By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006
The Missouri Valley Conference has become this season's version of Saint Joseph's for CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer. During an interview yesterday with Craig Littlepage, the chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee that chose the 65-team field for the postseason tournament, Packer criticized the committee's decision to include four teams from the Missouri Valley Conference and two teams from the Colonial Athletic Association, instead of taking more teams from the sport's traditional power conferences.
During the interview, Packer said he disagreed with the committee's decision to give at-large invitations to Wichita State, Bradley, Northern Iowa and George Mason. He cited statistics that indicated teams from the MVC and CAA had won only one game during the last three NCAA tournaments, while teams from the ACC had won 25 games.
"I don't give a damn what this guy says," MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said, during a telephone interview from the league's office in St. Louis last night. "We've held our own and I'll stand by the teams that have performed in the NCAA tournament. They've not embarrassed anyone. There are no moral victories in the NCAA tournament, but they've played very strong, higher-seeded opponents and played them to the end."
Two years ago, Saint Joseph's was the target of Packer's disgust when the Hawks were given a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after playing a lesser schedule and losing in their opening game in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli and Packer had several heated exchanges on TV.
Now, Elgin said he is surprised his conference has become Packer's target.
"I thought it was very inappropriate and he was misinformed about a lot of things," Elgin said. "First of all, he suggested that the committee looks back over past records in the tournament to determine who gets in and who doesn't, and that is not even close to the truth. They don't look at past years. He talked about the statistics of how the Missouri Valley and Colonial have done in the tournament. I would have appreciated if he had gone back to 1999. We have been to two Sweet 16s. We've beaten Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Louisville, Georgia and Texas Tech. We've held our own and you know what? We've done it every time as a lower seed."
MVC teams have produced some of the most memorable upsets in recent NCAA tournament history. In 2001, No. 13 seed Indiana State upset No. 4 seed Oklahoma, 70-68, in the first round. Creighton, a No. 12 seed in 2002, upset No. 5 seed Florida, 83-82, in double overtime in the first round. Southern Illinois, a No. 11 seed in the 2002 tournament, upset No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 3 Georgia in advancing to the regional semifinals.
MVC teams have won only one game in the NCAA tournament since 2002 -- Southern Illinois, a No. 7 seed last season, beat No. 10 seed St. Mary's, 65-56, in the first round last year.
"Today's announcement is a moment of celebration for our league to have four bids," Elgin said. "And right away, he puts us on notice that, you know what, we better win some. And he's right. We've got some tough draws in the first round and if you look at our tournament experience over the last three years, the period that he cited, we've lost to one point by Missouri, we lost to Alabama by one point, we lost narrowly to Georgia Tech and could have won it at the buzzer. We should have beaten West Virginia and came down to the wire with Wisconsin, and both of those teams went a long way last year. We've held our own."
Littlepage defended the committee's selections of the MVC teams and George Mason, which is the No. 11 seed in the Washington bracket and plays No. 6 seed Michigan State in the first round.
"I don't think we look at in terms of how many teams might qualify from one league," Littlepage said. "As it relates to the Missouri Valley, I think our selections really do dispel the myth that this process is numbers and RPI-driven. Again, we looked at these teams thoroughly. We looked at the résumés they had. And at the end of the process, it turned out that the Missouri Valley, in our estimation, had four of the best teams to qualify for at-large consideration. Similarly, we looked at the ACC, the Big 12, the Big 10, etc., and we made our selections on the basis of the teams and not on the basis of what conferences they represented."
Elgin said he was disappointed the MVC didn't get at least one more team into the 65-team field. Missouri State (20-8) finished tied for second in the standings during the regular season, but lost in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. Only four of the Bears' victories came against the other top five teams in the MVC. Still, Missouri State was No. 21 in the Ratings Percentage Index released last night, making it the highest-rated team ever left out of the field.
"It's a greased hill that you try to climb when you're a league like the Colonial," Elgin said. "We climbed that hill five or six or seven years before they did, and we climbed and scratched our way up the hill.