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NCAA Teams Jockey For Spot

THE WASHINGTON POST

This is the time of year when college basketball teams from Los Angeles to Louisiana, from Charleston, S.C., to New Rochelle, N.Y., start dancing to the tune of a little ditty called the nitty gritty.

As practiced by the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee, the nitty gritty involves 17 notes--the criteria used to compare teams that are bidding for the 34 at-large spots in the 64-team field. Now, with conference tournaments on the horizon, coaches and players across the country are wondering if the selection committee will like the way their teams move to the beat.

“Honestly, I’m very much aware of it,” said College of Charleston Coach John Kresse. “I find myself looking for top 25 teams getting upset or other teams in situations like ours having miscues.”

The Cougars’ situation is this: They are 23-2, ranked 25th with the nation’s longest active winning streak (17 games) and they will get one of the NCAA tournament’s 30 automatic bids if they win the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament. They will be the top seed in that event, as they are 14-0 in TAAC play and the next-best team is 10-4. But if they don’t win the championship, they will be compared to every other team that hasn’t won its conference title.

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Last season, they could not participate in the TAAC tournament because they had not been in Division I long enough to be eligible for an automatic NCAA tournament bid. And despite a 23-4 record, they did not receive an at-large spot.

This season, Pacific is in a situation similar to Charleston’s. The Tigers (18-3, 9-3) lead the Big West Conference Pacific Division, but have lost their past two games--to UC Santa Barbara (10-12) and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo (12-13).

Without a conference tournament title, they will have to worry about how they stack up with teams such as Virginia, which has played a difficult schedule but is 15-10 (5-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) with games remaining against North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Maryland.

“There are a lot of good teams,” said Craig Thompson, the Sun Belt Conference commissioner and a member of the NCAA selection committee. “I also think that this year as opposed to other years, there will be more teams getting in with a fewer number of wins, a result of the parity that’s out there.”

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That could be good news for teams such as Rhode Island (15-8, 9-4 Atlantic 10), which scored a key victory Sunday over Temple (14-8, 7-5) and finishes the regular season against teams lower in the standings. Marquette is 14-7 (5-4 in Conference USA), but could improve its profile in upcoming games against Alabama-Birmingham, Louisville and Cincinnati. Arkansas (14-8) meets No. 12 South Carolina on Tuesday.

Still, seemingly deserving teams are omitted every season. Last season Minnesota was left out even though it was was 19-13, and had won seven of its last nine games, rallying from a 3-6 start in the Big Ten.

The Golden Gophers seemed to have met much of the nitty gritty’s criteria, which includes a team’s record in its last 10 games, conference record and overall Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a formula used to rank teams across the nation.

This season, Minnesota has eliminated any confusion with its 22-2 record. But what of Big Ten rival Iowa (16-8, 7-5), which still must face Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue? Or Purdue, which is 8-5 in Big Ten play but 13-10 overall with a remaining schedule that includes Indiana, Michigan and Illinois?

Everyone acknowledges the difficulty the selection committee has in selecting the at-large teams, having to take into account factors such as upset losses in conference tournaments, which sometimes results in two bids going to a conference that otherwise receive one. Last season, for example, Portland was 7-7 in West Coast Conference regular season play but won its tournament title. That meant a precious NCAA at-large bid went to Santa Clara, which beat Maryland in the first round.

Charleston’s Kresse hopes his team’s upgraded schedule and victories over Stanford, Arizona State and Drexel, an NCAA tournament team last year, will help his team’s case.

“When we got in three years ago we beat Alabama, Penn State and UNC-Charlotte,” Kresse said. “You definitely need to take some higher-caliber teams to put yourself in position for an NCAA at-large bid.”


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