NEW ORLEANS — The unveiling of the NCAA tournament field included few notable surprises and continued to underscore the selection committee’s strong message to schools big and small in recent years: There is no exhibition season in college basketball.
The 10-member committee rewarded teams in the seeding and selection process that scheduled aggressively in nonconference play and penalized teams whose nonleague schedules were considered soft.
As expected, Kentucky, which suffered its second loss of the season in Sunday’s Southeastern Conference final, earned the tournament’s overall top seed and joined Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State as No. 1 seeds. Among those teams, only Michigan State won its conference tournament, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten final shortly before CBS revealed the tournament field.
Jeff Hathaway, the selection committee chairman, noted in a television interview that Michigan State played the nation’s strongest schedule, which included nonleague games against Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. The Spartans (26-7) also competed in what was widely considered the nation’s strongest league, the Big Ten, which had five of the tournament’s top 16 seeds.
No team in the nation had more top 50 wins (11) than Kansas, which also had an 8-2 record in true road games. But Kansas’s loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals opened the door for Michigan State to earn the No. 1 seed if the Spartans beat Ohio State for the second time this season. Had Ohio State won Sunday’s game, the selection committee would not necessarily have awarded the Buckeyes a No. 1 seed over Kansas.
Further emphasizing the importance of nonconference scheduling, Missouri, the Big 12 tournament champion that won 30 games during a breakout season under first-year Coach Frank Haith, was the last team awarded a No. 2 seed primarily because its nonconference schedule was ranked 294th nationally. Nine of Missouri’s wins came against teams ranked 201st or worse in the Ratings Percentage Index, a metric used by the committee to compare teams.
“They didn’t stretch themselves very much in nonconference scheduling,” Hathaway said.
Somewhat surprising was the inclusion of Iona as one of the 37 at-large selections that joined 31 automatic qualifiers to comprise the field. The Gaels (25-7) carried the reputation of a formidable team all season but lost to Fairfield in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, a setback that appeared to be a fatal blow to their hopes.
But Hathaway cited their 43rd-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, which included games against Purdue, Marshall and Nevada, as a reason for their selection.
St. Bonaventure’s victory over Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament final meant that one bubble team got knocked out of the field. St. Bonaventure would not have earned an at-large slot had it not captured the league’s automatic berth. Hathaway said the committee was considering five teams for that slot before St. Bonaventure’s win made the conversation moot.
On another note, the committee demonstrated no bias against teams from less-recognizable leagues while selecting the final at-large teams. For example, Oral Roberts (27-6) of the Summit League, Nevada (26-6) of the Western Athletic Conference and Drexel (27-6) of the Colonial Athletic Association were among the first four teams left out. That means they were ahead of middling power-conference teams such as Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Washington.
In the end, the issue with Drexel, the regular season champion of the CAA, was a nonleague schedule that ranked 222nd nationally. Fifteen of Drexel’s victories came against teams ranked 201st or worse in the RPI.
As for Mississippi State (21-11), it was a talented team that sputtered down the stretch — losing five straight games in February — and was admittedly flat during much of its SEC tournament loss to Georgia. CBS broadcaster Bill Raftery said in a teleconference that the Bulldogs were a team “you thought would do better, but they just never did it.”
Steve Kerr, a TNT analyst, added, “They just looked like they were heading south.”
Washington (21-10) of the Pacific-12 became the first regular season champion of a power conference not to get an at-large berth. Almost universally panned by critics all season, the league was just the nation’s 11th-strongest league in terms of RPI. The Huskies were 0-5 against top 50 teams. Hathaway said the committee had a “vigorous” discussion about Washington even though the Huskies fell short.
The fact that Kentucky (32-2) could look vulnerable throughout the SEC tournament, lose to Vanderbilt, 71-64, in the final and still secure the top overall seed spoke volumes about how the committee viewed the Wildcats’ entire body of work. CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said the Wildcats were the best team all season “and by a decent amount.”
Regardless, Kentucky Coach John Calipari suggested in a television interview that Kentucky’s South Region, which will play its Sweet 16 games in Atlanta, is the toughest. “I was stunned we weren’t sent to Dayton on Tuesday” for the opening-round play-in games, Calipari joked.
Calipari went further, saying, “Did they give the [Miami] Heat an exemption to be our 2 seed” in the region?
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