Certainly, capable teams may miss the cut. But the selection committee, which picks the best 37 at-large teams (31 slots are automatically taken by conference champions), is in the business of assessing past performance, not projecting future results. Remember, two teams from the lightly regarded Colonial Athletic Association — George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 — barely made the tournament yet reached the Final Four.
The teams contending for the final at-large slots usually have some big flaws. There are those that played few tough opponents all season (and beat even fewer), those that essentially played a preseason exhibition schedule and those that want to hang their hat on one marquee victory. In the end, the committee has to hold its nose and choose.
2. There’s always a Cinderella.
This will again be the most misused moniker of the tournament. A true Cinderella team is an off-the-radar, double-digit seed that triumphs over a heavyweight in an outcome that forever baffles fans.
It’s cherub-faced Bryce Drew of Valparaiso making a buzzer-beating, 23-foot three-pointer to sink fourth-seeded Mississippi in 1998. It’s Princeton’s Steve Goodrich finding Gabe Lewullis for a backdoor layup to topple defending national champion UCLA in 1996. And it’s George Mason slaying the nation’s most talented team, Connecticut, in a 2006 regional final as the GMU band played “Livin’ on a Prayer,” an apt soundtrack.
But other underdogs hailed as Cinderellas did not really need help from a fairy godmother: Sinewy Stephen Curry, one of the nation’s best scorers, ran figure eights around defenders and swished long jumpers while carrying 10th-seeded Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008. Butler came within a half-court shot of the national title in 2010 with a future NBA lottery draft pick, Gordon Hayward. VCU pummeled four power-conference teams on its way to last season’s Final Four.
And whatever you do, never call Gonzaga, one of the nation’s most successful programs since 1999, a Cinderella. They’ve long ago shattered that glass slipper.
3. The most powerful conferences get more slots than they deserve.
Consider this: The Big Ten is widely regarded as the nation’s strongest conference this season, but it isn’t expected to be the league that earns the most berths. And none of its teams may earn a No. 1 seed. Why?
The selection committee never sets out to take a certain number of schools from specific conferences, and it doesn’t look at conference rankings while examining teams. Impressing the panel’s 10members boils down to: Who’d you play? Where’d you play? How’d you do?
“We don’t use the term ‘mid-major’ or ‘power conference’ in the room,” committee Chairman Jeff Hathaway said. “We compare all the teams irregardless of what conference they come from.”