. I'm sorry, but that's just not an NCAA tournament resume. Then there's St. Mary's, and frankly I don't see their argument either despite the nice win over Utah State. They had almost as many losses outside the top 100 (2) as they did wins against the top 100 (3). 3-4 against the RPI top 100 just isn't getting it done, injured player or not. So, what that all means is that, basically, the only real snub here was San Diego State being discarded in favor of Arizona...and let me now reiterate that that isn't really a league versus league decision.
So, in the sports world, how do we prove an argument most effectively? With results. And after a day of NCAA tournament games and a week of NIT games, I think we already have a few that are telling. What's happened so far to help my argument? In the NCAA Tournament, LSU handled Butler. Yes, the final score was close but the game was controlled by the Tigers from the opening tip. Remember that LSU didn't even win the league tournament of inarguably this year's weakest power conference, while Butler was one of those four at-large bids. Texas A&M simply outclassed BYU. This game wasn't close, and it wasn't pretty for the Cougars. Remember that Texas A&M is approximately the sixth best from the Big 12 and that BYU was another of those 4 at-large bids. It was an 8-9 game, so BYU was in just as good a position to win. Purdue beat Northern Iowa without much trouble, and UCLA beat VCU, also without much trouble despite a 1-point final...and there went two of the nation's favorite upsets. Note: that's the Northern Iowa team that wound up winning Creighton's league. At the top of the NCAA field, Memphis and others made the case that the Tigers were not worthy of a one seed. While Memphis struggled with Cal State-Northridge, winning by 11 only because of a very late surge the following happened elsewhere: Connecticut won by 56 without its coach, North Carolina won by 43 without its best player, and Fellow 2 seeds Duke and Oklahoma won by 24 and 28, respectively.
Then down in the NIT, Notre Dame (10th-12th best in the Big East) has beaten UAB (third best from CUSA) and New Mexico (4th or 5th best in MWC). Penn State (8th best in the Big Ten) has beaten George Mason (second best in the Colonial) and Rhode Island (among the tops in the A-10). Of the four losers above, three of them are close to the top of three of the best non-power conferences. Extending the NIT angle a bit, Kentucky, Auburn, and Florida (about 4th-6th in the SEC, again the weakest power conference) have beaten UNLV, Tennessee-Martin, and Jacksonville. Virinia Tech beat A-10 runner-up Duquesne.
Is there a results-based counterargument? Of course, but it's weaker. Davidson beat South Carolina...but remember that Davidson was purportedly the best team from the Southern Conference while South Carolina was the seventh-best the SEC had to offer. New Mexico beat Nebraska, but this is another case of the top half of one league beating the bottom half of another...and the Lobos only split in two such games. St. Mary's beat Washington State, but here the same argument applies. St. Mary's is clearly the second-best the WCC had to ofer while Washington State was at best 6th in the Pac 10. Tulsa beat Northwestern...and are we noticing a trend? 2nd-best in CUSA versus 9th-best in the Big Ten. That leaves just one game for the little guy to hang its hat on so far, and that's Western Kentucky over an Illinois team playing without one of its team leaders. I suppose you could look at the lone BCS team to lose in the CBI or CIT (St. John's to Richmond) but this is an especially weak argument since other, better BCS teams (including Cincinnati from the Red Storm's own league, for example) refused bids to these tournaments. Oregon State is the only other such team in one of those tournaments. They beat Houston.
Now, I love the little guy and will be a staunch advocate for their inclusion in general. I get tired of them getting the shaft. But I still feel that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gets it right for the most part. This year their decision to invite mostly power-conference teams is looking better and better, aside from the one very glaring snub. I don't make this case lightly, because at one point I thought the Mountain West was the first non-power conference ever to have a solid agument over the best power league...but as things have worked their way out I see that I was wrong on that score.