NCAA tournament committee had large at-large pool of shallow talent

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Amid a topsy-turvy week of upsets and thrilling conference tournament games, the NCAA tournament selection committee resisted what committee chairman Dan Guerrero called "impulse buying" and stuck to its charge of placing an emphasis on teams' entire résumé while piecing together the 65-team bracket.

When it came to Duke, which joined Kansas -- the tournament's No. 1 overall seed -- Syracuse and Kentucky as top seeds, the committee valued what the Blue Devils did after New Year's: an ACC regular season and conference tournament title.

And at the bottom of the at-large field, teams such as Virginia Tech, Illinois and Mississippi State missed the cut in large part because of what they did not accomplish in November and December.

"You don't want to give the committee any reason to ding you, if you will," Guerrero said in a teleconference. "All the teams had opportunities to show how they matched up against teams in the field through nonconference play."

This was a season in which no team that was excluded from the field had a legitimate gripe because the pool of teams competing for some of the final at-large slots -- while larger than Guerrero could recall in the past -- consisted of teams with considerable blemishes. And several of those teams failed to secure quality victories in their respective conference tournaments.

Poor nonconference schedules or performances were prime reasons why Virginia Tech and Illinois failed to measure up to Utah State and Texas-El Paso, two of the final at-large teams to make the tournament. Virginia Tech and Illinois each had more top 50 victories than Utah State and Texas-El Paso, two teams that lost in the finals of their respective conference tournaments, but Guerrero cited the nonconference schedule as a reason why both fell short.

The Hokies had a nonconference schedule that ranked 339th nationally out of 347 teams, which was the worst in recent memory for a serious at-large candidate. And Illinois, in addition to a nonconference schedule that Guerrero did not feel measured up, was ranked 75th in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of a team's strength that the committee uses to help determine seeds and schedules. No team with an RPI that low has ever earned an at-large berth.

Mississippi State, meantime, came within a whisker of beating Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament final Sunday, but Guerrero said the committee needed to consider the entire season's worth of work. Guerrero cited Mississippi State's nonconference schedule, which ranked 207th nationally. He also said the Bulldogs played 12 of 15 nonleague games against teams ranked worse than 110 in the RPI.

The 75-74 overtime loss to Kentucky, which Mississippi State came within one-tenth of a second from winning in regulation, was "not enough alone to get into the field," Guerrero said.

As for the top seeds, Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse were all expected to be rewarded after strong seasons. The mild surprise was Duke, which appeared to be in a battle with West Virginia, the Big East tournament winner, and Ohio State, the Big Ten tournament winner, for the final No. 1 seed.

But the committee awarded Duke the third No. 1 seed, not the fourth, meaning that the Blue Devils would play in the Houston Region and Syracuse would be sent out to the Salt Lake City Region. That's no problem for Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who does not want to "split hairs about that," he said in a Sunday news conference.

The selection committee also considered the injury that Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku suffered in the Big East tournament, receiving reports from the school that the player would be able to return for the Orange.

"Once again, we're talking about the entire season," Guerrero said. "We place value on that. Obviously, the big center for Syracuse got banged up. That's an issue to some degree."

When asked whether he felt the injury affected the committee's decision, Boeheim said: "They can't move us down because they do not know how good we are or not. If we would have played a couple games without him and didn't play very well, then they could say, 'Well, I guess they are not that good.' We have been in the top three the last part of the year and the only losses we have are to teams in the NCAA tournament."

The Big East led all conferences with eight tournament berths. The ACC, which had been criticized much of the season for being weaker than in past years, received six berths.

North Carolina "was the only team that was not as good as they were last season" in the ACC, Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Everyone else was better. But that was the perception that was created [early], that the ACC was down. Six teams in is pretty good."

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