Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Doug Elgin was sitting in his office in St. Louis last week, looking at a framed photograph on the wall. It was the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's sports section from March 8, 1999, the day after his lightly regarded conference put as many teams in the NCAA tournament as the ACC, considered for a long time to be college basketball's best league.
"It was a tremendous aberration, obviously, when you see that," Elgin said. "You'll probably never see it in my lifetime again, but if it's going to happen, this is the year something like that could happen."
_____RPI for Dummies_____
The Ratings Percentage Index is a measurement of a team's strength that the selection committee uses each March to help determine NCAA tournament seeds and berths. This season, however, it's foolish to compare the RPI to previous years because the Division I Men's Basketball Committee earlier this season revised the formula used in the RPI.
More weight is now given to playing and winning on the road. The new formula weighs road victories more heavily (1.4) than home victories (.6) and home losses more heavily (1.4) than road losses (.6). Games played on a neutral court are valued at 1.0. Previously, all games were weighed equally. The components of the RPI remain 25 percent winning percentage, 50 percent opponents' winning percentage and 25 percent opponents' opponents' winning percentage.
The effect of the revised RPI has been significant. More schools from outside the top power conferences are ranked in the RPI's top 50 than anytime in recent memory. No team with an RPI better than 33 has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament. But one thing to watch for on Selection Sunday will be whether the committee rewards mid-major programs based on an RPI determined by the adjusted formula. As Maryland Coach Gary Williams said, "No one knows how much the RPI is going to figure in."
-- Eric Prisbell
____ NCAA Hoops Forecast ____
Note: This is an unscientific survey of washingtonpost.com readers.
While it is unlikely the Missouri Valley Conference will have as many teams in next month's NCAA tournament as the ACC, teams from smaller conferences across the country are expected to assume coveted spots in the tournament's bracket like never before. Schools such as Saint Mary's (Calif.) College, Boston University, Holy Cross, Old Dominion and Wichita State, which have often been relegated to the second-tier National Invitation Tournament, could be taking at-large bids from traditional power conference teams.
"There are a lot of teams that normally wouldn't be in the at-large hunt that are going to be strongly considered this year because of the records they're bringing and the RPI rankings they're bringing," Elgin said, referring to the Ratings Percentage Index, which the NCAA selection committee uses to help determine at-large bids and seeds for the tournament.
Another reason teams from smaller conferences could gain more at-large bids is that many schools from the bigger conferences are struggling. If the tournament field was announced today -- the 65-team field will be released March 13 -- perhaps only three teams from the Big Ten, Pacific-10 and Southeastern conferences, respectively, would be invited. The Atlantic 10 Conference, which placed four teams in the tournament last season, might only get one school in this year.
"I was doing a bracket this morning and I hate just about every team from the eighth seed on down," said college basketball analyst Jerry Palm, who projects the NCAA tournament bracket and RPI rankings on his Web site, CollegeRPI.com. "The fact that we're sitting here talking about Memphis and Virginia Tech getting in this late in the season tells you that some mediocre teams are going to get in."
More than half of the NCAA tournament field -- 34 spots -- comprises teams that receive at-large bids. The 10-person selection committee decides which teams receive those at-large bids based on overall record, schedule strength, conference record and RPI rankings -- a computer formula that is designed to measure a team's overall strength. Teams also can earn one of 31 automatic bids by winning their conference tournaments or regular season titles.
In the past, the at-large bids mostly have been reserved for teams from the sport's seven biggest conferences: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Pacific-10 and SEC. Since 1996, when the Great Midwest and Metro conferences merged to form Conference USA, teams from the sport's other leagues, often referred to as "mid-majors," have received 60 of 306, or less than 20 percent, of the available at-large bids.
"What they've told the teams from the non-major conferences is that if you don't win your conference tournament, you're not getting a bid," Palm said.
The 1998 and 1999 NCAA tournaments were the best showings for teams from mid-major conferences. In 1998, 10 teams that played outside the sport's power leagues received at-large bids, and five won at least one game in the single-elimination tournament. In 1999, five of the seven mid-major teams that received at-large bids won games and they had a combined record of 9-7. Last year, seven mid-major programs received at-large bids. Of those, only Saint Joseph's of the Atlantic 10, which finished the regular season undefeated and was a No. 1 seed, won a game in the tournament. The Hawks won three games before losing to No. 2 seed Oklahoma State, 64-62, in the regional finals.
Since 1996, the mid-major teams that received at-large bids have a 47-60 record in the tournament, winning about 44 percent of their games, with most of them coming against higher-seeded opponents. Those upsets have been some of the tournament's most exciting moments. In 1999, No. 12 seed Southwest Missouri State upset No. 5 seed Wisconsin and No. 4 seed Tennessee. In 2002, No. 11 seed Southern Illinois beat No. 6 seed Texas Tech and No. 3 seed Georgia. In 2003, No. 12 seed Butler stunned No. 5 seed Mississippi State.
"If you take away the brand identification on the jerseys and just put the players out there, the teams are a lot closer than people realize," Elgin said. "There are good players and coaches all over the country. Being a mid-major has nothing to do with talent. It's about how much television exposure you get."
For coaches such as Vermont's Tom Brennan, the next three weeks will be filled with anxiety. His Catamounts are 20-5 and 15-1 in the America East Conference, and their RPI ranking of No. 14 would seem to make them a likely candidate to receive an at-large bid, even if they're upset during their conference tournament. But after losing to Boston University and Nevada during the past two weeks, Brennan said he is taking nothing for granted.
"I don't think there's any margin for error for a program like Vermont," said Brennan, who will retire after this season. "We're 14th in the RPI, but I'll believe it when I see it. I think the system was built for the big guys by the big guys. If you're seventh in the Big 12 or seventh in the SEC, you might as well be first because you're getting in. I don't have any faith in the system if we stub our toes."
Old Dominion was nearly perfect during January and much of February, winning 13 of 14 games. But then the Monarchs lost at George Mason, 74-58, last Wednesday. Palm said that loss could have be enough to knock them out of contention for an at-large bid, if they do not win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Richmond next month. Old Dominion already has won 23 games against Division I opponents this season.
"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what we can't do," Monarchs Coach Blaine Taylor said.
Brennan said he will do enough worrying for all the mid-major coaches around the country during the next three weeks.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Brennan said. "This is the last year for me and we've had a wonderful season. But I've been around it too long. I hope it doesn't become an issue for us."