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Choices Far From Clear-Cut

Conference Tourneys Will Have Big Say in NCAAs

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page D01

When the NCAA tournament field is unveiled Sunday, one conference could receive a record eight bids while the nation's best conference could receive as few as four. A school that ranks in the top 25 of the computer rankings could be given a seed as low as 12. And four No. 1 seeds will be awarded, though five teams thought to be in contention for them lost this past weekend.

This college basketball season has been anything but ordinary, and as the major conference tournaments begin this week, NCAA tournament positioning is as fluid as it has been in years.

Virginia Tech's chances of making it to the NCAA tournament are far from a gimme at this point. (AP)

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This week's conference tournaments figure to play an even larger role than usual in answering three primary questions: Who deserves berths? Who deserves top seeds? And which schools even belong in the NCAA tournament conversation?

There is little consensus and rampant speculation. As Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said, "Every school that thinks it can be considered can spin it that way."

Some conference tournaments will have significant meaning. Results of the ACC tournament, which begins Thursday at MCI Center, will determine if the conference gets two top seeds and anywhere from four to seven schools in the NCAA field. The Big East could receive eight.

Some conference tournaments will have very little meaning. Results of the Pacific-10 tournament shouldn't change the fact that the league likely will earn four invitations to the NCAAs, with the league's top two schools, Arizona and Washington, earning No. 2 or No. 3 seeds.

And some conference tournaments will mean everything, but no one knows which ones. It could be the Western Athletic or the Mountain West conferences. Teams on the brink of NCAA consideration will be rooting hard for favorites of those leagues, Nevada and Utah, to win their respective tournaments. Why? Should either lose, it will earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament anyway based on the strength of its regular season, and another school that otherwise might have been left out would grab the automatic berth.

It's more difficult than in recent years to pinpoint which teams need to do what in the conference tournaments because of the mystery surrounding this year' s Ratings Percentage Index, a measurement of a team's strength considered by the selection committee.

The RPI formula was changed this year to better reward schools for winning road games. It has skewed the rankings considerably, helping mid-major programs the most. Bob Bowlsby, the NCAA's selection committee chairman, said the RPI is not a precise measurement tool but rather a "blunt object" used in combination with other criteria. But, when asked if the RPI will be used as it always has been, Bowlsby said, "Yes."

How will that affect Vermont? The Catamounts have an RPI of 23, one spot ahead of Syracuse. But one mock bracket has Vermont with a No. 12 seed and the Orange with a No. 6 seed.

How will it affect Virginia Tech? The Hokies are 8-8 in the ACC, regarded as the nation's toughest league. Since 1992, only three teams that finished 8-8 in the ACC did not make the NCAA tournament. But Tech's RPI is 120. No team with an RPI worse than 74 -- New Mexico in 1999 -- has ever earned an at-large bid.

Both Jerry Palm of www.collegerpi.com and ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi, the nation's two most respected bracket analysts, predicted yesterday that Tech would be left out of the tournament. In fact, Palm has dismissed Tech since the middle of the season, when he said the Hokies don't even belong in the NCAA tournament discussion unless they win nine or 10 league games.

On the other hand, Palm and Lunardi predicted that Maryland and North Carolina State will make the tournament. It didn't matter that the Terrapins lost their final three games of the regular season, including Saturday's 86-76 loss in Blacksburg, Va., or that Virginia Tech finished one game better than N.C. State and Maryland in the conference standings.

Tech and Maryland need to win games in the ACC tournament, although just how many remains debatable.

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