But those who believed griping would diminish by adding three teams to the tournament this season were proved wrong Sunday, when the exclusion of teams such as Virginia Tech and Colorado, two teams with signature victories on their resumes, prompted quick and pointed pushback from analysts and casual fans alike.
“It's official!” ESPN's Jay Williams wrote on Twitter. “My 6-year-old niece knows more about college basketball than the NCAA tournament selection committee. Atrocious.”
Alabama-Birmingham, which won the Conference USA regular season title, and Virginia Commonwealth, the third team selected from the Colonial Athletic Association, were, in the eyes of some, controversial at-large picks. The committee aims to select the best 37 at-large teams to join 31 automatic qualifiers.
“Everyone talks about the ‘eye test.’ The committee clearly used the ‘closed eye test,’ ” ESPN's Jay Bilas tweeted. “UAB and VCU? Tough to justify that.”
Bilas later added that there are “no excuses” for those decisions, tweeting that the Big East officiating crew that came under fire for controversial calls and a premature exit during the St. John’s-Rutgers Big East tournament game “made better calls.”
Dave Telep, a nationally respected ESPN recruiting analyst, tweeted that “after watching this clown show collection of ADs pick a tourney, I can't wait to see who gets head [coaching] jobs this spring.”
Gene Smith, the chairman of the NCAA selection committee, appeared ill-prepared for some questions during a lengthy teleconference with reporters. When asked if North Carolina was the “eighth team on the S-curve,” which basically is the ranking of all teams 1 through 68 in order of strength, he said: “I have no clue. ‘The eighth team on the S-curve.’ As you well know, we don't seed that way.”
The S-curve has traditionally been used to help the committee balance regionals. For example, the fourth-ranked team on the S-curve is often a No. 1 seed in the same region as the fifth-ranked team, which receives a No. 2 seed.
Smith said the committee made decisions as late as Sunday for seeding as well as the selection of teams based on outcomes of games that day. But when asked which team was the last to receive an at-large berth, Smith said: “I can't even remember. I can’t remember. I don't know. I actually can't remember. All teams in the ‘First Four’, whoever they are.”
The ‘First Four’ is the NCAA's name for the four play-in games that will be played in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday and Wednesday. UAB will play Clemson in one game; Southern California will play VCU in the other.
Later in the teleconference, Smith said 'we really don't reveal' which team earned the last at'large berth.
Colorado was an attractive potential tournament team because it had six wins against top 50 (four against top 25) teams in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of a team's strength that the committee uses to help determines seeds and berths. The Buffaloes (20-13) had beaten Texas once and Kansas State three times. However, their credentials were weakened by a nonconference schedule that ranked 325th in strength and by a 12-13 record against top 200 teams.
“Colorado was really close,” Smith said.
Virginia Tech (21-11) had earned an attention-grabbing victory against Duke on Feb. 26, only to close the regular season with two deflating losses to so-called bubble teams Clemson and Boston College. The Hokies earned another victory over a tournament team, Florida State, in the ACC tournament (52-51) before losing to Duke in Saturday's semifinals.
“When we stacked Virginia Tech's resume up against all the other teams,” Smith said, “we just didn’t feel like they were a team that should be in the at-large field.”
VCU (23-11) possessed a resume bolstered by three top 50 victories away from home: a road win at Old Dominion and neutral court victories against George Mason and UCLA.
“They are a team a lot of people don't want to play,” Smith said.
UAB (22-8) had beaten just one top 50 team (VCU), but its regular season conference title carried weight for some selection committee members, Smith said. In general, he said performance in a conference tournament only adds to a team's overall body of work and that the regular season performance is the “gauntlet.”
USC (19-14) was another questionable selection. The Trojans offset three damaging losses with quality wins over Texas, Arizona, Washington and Tennessee.
On another note, Smith said spacing out the 11 Big East teams was a challenge. The committee has relaxed the bracketing rule that prohibited teams from the same conference from playing before the Elite Eight. Third-seeded Syracuse and 11th-seeded Marquette could potentially meet in the second round.
Smith said Richmond did not have to beat Dayton on Sunday to win the Atlantic 10's automatic berth to gain entry into the tournament. The Spiders received a No. 12 seed after beating Dayton.
The East Region is particularly strong, with blue-bloods Ohio State, second-seeded North Carolina, third-seeded Syracuse and fourth-seeded Kentucky all with the potential to play in a Round of 16 regional in Newark.
“The East is very strong, so are the others,” Smith. “They just might not have the brand names that the East has.'