Little Guys Stand Tall

By John Feinstein
Sunday, March 19, 2006

With less than a minute left late Friday night and No. 3 seed North Carolina trying to hang on against 14th-seeded Murray State, John Thompson, the Hall of Fame coach turned radio sage, was asked by his broadcast partner if he had an explanation for all the upsets that had taken place during the first two days of the NCAA basketball tournament.

"These aren't upsets," Thompson answered. "Seeds are just numbers. There are just a lot of good teams out there playing ball."

That's a pretty good description of what college basketball has become in the 21st century. There are a lot of good teams out there playing ball, and plenty of them do not come from the so-called power conferences. It's unfortunate, almost unfair, that CBS's Billy Packer has become the symbol of power conference arrogance. Packer publicly and vehemently disagreed with the NCAA tournament selection committee's decision to give three at-large bids to the Missouri Valley Conference; one to the Colonial Athletic Association; one to the Mountain West and one to the Western Athletic Conference as at-large teams. Because his sharp exchange with committee chairman Craig Littlepage was witnessed by just about anyone who cares about college basketball, Packer has been taking a lot of heat all week.

The first round certainly didn't make things any better for him. Two of the Missouri Valley's four teams advanced, including 13th-seeded Bradley beating fourth-seeded Kansas in the Oakland Region; George Mason, one of Packer's big targets, stunned sixth-seeded Michigan State in the Washington Region, and automatic bid winners Northwestern State (a 14th seed) and Bucknell (a ninth seed) beat power conference teams Iowa and Arkansas, respectively.

"You have to wait for more complete results," Packer said Friday morning after the first 16 first-round games had been played. "Let's see what happens today."

What happened Friday didn't help the case made by Packer and others who believe that 26 of the 34 at-large bids going to the power conferences was not enough. A lot of coaches, including Maryland Coach Gary Williams, have complained about the rise of the mid-majors.

"The problem is, coaches in the major conferences get fired for not making the tournament," said Williams, who doesn't have to worry about that in spite of yesterday's National Invitation Tournament loss to Manhattan. "You can't tell me that the committee is taking the best 65 teams. There may come a time when the power conferences get tired of going though this and break away like they did in football."

That is unlikely and would be extremely unfortunate. While Williams's frustration is understandable, two facts are undeniable:

· The little guys can play.

· The better the little guys play, the better it is for the tournament and college basketball.

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