Mid-Majors Seek a Larger Share

Baltimore Sun

As a coach at East Tennessee State, and later as coach and athletic director at North Carolina State, Les Robinson had certain notions about how the NCAA tournament selection committee operated.

"I had this vision that they sat behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms and said, 'We've got to get the big names in there,' " Robinson, now athletic director at The Citadel, recalled recently.

"I believed that [major] conferences got X number [of bids]. I just believed they'd say, 'The ACC is short one.' I believed that. I also believed that there were matchups set up."

Five years on the committee have changed Robinson's perceptions. The reality is this: The job of the members of the committee has become increasingly difficult with the rise of college basketball's middle class.

When the selection process is finished today and the 65 teams for this year's tournament are announced, the power will have either shifted more toward the mid-majors or, perhaps, even more toward the larger, power conferences.

Some questions to ponder:

* Will the Atlantic Coast Conference be given only three bids for the second time in the last three years, or will the strength of those three teams -- Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke -- pull North Carolina State along for the ride?

* Will larger conferences such as the Big 12 and Southeastern get at least six bids each -- or more -- even if the last two invited teams don't seem as deserving as in the past?

* Will the recent NCAA tournament performances of schools such as Kent State, which reached the Elite Eight last season, and Gonzaga make it easier for second- or even third-place teams from mid-major conferences to get in?

Several teams from the power conferences find themselves on the bubble, in part because of poor road records.

Colorado beat four ranked Big 12 teams in Boulder, but won only one league game on the road (at Baylor). The Buffaloes have a Rating Percentage Index of 42 with a strength of schedule ranked 48th. Southern Illinois, which reached the Sweet 16 last season after being an automatic qualifier, is 37th in the RPI but is a longshot because of its strength of schedule (132).

About the only clear criterion in judging teams at the bottom of the invitation list is head-to-head competition.

Gonzaga, which made the committee's job harder by losing to San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament final, beat North Carolina State on a neutral court and lost at home to Indiana.

Teams from the two-division power conferences hold a distinct advantage over one-division leagues. While N.C. State had to meet Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland twice, Auburn played the two best teams in the SEC, Florida and Kentucky, only once (and lost both games).

It used to be that teams with 20 wins automatically made the NCAA tournament. Then it became necessary to have at least a .500 record in the conference. But as the field expanded, the criteria shifted. Suddenly, what mattered was the RPI, the power rating given to schools based on their record, the record of their opponents and the strength of their schedule.

"What's the definition of a good year?" Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said recently, before the Bulldogs were beaten in their tournament final. "To me, it's a league championship or whether you've competed for a league championship.

"Did this team feel it was successful in accomplishing its goals? Did they win on the road and have they been in every game? Did they get blown out by anybody? The numbers are just a part of it."

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