Out of the Picture / There are 65 teams vying for the national championship, but lack of a local school makes it an especially puzzling tournament

Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, the NCAA tournament is a lot like the NFL for Los Angeles.

There are plenty of teams to cheer for -- but none of them belong to us.

There was no local drama when the field of 65 was announced Sunday, with Kentucky, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma designated as the No. 1-seeded teams favored to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.

No need for UCLA's Bruins to gather at the Morgan Center to watch the pairings announcement -- only Steve Lavin's firing awaits.

No sudden run on Anteater paraphernalia at UC Irvine.

And no fresh surge of interest in USC, the last of nine area teams to see its final smidgen of hope disappear Saturday with a loss to Oregon in the title game of the Pacific 10 tournament.

What had been likely for months is now official: The L.A. area is without an NCAA team for the first time since 1984.

If you want a home team, you'll have to look south to the University of San Diego Toreros, who will play Stanford in the first round Thursday in Spokane, Wash.

"That's been pointed out to me, that we're the one team from Southern California going to the tournament. That's a daunting responsibility," said San Diego Coach Brad Holland, who played at UCLA. "It all started for us back when we beat UCLA at UCLA. That's when I thought we might have a pretty good club here."

The usual controversies accompanied the announcement of the bracket -- the who's ins and who's outs.

But the most contentious issue is that the two runaway favorites for the national title -- Kentucky and Arizona -- would meet not in the NCAA championship game but in a semifinal if they make it to the Final Four on April 5-7.

Arizona (25-3) was seeded No. 1 in the West as expected, despite its upset loss to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament.

But Kentucky (29-3) was seeded No. 1 in the Midwest instead of the South as expected. (The West and Midwest winners meet in one semifinal, and the South and East winners in the other.)

Jim Livengood, chairman of the 10-member NCAA selection committee -- and the athletic director at Arizona -- said the reasoning was that by playing in the Midwest, Kentucky would play its regional games in Minneapolis, which is closer to Kentucky than San Antonio, site of the South regional.

Minneapolis is approximately 847 miles from Lexington.

San Antonio is approximately 1,150.

And as anyone who has ever watched a Kentucky NCAA tournament game knows, Ashley Judd isn't the only fan who would follow the Wildcats to Walla Walla, Wash. -- that's 2,263 miles -- if that's what it took.

As for Arizona and any favoritism issue, let it be noted that Livengood was required to leave the room when Arizona was discussed, and that Lute Olson's team ended up in a bracket that includes Kansas, Duke and Illinois.

"In the West, we've got some very heavy hitters," said Olson, whose team opens against Vermont on Thursday in Salt Lake City and would face Cincinnati or Gonzaga in the second round . "No one did us any favors. No one can say that Livengood gave us any breaks."

The selection committee also was pressed to defend its choice to make Texas (22-6) a No. 1 instead of Kansas (25-7).

The Big 12 was given two No. 1s, with the other going to tournament champion Oklahoma, which finished 24-6.

Texas won neither the tournament nor the regular-season title, which went to Kansas.

Livengood's response: Texas beat Kansas.

Wrong. Kansas won the only meeting, 90-87.

"I'm sorry, I'm thinking of Oklahoma," Livengood said, scrambling. "The hard thing is trying to fit five teams into four spots."

The actual reasoning might be found in the unbalanced schedule in the Big 12, which meant Texas played a tougher schedule than Kansas.

But on to the real emotional issues, which teams play on and which teams go home.

Among those left out: Bob Knight's Texas Tech team and North Carolina, both longshots after posting losing conference records then pulling big upsets in conference tournaments. (Texas Tech beat Texas, and North Carolina beat Maryland.)

Few would contend those teams were deserving.

Also passed over: Nevada Las Vegas, which with a Ratings Percentage Index of 40 was the highest-rated team not to make the field. The Rebels (21-10) blew a lead against Colorado State to lose the Mountain West title game Saturday.

The Big East took some lumps too, with Seton Hall (17-11, No. 41 RPI) and Boston College (18-11, No. 49) both left out. Seton Hall had the strongest case, with victories over Pittsburgh and Notre Dame late in the season.

Those spots might have been the ones claimed by Auburn and Alabama of the Southeastern Conference, rated the nation's toughest.

Both had RPIs in the 30s, but Alabama (17-11) was on the bubble despite being No. 1 in the Associated Press poll in December.

After an early victory over Oklahoma, the Crimson Tide was only 7-9 in the SEC and lost eight of its final 11, including an SEC tournament game to Vanderbilt. But Alabama apparently was saved by its nonconference schedule, rated third behind Arizona and Louisville.

Auburn (21-11) made it over Tennessee, which had an RPI of 60 and a nonconference strength of schedule rating of 120.

What's more, Auburn and Tennessee met in the SEC tournament, and Auburn won the game -- and an NCAA bid in the process, Livengood implied.

If there were themes to the selections, they were these: The mid-majors were taken care of, and the RPI buzzword is giving way to SOS (strength of schedule).

Livengood mentioned strength of schedule repeatedly, but not once did he mention the controversial RPI, though the committee still leaned on the statistic in its deliberations.

As for the mid-majors, this year there was no gnashing of teeth.

Not a single deserving mid-major was left out.

In addition to Gonzaga (23-8, No. 43 RPI), bolstered by an ambitious schedule even though it had losses to low-rated Loyola Marymount and Portland, Southern Illinois (24-6, No. 34 RPI) and Butler (25-5, No. 35) all made the field. (All three lost in conference tournament finals.)

At Butler, there was jubilation -- and great relief.

After being snubbed despite a 25-5 record that included a victory over Indiana last season, the Bulldogs made it with a 25-5 record this season.

Senior Joel Cornette, who had tearily worried Butler might be left out again, finally could celebrate.

Someone asked Livengood if the committee had simply made up for a past mistake.

"There might be makeup calls in sport and other things," Livengood said. "One of the committee's guiding principles is we start new every year. There's no such thing with the committee as a makeup call."

There's no such thing as going back, either.

Although Georgia players have a court hearing today in their quest to lift the university's postseason ban, it is too late. The committee made no contingency plans that would allow Georgia, once a lock for an at-large bid, to make the field.

That means Butler, apparently one of the final at-large teams to make the field, is in.

All that remains before the real action begins Thursday is for Texas Southern and North Carolina Asheville -- at 14-16 the 17th team in history to make the field with a losing record -- to determine which of them will earn a spot in the main draw of 64.

The winner of their play-in game Tuesday at Dayton, Ohio, will play No. 1-seeded Texas in the South regional Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

The loser will be the first of 64 teams to go home without the trophy, leaving one to be champion.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

High and Outside

The following are the teams with the highest rating percentage index (RPI) not to make the NCAA tournament:

*--* No Team W-L 40 UNLV 21-10 42 Seton Hall 17-12 48 Texas Tech 18-12 49 Boston College 18-11 52 North Carolina 17-15 54 Ohio State 17-14 56 Providence 16-13 57 Saint Louis 16-13 60 Tennessee 17-11 62 DePaul 16-12

*--*

*--* Low Ball The following are the teams with the lowest RPI to make the NCAA tournament: No Team W-L 217 Texas Southern 18-12 186 UNC Asheville 14-16 178 South Carolina St 20-10 160 IUPUI 20-13 144 Vermont 21-11 125 East Tenn. St 20-10 103 Wagner 21-10 91 Sam Houston St 23-6 82 San Diego 18-11 79 Utah St 24-8

*--*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°