By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006
Last season's NCAA men's basketball tournament represented an unprecedented achievement for the sport's underdogs. The Missouri Valley Conference sent as many teams to the tournament as the traditionally powerful ACC (four), and George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association knocked off three of the game's pillars en route to the Final Four.
As the new season opens this week and many are wondering who will be this year's embraceable fairy tale, the deposed powerhouses are working to make sure it won't happen again.
Last month, before his team or any other had played so much as an exhibition, Maryland Coach Gary Williams declared that at least six ACC schools deserve to make this season's NCAA tournament, the first step in a public relations campaign hatched at last spring's coaches meeting.
"We need to walk out of here and send a message," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said. "Everyone is taking shots at the ACC. We're like the Yankees, either you love them or hate them. No one is neutral."
Indeed, this season's primary story line appears to be how the power conferences, namely the ACC, will respond to the unprecedented success of smaller leagues in the NCAA tournament.
The MVC, an emerging 10-team league spread over six Midwestern states, was accused by some coaches last year of using shrewd scheduling practices to outsmart the Rating Percentage Index, a mathematical measurement of a team's strength used by the tournament selection committee to help determine who receives the 34 at-large berths. One ACC coach recently called last season the "Revenge of the Nerds."
"I kind of like that," Missouri State Coach Barry Hinson said. "What's great about 'Revenge of the Nerds' is that the nerds ended up winning. Last thing I know, they left with all the hot chicks."
During last month's ACC media day, several ACC coaches, while careful not to publicly disparage any of the smaller schools that made the 65-team field, repeated what seemed like political talking points.
Between 1980 and 2005, only six ACC schools that finished .500 or better in the conference did not make the NCAA tournament. Last season, two schools -- Florida State and Maryland -- finished .500 or better in the ACC and were excluded.
Air Force, which made the tournament out of the Mountain West Conference, was given credit for beating Georgia Tech, three ACC coaches said, while Maryland's three victories against the Yellow Jackets were viewed by the selection committee as insignificant.
They also repeated that it is more important than ever for the league office and media to promote a league that they feel has no bad teams.
"You can't worry about people laughing at you," Williams said. "That's why, when I say we should get six or seven teams in, what does that cost me? Nothing. People said, 'He's crazy.' Well, people have said that before, so it doesn't matter. You've got to put that idea out there because it sets the [bar]. One thing we know we can do is be more aggressive in publicizing the conference."
Others, however, believe performance should outweigh posturing. The ACC, whose teams will make a league-record 157 appearances on national television, has "every promotional machine cranking up," CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said. "Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and all the national media guys aren't coming to the Missouri Valley and the Richmond Coliseum. What more do you want? We pointed to what we did and not some PR, political campaign to make your candidate look good. They can't grasp the fact that something else did not work out."
The ACC is not the only conference reacting to the success of the MVC.
The Atlantic 10 is working toward developing a scheduling philosophy that would encourage teams with postseason aspirations to schedule difficult opponents. Schools expected to be at the bottom of the standings, however, could schedule easier opponents.
It is a philosophy based on the strategy of the MVC, which had six schools ranked in the top 40 of the RPI last season. The MVC "implemented a thoughtful strategy," said Dayton Athletic Director Ted Kissell, who chairs the committee addressing the Atlantic 10's scheduling issues. "If they get fewer teams in this year, that doesn't make their strategy less relevant. The lesson is strategic, not how many teams you get in, which depends on so many variables."
Virginia Tech and Maryland have scheduled differently this season in hopes of improving their RPI. Greenberg scheduled three neutral court games because they count more than home games in the formula. Williams said he scheduled teams such as Winthrop and Fordham at home instead of schools with RPIs worse than 200.
Williams said he did not consider scheduling a MVC school. He also called the claim that virtually all MVC schools had called ACC schools looking to schedule game more "urban legend."
"Is that not awesome?" Hinson said, laughing. "My gosh. That's so funny. I'll provide a record of our phone logs if you need them. That's absolutely ridiculous."
Florida State was left out of the NCAA tournament despite a 9-7 ACC record largely because of a weak nonconference schedule. Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton said scheduling is particularly challenging because one does not know who will be viewed as a strong opponent by the end of the season.
"You're asking me a question that I can't give you an answer to because the people who are now tweaking the formula are giving you information that they really can't give an answer to," Hamilton said.
"They are going on the offensive? Who are they playing?" Yeager said of some ACC teams' scheduling. "It's like putting bad gas in your car. You may have a Ferrari, but if you start putting bad gas in it, then it starts sputtering and coughing and maybe it's parked on the side of the road. And the little Yugo zooms by you."
Among some coaches, there remains a sense of mystery with the RPI, which considers a school's winning percentage, the opponents' winning percentages and opponents' opponents' winning percentage. The formula was changed starting in the 2004-05 season to give more weight to road victories.
Williams said an NCAA official told the coaches at the spring meetings that the RPI was "basically screwed up last year. Who knows what the RPI will be this year? What goes into it? What are the most important factors?"
Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the MVC, said that is a "cop out." Hinson added that there is no secret code to cracking the RPI, saying, "This is not 'National Treasure' with Nicholas Cage."
In the 100th season of the MVC, nearly 80 percent of the starters are back. And three schools -- Creighton, Wichita State and Southern Illinois -- are expected to challenge for the top 25 all season. Whether that means the MVC can get as many berths as the ACC for the second straight season remains to be seen.
During the ACC's media gathering last month, Williams repeatedly talked about the need to expand the tournament because there are more teams around the country capable of deep runs. When someone finally interrupted to ask how much the field should be expanded, Williams flashed a smile and said, "Just enough so we get in."