The optimist would say parity has struck college basketball this season. The pessimist would say it's more like mediocrity.
Whatever adjective you prefer, the 10-member committee that put together the seedings and brackets for the NCAA tournament had a lot of thinking to do before announcing the 65-team field Sunday night. In fact, committee chairman Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, believes the equality among so many teams could make for a very interesting tournament.
"The possibility is certainly there for a lot of upsets or exciting games," Slive said. "We obviously spent a lot of time on the first four lines. Then when we got down to sort of the middle, a lot of teams looked very, very much alike, which is what made seeding so difficult. It would not surprise me if the unexpected became the expected. That's how I sort of characterized the year and then [conference] tournament week. The unexpected every night became the expected. We might well see that same theme throughout the tournament."
However, the chances of a Cinderella team emerging from among the ranks of the mid-majors was lessened as just four schools from non-BCS conferences received at-large bids: Brigham Young, Butler, Dayton, and Xavier.
The committee took heat for omitting Creighton, Saint Mary's and San Diego State, which at No. 34, had the highest RPI among the team that were excluded from the field. Arizona got in despite a 19-13 record and 2-9 mark in true road games.
Slive has one suggestion for the mid-majors: Play a strong non-conference schedule.
"For those institutions that are in a configuration of schools that don't provide them with the kind of visibility that others do, if they step out in the early part of the year and do something notable then that is something that the committee can deal with," Slive said. "When the committee is analyzing teams, as you put teams in the field, you continue to analyze team against all teams in Division I and the teams you've already put in the field. This concept levels the playing field.
"Five years ago if you were talking to me about teams you call mid-majors, you would have put in Gonzaga, Dayton, Xavier, Butler. Somehow those teams found a way over the years to distinguish themselves from their neighborhood and have in effect showed the committee that they can play with the best 34 teams in the country. Those teams have made the tournament."
As the commissioner of the SEC, Slive had to recuse himself whenever any of his conference's schools came up in conversation among the committee. The committee showed the SEC no favors in a very down year as just three teams made the field. One was Mississippi State, the surprise winner of the conference tournament, and the others were LSU and Tennessee.
Slive plans to give the schools in his conference the same advice he would give the mid-majors.
"I think one of the keys is it's the whole body of work, all the games count," Slive said. "That starts in November. We might want to take a look at that."
One of the biggest concerns in setting up this year's tournament was cutting down on travel costs during hard economic times. However, there are still a number of schools being forced to travel long distances for the first two rounds, including Cornell and Florida State playing in Boise, Mississippi State playing in Portland, Utah playing in Miami and UCLA playing in Philadelphia.
Slive pointed out that two-thirds of the Division I programs are located east of the Mississippi River, which might cause the NCAA to rethink sites for the first and second rounds in future years.
"You're going to have a region in the West traditionally," Slive said. "If you have a region in the West and two-thirds of the teams in the East, you're going to have some travel. In the summer meeting of the committee, we'll look at the bracket, the principles and the economy. Every summer you've heard us use the word 'scrub' to describe seeding, meaning we scrub all of our principles and see if there is a better way of seeding. We will do that with sites and see, because of the deepening recession, if that should drive any changes. We'll take a good, hard look at that."
Dickie V, Baybee!
When you run into ESPN/ABC's Dick Vitale at a Rays-Pirates spring training baseball game in his hometown of Bradenton, Fla., you feel compelled to ask him about the NCAA tournament.
He likes all four No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four in Detroit: Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. He also picks the Tar Heels to win the national title.
"When it's all said and done, those are the best four teams in the country, so I've got to go with the chalk," Vitale said. "What a great Final Four it should be. Carolina has been my No. 1 team from the beginning of the season and even though they've slipped up a few times nothing has changed my mind. I just see Tyler Hansbrough going out in a blaze of glory and having a big tournament."
Vitale's two sleeper teams are West Virginia and UCLA.
"You can never overestimate the importance of a great coach in a one-and-done situation and that's why I really like West Virginia and UCLA," Vitale said. "Bobby Huggins is a great motivator at West Virginia and he is tough to beat in an emotional situation like the NCAA tournament. Ben Howland is a great tactician and that's why UCLA always has a chance to beat anybody they play."
Vitale feels Saint Mary's suffered the biggest snub of the teams that failed to get in the tournament, noting that four of the Gaels' six losses came when star guard Patty Mills was injured.
"I always pull for the little guys because it's the Davidsons and George Masons of the world that make the NCAA tournament the greatest sporting event in America," Vitale said. "I really think Saint Mary's, now that Patty Mills is healthy, is capable of upsetting just about any team in the field in a one-game situation. It would have been fun to see what they could have done against some of the big boys but we'll never know and that's a shame."
The Seminoles Dance
Florida State's 11-year NCAA tournament drought ended when it received an at-large bid after losing to Duke in the championship game of the ACC tournament on Sunday. The Seminoles are seeded fifth in the East Regional and will play Wisconsin in the first round on Friday in Boise.
Florida State's players and coaches gathered at a sports bar in downtown Atlanta a few hours after the loss to Duke to watch the pairings announced on television. When Florida State's name appeared on the big board, it caused senior guard Toney Douglas to have an emotional moment.
"I shed a tear or two," Douglas told the Orlando Sentinel. "I ain't going to lie. I didn't want anybody to see me but I did. It was special moment, man. It was the moment of my life, basketball-wise."
Leonard Hamilton took over as Florida State's coach prior to 2002-03 after the Seminoles had suffered through four straight losing seasons. The Seminoles won 20, 22 and 19 games the past three seasons but had to settle for the NIT each year before breaking through with the NCAA bid this time.
Florida State's last trip to the NCAA ended with a second-round loss to Valparaiso in overtime after the Seminoles beat Texas Christian in the first round.
Virginia's Dave Leitao became the first postseason coaching casualty among the BCS conferences as he resigned under pressure Monday with four years left on his contract. The move is expected to cost the university more than $2 million.
Leitao was 63-60 in his four years with the Cavaliers and had one NCAA tournament appearance. Virginia was 10-18 this season for its lowest win total in almost 40 years.
Not surprisingly, the leading candidate for the job is expected to be Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant, who seems to be mentioned for every opening in the country, including Alabama and Georgia. There is also some talk Virginia might try to lure Oklahoma's Jeff Capel, who was the coach at VCU before Grant.
The good news for Virginia is that standout freshman forward Sylven Landesberg told reporters that he plans to stay at the school despite the coaching change.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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