NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Doesn't Want Cinderella at the Ball

Omar Samhan, left, Ian O'Leary and Saint Mary's went 26-6 but were left out of the NCAAs by a selection committee that seems to be taking its cues from the BCS.
Omar Samhan, left, Ian O'Leary and Saint Mary's went 26-6 but were left out of the NCAAs by a selection committee that seems to be taking its cues from the BCS. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It would be difficult to diminish the men's NCAA basketball tournament, but the selection committee certainly tried last weekend.

The members seemed to take their cue from college football's Bowl Championship Series, whose philosophy is that anybody not in one of the huge conferences should get lost.

Just three years after George Mason showed what the possibilities could be for all mid-major schools by advancing to the Final Four, the selection committee all but eliminated at-large bids to mid-majors, awarding just four of them, down from 12 at-large bids for mid-majors in 2004 and 10 in 2003. In essence, the committee has announced that Mason's Cinderella run to the national semifinal in 2006, while it might have pleased the basketball public to no end, isn't what the NCAA wants at all.

What the committee wants, its actions tell us, is the college basketball equivalent of the football bowl season. That is to say a postseason for the biggest schools to hoard all the money and have all the exposure, which will lead to a greater recruiting advantage and more wins, no games on the road against mid-majors and continually higher seeding in the tournament (or a better bowl game). It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, and an organization made up of institutions of higher learning ought not be so intellectually dishonest. But this is what we've come to expect from college football, and now increasingly college basketball.

There's no acceptable reason that Arizona, having lost five of its final six games, should have been included in the field of 65 teams ahead of San Diego State, whose RPI ranking was 35, or ahead of Saint Mary's, which went 26-6 and won 13 games away from home, even if the Gaels were blown out by Gonzaga in their conference tournament. You don't even need stats sometimes; the eye test will tell anybody who watches games night-in, night-out that the Big Ten didn't deserve seven bids. I'm a proud alumnus of a Big Ten school, and I find it impossible to make the case the Big Ten deserved more than five bids.

But the committee members, increasingly, crunch the numbers, emerge and try to convince us conference affiliation has nothing to do with their decision-making, which means some of the members are lying either to themselves or to us, and either way they're hurting the tournament . . . and the deserving schools they exclude. Please don't insult me with the excuse, "Well, Saint Mary's couldn't win the whole tournament." Neither can Arizona . . . or Wisconsin.

The best summation I've seen on this point came from Niagara Coach Joe Mihalich, who told the New York Times: "The beauty of this tournament is not Oklahoma State playing Clemson. It's George Mason going to the Final Four. It's Butler. It's Davidson. It's Siena or Niagara getting an at-large bid. That's the charm of the tournament."

The NCAA apparently, doesn't give a damn about charm, or inclusion, or even fairness. The committee wants the big schools, not Saint Mary's, not even George Mason. In fact, Mason's trip to the Final Four might have hurt mid-majors, not helped them. After receiving 12 at-large bids in 2004, mid-majors have received nine, eight, six and six . . . and now four.

It's much the same thing we're seeing in football bowl games where the BCS doesn't really want to see Boise State upset Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl because the BCS is acting as a lobbying agent for the big conferences and their schools. Oklahoma losing, even if it was one of the great bowl games in college football history, amounted to a client losing, which some in the BCS must see as a bad thing.

The case that basketball is different is easily made because basketball is decided democratically, or so it would seem, by tournament play. But who can be surprised now if the NCAA tournament winds up with only power conference schools receiving at-large bids. You know what's next: taking automatic bids away from some small conference champions to redistribute to the Big Boys. John Calipari is absolutely on the money when he says his Memphis team was passed over for a No. 1 seed (that went to Connecticut of the Big East) because Memphis isn't in a preferred conference. Size matters to the NCAA, more than anything else, really.

The irony, which ought to be obvious, is that this year's tournament features three No. 1 seeds from a conference that came into existence only 30 years ago: the Big East. The most historically important school in the conference, Georgetown, was itself a mid-major before John Thompson built a winner, then made it a national power by recruiting Patrick Ewing. With Ewing coming to Georgetown (and St. John's getting Chris Mullin at the same time), the Big East commanded Madison Square Garden for its league tournament, and presto! Mid-major is replaced by Monster Conference that changed television viewing and has now grown to half the size of the NBA. Thompson, original commissioner Dave Gavitt, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca and Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino played the most impressive game of if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them . . . and then beat them. (Only Syracuse at that time had the football program to be considered major.) They weren't going to be marginalized.

We've gotten to the point where it's fair to wonder who is going to lobby for the smaller schools and the conferences (West Coast, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Colonial Athletic) that are sneered at by the NCAA. How can a George Mason slip through if it isn't invited? When the games begin tomorrow, the bounce of the balls and the roar of the crowd will drown out the objectors. But when an outfit as powerful and as agenda-driven as the NCAA essentially moves to eliminate worthy schools simply because they're not in a preferred clique, it's time to worry.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company