Was that a major sea change college basketball witnessed last night, or an aberration?
Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis are the top-seeded favorites to get to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Three weeks from tonight, the NCAA will crown a champion there, but the next three days will focus more on the second-guessing over at-large selections and seeds that went against the norm.
For several years, the NCAA men's basketball committee has been telling coaches that it would reward ambitious nonconference schedules. Teams from second-tier conferences responded and got their due last night, when the NCAA spurned the usual suspects, middle of the road teams from the most powerful conferences.
"If there's a message," said Craig Littlepage, chairman of the NCAA committee, "the larger schools, the larger conferences, really do have a choice in who they play in nonconference. We'd like to see rigor in the nonconference schedule."
Littlepage, the athletic director at the University of Virginia, used the word "diverse" to describe a field that, just in the Washington Regional that will climax at the MCI Center, has George Mason seeded No. 11, Utah State No. 12 and Air Force No. 13, all as at-large selections.
Did any bubblehead predict that all three would make the field?
The politicking between major conferences that have dominated the tournament and mid-majors clamoring for more representation made for interesting theater on CBS, where Billy Packer appeared apoplectic over a field that includes as many teams from the Missouri Valley Conference as it does the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Even the MVC wanted more, as Missouri State and Creighton had two of three highest RPIs (Rating Percentage Index) among teams that were left out.
Beating Georgia Tech and Miami in ACC play wasn't good enough for Florida State, which didn't have a significant nonconference win, but that put Air Force over the hump.
An apparent afterthought in bubble talk, the Falcons didn't win the Mountain West regular-season title, nor a game in the conference tournament, but they still got a bid, thanks to wins over the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes.
In the case of Air Force, the NCAA ignored objective data like the RPI in favor of a subjective judgment.
"What is a tough team to beat?" Littlepage said, an apparent reference to Air [Please see NCAA, 2E] Force's Princeton-style offense. "Who is a team someone might not want to play?"
Littlepage appeared to flip-flop on an issue that affected Florida State. A month after saying that an officiating controversy that may have factored into the Seminoles' loss at Duke would be weighed, last night he said it had not been taken into consideration. A home win over the Blue Devils wasn't enough for the Seminoles.
Air Force and Bradley were the last two at-large selections. Either the pickings were very slim, or the committee finally got it right and acknowledged that the last at-large teams don't deserve a higher seed than champions from mid-major conferences.
Last year, only one at-large team was seeded as low as 12th. This year, the 13th line includes Air Force and Bradley, which rounds out the MVC's record-setting representation. Utah State, second fiddle to Nevada in the Western Athletic Conference, is a 12th seed, along with Texas A&M.; George Mason, the first at-large selection from the Colonial Athletic Association in 20 years, is an 11.
The Big East got a record eight bids. It thought Cincinnati was worthy of a ninth, but the Bearcats' 6-10 record since early January kept them out. Struggles down the stretch similarly doomed Michigan.
Littlepage's committee showed respect for Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, which got a ninth seed, and the Southeastern Conference, which has six teams in the tournament, none seeded lower than 10th. Tennessee is not playing like a No. 2 seed. Against Bucknell, Arkansas will have something of a home-court advantage in Dallas. No team in the field accomplished less off its home court than Alabama.
There were gripes beyond the teams that were excluded. George Washington is the only two-loss team in the nation, but it got an eighth seed and a first-round game against UNC-Wilmington, in Greensboro, no less. Pops Mensah-Bonsu's knee injury was a factor.
While a less challenging conference schedule didn't hurt Memphis, it meant a No. 3 seed for Gonzaga. After losing to Duke in the ACC final, Boston College has to head to the altitude of Salt Lake City Thursday. If form holds, it will play a tough Nevada team there in the second round.
The second round holds the prospect of other intriguing matchups, like Connecticut-Kentucky in Philadelphia; Iowa-West Virginia in Auburn Hills; North Carolina-Michigan State in Dayton; and Memphis-Arkansas in Dallas.
For the second straight year, one conference has two of the four No. 1 seeds. Last year, it was Duke and North Carolina out of the ACC. This time it's Connecticut and Villanova. The Big East has no teams on the next three lines, but it does have a pair of No. 5s in Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
The National Player of the Year debate has centered on Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, but neither is playing as well as Gerry McNamara, the Syracuse guard whose run through the Big East tournament was more inspiring than the NCAA title he won with Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
Duke is a No. 1 seed for the third straight year, the seventh in nine, and for a record-tying 10th time overall.
If all four No. 1 seeds advance to the Final Four for the first time, the NCAA semifinals would include regular-season rematches. Duke barely held off Memphis in November, while the home team ruled in a pair of UConn-Villanova games.