By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
In college basketball circles, it's the ultimate backhanded compliment: "A nice one-bid league." Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager has heard variations on that theme over the past 19 seasons, each of which has ended with just one CAA team in the NCAA tournament.
Thirty-one conferences receive an automatic bid to the tournament, and success in that springtime extravaganza naturally burnishes a league's image. But simply placing multiple teams in the tournament can deliver national credibility, increased local interest and a seven-figure payout for lesser-known conferences such as the CAA, and that goal is accomplished as much during November and December as it is in March.
The quest, Yeager said, is discussed every day at the league's Richmond offices. This fall, the league hired former Atlantic 10 commissioner Ron Bertovich as its first deputy commissioner for basketball; Bertovich said the elusive second bid was mentioned in "probably the first sentence" during early conversations about that job.
"Whether people like it or not, the measure of strength in the public eye is how many teams do you send to the NCAA tournament," Yeager said. "Our mind-set all the time is we've got to think of ways to get two teams in. That's where the whole focus is; that's the number one goal."
A quick start during this year's nonconference schedule had both coaches and administrators murmuring that things could be changing. CAA teams have beaten schools from the Southeastern Conference, Big East and Big Ten. As recently as last week the CAA was ranked in the top 10 of the somewhat esoteric Ratings Percentage Index, a figure that has no real significance but is nevertheless a source of pride among league officials. Six CAA teams were in the RPI's top 100 entering last weekend, and the RPI actually does matter for individual teams. Yeager said last week that this had clearly been the CAA's strongest start during the 19-year dry spell, and several coaches agreed.
"This is the best the league's ever been," Drexel's Bruiser Flint said. "If we're gonna break out, this is the year."
Those who study the tournament and the numbers, however, are less enthusiastic, and a string of bad losses in recent days has not helped. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi estimated that the CAA has a 30 percent chance of exiting one-bid territory this March. Jerry Palm, who calculates and distributes RPI figures on his Web site, CollegeRPI.com, agreed that the CAA likely will be disappointed again, and said UNC Wilmington was the only team with a legitimate chance for an at-large bid.
CAA teams have had more NCAA tournament wins, more narrow losses and a smaller margin of defeat than any other one-bid league over the past 15 years. Three times in the last five years, a CAA team lost its NCAA tournament opener by three points or less, which is why several outsiders were surprised to hear about the 19-year dry spell.
"That kind of shocks me," said Villanova Coach Jay Wright, who led current CAA member Hofstra when it was still in the America East. "I always look at that league more on par with the Atlantic 10, and I don't mean that as a knock on the Atlantic 10. It's just the quality of play in that league."
Why, then, the 19-year drought? The explanation lies somewhere beneath a confusing clutter of nonconference schedules, win-loss records and postseason results.
To begin with, understand that the surest path toward a second tournament bid is what Yeager calls the "fool's gold" route, in which a league's best-qualified team loses in the conference championship game, creating the strongest case for an at-large bid. The CAA's regular season champion has earned an automatic bid in eight of the last 11 years, thus eliminating the league's best candidate from consideration for an at-large berth.
"If you don't win at least a share of the regular season championship in a non-major league, your chances of getting a bid are just about zero," Palm said. "Not quite zero, but just about zero."
To find a league that has landed in "not quite zero" territory, look toward the Missouri Valley Conference, which several CAA coaches and administrators mentioned as a potential model. Last year, the Missouri Valley sent three teams to the NCAA tournament, including Northern Iowa, which received an at-large berth despite finishing tied for third in the regular season. The Missouri Valley has had multiple teams in the NCAA tournament seven straight years, and 10 of the last 12.
"The yardstick of success, the measurement of success for us every year is multiple berths, and obviously along with that, success in the tournament," MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said.
And at least part of the MVC's success in postseason placement comes from November and December scheduling. The league encourages its teams to schedule top nonconference opponents, giving them the chance to earn marquee wins and bolster their RPI. While its rebuilding teams might take a less ambitious approach, they still attempt to schedule opponents that are likely to have winning records, even if they hail from lesser leagues. MVC teams have also mimicked national powers by offering opponents guaranteed money to land more home games, further propping up their nonconference performance.
If every MVC team enters league play with a winning record and a respectable RPI, the theory goes, teams hoping to land an NCAA berth won't be as heavily punished in the RPI for playing weaker conference foes.
There is much more behind the MVC's success, including decades of tradition, fewer professional and major college programs to leech fan support and widespread coaching stability. Still, entering last weekend, the scheduling philosophy had helped MVC teams achieve a combined record of 67-22 in nonconference games, with all 10 teams at or above .500.
Yeager used to think all CAA teams should play comparable schedules, but he now advocates a varied approach, and tells coaches with postseason aspirations to establish their credentials with difficult nonconference games. The CAA's top teams this year have played what Lunardi called "dramatically better" schedules -- Old Dominion, for example, has already faced Georgia, Wisconsin, DePaul and Alabama-Birmingham, and will play Virginia Tech on Friday night. And the weaker teams?
"Just win games, really," Yeager said. "I don't care who you beat, just win games."
There are other ways to emerge, at least temporarily, from one-bid land. The West Coast Conference has benefited from Gonzaga's transformation into an NCAA tournament mainstay. League parity might be nice for fans, but leagues such as the CAA and Missouri Valley often benefit from the opposite: two or three teams that dominate league play and fashion themselves into attractive candidates for the postseason. With six or seven competitive CAA teams this season, coaches said, it will be nearly impossible to achieve such separation.
"Here's a problem we will have: Our top teams are going to have losses in conference; nobody's going to run the table," Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor said. "I don't think Gonzaga would get through our league unscathed, I think they'd get bopped repeatedly. They'd do well, they'd win a lot of games, but it'd be hard for them."
In the end, analysts said, a second CAA bid will require better teams, better players and better schedules. And it will likely require a team to perform well against difficult competition in November and December and dominate league play before getting tripped up in the CAA tournament.
"I'll take it any way it comes, because right now we've got to get the monkey off our back," Yeager said. "That'll be the final piece in breaking out."