Barring an Upset, Mediocrity Will Win Out Again

Penn State guard Stanley Pringle might not want to admit it, but much of the basketball that was played in the Big Ten this season proved to be downright unwatchable.
Penn State guard Stanley Pringle might not want to admit it, but much of the basketball that was played in the Big Ten this season proved to be downright unwatchable. (By Darron Cummings -- Associated Press)
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By John Feinstein
Sunday, March 15, 2009; Page D07

Finally, tonight, shortly after 6 o'clock, the speculation will end. There will be no more questions about who is in or who is out of the NCAA tournament, and the self-declared bracketologists can climb back under their rocks until next winter.

If you believe all the huffing and puffing, this is not going to be a good year for the mid-majors. The reasoning goes something like this: Because so few of the so-called bubble teams from the so-called power conferences have truly distinguished themselves and because there aren't as many no-brainer mid-majors out there, the basketball committee will have no choice but to take all the mediocre bubble teams from the mediocre major conferences.

Sadly, they're probably right.

But should they be? Will the world truly be a better place because the Big Ten, which has one truly quality team (Michigan State) and one other pretty good team (Purdue), gets eight bids as the experts say it will? Shouldn't Illinois and Penn State have been sent immediately to the NIT -- or, worse, the College Basketball Invitational -- the very minute their 38-33 debacle came to a merciful conclusion last month?

"Any college basketball team that can't score 40 points in a game, win or lose, should not under any circumstances be in the tournament," said Mike Gminski, a color commentator for CBS and Raycom. "They should be disqualified on the spot."

Does the Southeastern Conference have a truly deserving team other than LSU? Okay, there are moments when Tennessee looks like it can play, but others when the Volunteers look like they would struggle if they faced their women's team in an intramural tournament. Florida? South Carolina? Kentucky? Heck, Auburn is probably more deserving right now than any of them.

Ask yourself this question: How can the Big Ten possibly get more bids than either the Big East or the ACC? The selection committee members -- and the talking-head committee apologists -- talk all the time about the 'eye test.' It's a good notion, the idea that you watch teams play and let your gut tell you if they're any good. Forget the ridiculously skewed RPI and strength of schedule and all those silly numbers the bracketologists like to throw out. What do your eyes tell you?

"In a situation like this there's only one guy [on the basketball committee] who can really stop the Big Ten from getting all the bids they're talking about and that's the guy assigned to follow the league during the season," said George Washington Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, who spent five years on the committee. "Every committee member is assigned three leagues to follow all year. If the guy who has the Big Ten this year stood up and said, 'Hey, I know these teams all have 20 wins, but they aren't that good,' people would listen. If someone else does it, unless the guy who has that league backs him up, nothing is going to happen."

This is not meant to be an anti-Big Ten screed, although there's good reason for one. It just happens to be the league, along with the SEC, that defines the mediocrity of this year's bubble.

The other end of the discussion is the quality -- or alleged lack of it -- among the mid-majors. This sounds a lot like the questions raised three years ago when the Missouri Valley Conference got four bids and the Colonial Athletic Association got its first at-large bid in 20 years.

Remember the screaming and yelling from the power conference apologists? Remember Jim Nantz and Billy Packer angrily grilling committee chairman Craig Littlepage about -- to quote Nantz -- "what exactly George Mason did to deserve a bid?"

So, was the tournament better off with the Patriots or not? How about Wichita State and Bradley, which both reached the round of 16?

There may not be any mid-majors as good as those teams or last season's Davidson, but teams such as Creighton, Temple, St. Mary's, San Diego State, Davidson and Niagara are at least as deserving of consideration as the bubble teams in the big-bucks leagues.

"Here's the difference for those teams," Kvancz said. "Not to pick on anybody, but when Maryland loses to Virginia last Sunday, they can still turn around and have a chance because they get to play Wake Forest. Virginia Tech got a shot at North Carolina. You can have a bad loss on Sunday and recover with a good win on Friday.

"It's not true in the mid-majors. . . . There's just no margin for error for these guys because most of the time they're on the bubble to begin with. One bad loss and they're off it."

There is also the oft-debated issue of scheduling. Most of the time when a mid-major gets a game with a major it is either in an exempt tournament or on the road. Only rarely will a major conference school play a mid-major on the road.

"Most of the time when you're scheduling a major conference team, their offer is take it or leave it," Kvancz said. "They want you to come to their place and they'll pay you well. You win and it's great. You lose and it's not so bad. So, most schools take it. If they don't, someone else will."

There's no better example of that than Davidson. The Wildcats have one very good nonconference win: West Virginia. They have road losses to Oklahoma (by four), Purdue and Duke. Two of their seven losses were the direct result of Stephen Curry's injury. And yet, few people expect them to show up in the bracket this evening.

"That's always going to be the question," Kvancz said. "The committee should always look at not only quality wins but the opportunities teams get to pick up quality wins. By definition the power conference teams get more shots at it -- and they get shots at home. The difference in margin for error is huge."

The general consensus is that the six power conferences will probably get at least 30 of the at-large bids and perhaps one or two more. That leaves a maximum of four bids for the non-Big Six conferences. Two of those will go to Xavier or Dayton, and one will almost surely go to Butler. That would leave Creighton, Temple, St. Mary's, San Diego State, Davidson and Niagara to fight over one bid.

"It's a shame if it happens that way," Kvancz said. "I agree with people who say the mid-majors this year aren't as good as in some other years, but neither are the big-time teams on the bubble. And some of those mid-major teams are pretty good."

The problem with being a mid-major is that pretty good isn't good enough. But for power-conference schools, pretty good -- even almost pretty good -- can get you on the board on Selection Sunday.

Even if the only board they really deserve to be on has the letters NIT on it.

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