NCAA Selection Committee Loaded Up on Chalk in Tournament

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, March 23, 2009; 5:29 PM

One weekend down, two to go. Forty-nine teams sent home, 16 still playing. So, what did we learn from the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament? Here's the list:

• All the Big East hype during the season is true. An all Big East Final Four isn't out of the question. The league has five teams still playing -- including two in the East -- and all of them have a legitimate shot to make it to Detroit, including Syracuse which would have to beat Oklahoma and, in all likelihood, North Carolina to get there. The Big East is so good it brings to mind a famous quote from former Duke player Gene Banks who once said, "If the ACC got six bids to the tournament, all six teams would make the Final Four."

• Speaking of which: The ACC, again, wasn't as good as it was made out to be during the regular season. After all the whining from the league's coaches about the lack of bids and lack of respect in recent years, seven ACC teams made the tournament this time around. Only three won a game and only two are still alive. If Duke loses to Villanova on Thursday (extremely possible), that will make five straight years that no ACC school other than North Carolina has made at least the round of eight. That would be a combined 0 for 55 for the other eleven schools; this from a conference that sent two teams to the Final Four a total of four times in 15 years beginning in 1990. How's that football expansion -- which began five seasons ago -- working out so far?

• The Big 12 -- no, not the Big Ten -- was underrated by those of us who are known to some as eastern elitists. There were nine conferences that received multiple bids, including five with at least six bids. Only the Big 12 won all its first round games (6-0). Three teams -- Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri -- are in the round of 16, and Texas and Oklahoma State scared the heck out of Duke and Pittsburgh respectively.

• The Big Ten and Southeastern Conferences are exactly what most people thought they were: not very good and very mediocre. The SEC was correctly given three bids and won exactly one game -- LSU squeaking by Butler in the first round. A lot of the Big Ten apologists were hooting after Wisconsin and Michigan upset ACC teams in the first round (Michigan's win over Clemson almost shouldn't count since Clemson is to March what the New York Jets are to December) but when all was said and done Sunday night the two teams in the Big Ten truly worthy of bids, Michigan State and Purdue, had advanced and the rest of the league had started its offseason.

• The NCAA selection committee has created a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you go out of your way to keep mid-majors out of the tournament, fewer and fewer will be around the second weekend. Which may be exactly what it wants. With only four non-BCS schools getting at-large bids, only two are still alive today: Gonzaga and Xavier. Cleveland State, Western Kentucky and Siena all pulled noteworthy first-round upsets and Virginia Commonwealth came up a few inches shy of beating UCLA. But there's no real Cinderella still around; no Davidson, no George Mason, no Valparaiso or Eastern Michigan, and that's a shame. The only double-digit seed left is Arizona (No. 12 in the Midwest) and the Wildcats, who have been in the tournament 26 straight years, hardly qualify for a glass slipper. While the committee will take bows for picking Arizona, who's to say that St. Mary's with the exact same draw -- an over-seeded Utah team and then Cleveland State -- wouldn't also have advanced.

What we're left with is a very chalky tournament -- President Obama got 14 of 16 for those of you scoring at home, the same as the committee did based on higher seeds advancing -- that could give us four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four for a second straight year, although it's just as likely that a No. 2 and a No. 3 will sneak in there someplace.

In short, the NCAA tournament is looking more and more like the BCS every year. If the committee chooses to listen to the whining coaches and the TV network guys who are in bed with the big six conferences we'll soon have a tournament with 128 teams that will include every team from the BCS leagues and won't have room for teams like American, Morehead State and Cal-State Northridge, who may not have won their first round games but certainly left an indelible impression on this year's tournament.

The way the committee thinks may have been inadvertently summed up by Mike Slive, this year's chairman, when he was asked why the last two at-large teams into the field couldn't be sent to the god-awful play-in game instead of the last two automatic bid qualifiers.

"It's been discussed," Slive said (yeah, sure for five minutes?) "but in the end we want to give credit to stronger teams for their performances."

Otherwise put, to heck with you little guys, get on the plane to Dayton and be glad of it.

Oh well, the tournament is never going to be perfect. The TV timeouts will continue to get longer and longer and the 20-minute halftimes will take about 22 minutes. The best games the first two weeks will end after midnight in the eastern time zone and the press conference moderators will continue to refer to players as "student-athletes," every time they open their mouths. The guy in Philadelphia did it nine times in under two minutes after a first-round game, which may be a new record.

But there is still a lot of good basketball if you can put up with all the pretentiousness and anti-perspirant commercials surrounding it. Siena's win over Ohio State was worth staying up very late for, and so was UCLA's last-second escape from VCU. This weekend should produce plenty of drama, although most of the games will be dominated by future NBA players as opposed to, well, student-athletes. But that's okay too -- we all know what the truth of this tournament is no matter how often the committee tries to tell us that the Emperor's new clothes look fantastic.

Finally, let's pay tribute to the two D.C. area teams that made the Selected 65. American put a real scare into Villanova, leading by 10 at the half and 45-31 early in the second half before the Wildcats, with some help from a home crowd, wore them down.

Jeff Jones's team had a wonderful year, winning 24 games and a second straight Patriot League title. The seven seniors who will graduate next month (and yes, they will graduate) will leave behind memories that will be shared on the Northwest campus for years and years to come. AU will be in rebuilding mode next season, but as long as Jones is the coach, the Eagles will always be competitive in the Patriot League and will be back in the postseason sooner rather than later.

As for the soap opera that was Maryland this winter, the ending -- a one-sided loss to Memphis on Saturday -- might not have been very happy, but the season, when all was said and done, was certainly a success. Few people expected the Terrapins to make the tournament, much less win a game and finish 21-14. They were one of the last three ACC teams standing in a year many preseason prognostications had them out of the top 10 in the conference and certainly nowhere close to the top five.

Gary Williams often likes to say when the naysayers come back to him after a big victory, "what do you know, I remembered how to coach."

He's always known how to coach. If Greivis Vasquez comes back next year there's a very good chance a lot of people will remember that again in 2010.

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