Picks for NCAA tournament just might signal a major shift


As a basketball 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 tonight, the power will have either shifted more toward the mid-majors or, perhaps, even more toward the larger, power conferences.

The committee will have pondered many questions, among them:

Will the Atlantic Coast Conference be given only three bids for the second time in the past 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?

"If you win a conference with an 18-game schedule, that should stand out," said Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose Salukis won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title but lost to Creighton in the championship game of the conference tournament. "In a big conference, if someone loses on the road, no one says anything. But here [in the MVC], we're supposed to win all our road games."

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

Colorado beat four ranked Big 12 teams in Boulder this season 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 long shot because of its strength of schedule (132).

The Salukis know there is nothing left to do but wait for tonight's announcement.

"It's out of our hands," said forward Jermaine Dearman. "The only sure way to get in was to win this tournament, and we didn't do that."

About the only clear criterion in judging teams at the bottom of the invitation list is head-to-head competition, and the committee has little to work with in that regard.

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. That might help get the Hoosiers in, but will it knock the Wolfpack out?

N.C. State coach Herb Sendek, whose team seemed to have a good chance for inclusion until its recent home losses to Wake Forest and Maryland, said the ACC should hold some weight in the final outcome.

"Any time a team goes 8-8 or 9-7 in the ACC, it means something," Sendek said. "We play everyone twice, unlike a lot of other leagues."

Auburn coach Cliff Ellis shares the same opinion about his Tigers, who finished 8-8 in the SEC.

"Common sense says the committee should judge your team on your level playing field," Ellis said, in response to what ESPN.com called its Common Sense Index. "A level playing field is in the conference, and we finished as one of the top two teams in the SEC West."

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, just 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 and the lines of demarcation became a bit blurred.

Suddenly, focus shifted to the RPI, the power rating given to schools based on their record, the record of their opponents and the strength of their schedule. But an RPI is often skewed by the fact that mid-majors have weaker schedules because schools from major conferences don't want to play them.

"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."

In defense of some teams, the top of the league was too strong for the middle and the bottom. The Big 12 likely will get two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 among Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. The SEC probably will get a No. 1 in Kentucky and a No. 2 in Florida.

That also means teams such as Texas Tech - which upset Texas on Friday night to make the Big 12 tournament semifinals - has a better chance to make the NCAA tournament. The SEC bubble teams, in particular LSU and possibly Auburn, also were helped by Georgia's decision to not play in the postseason because of possible NCAA violations.

Where does this leave college basketball's middle class?

In cases such as the College of Charleston, a weak nonconference schedule likely will mean a trip to the National Invitation Tournament. For Gonzaga, its overall power rating should be enough for an NCAA berth.

Then there's Butler, which was snubbed last year but could get the ultimate makeup call today.

One thing players on all bubble teams share is a sense of uncertainty going into the nationally televised announcement.

"We kind of don't know our future right now," N.C. State's Marcus Melvin said Friday after the Wolfpack won its ACC tournament quarterfinal. "All we can do is go out and play hard, and when Sunday arrives, all we can do is sit in front of the television and watch."

Melvin doesn't know if he will be watching the continued rise of college basketball's middle class, or the return to power of its major conferences.

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