Since coaching George Mason to its improbable Final Four run in 2006, Jim Larranaga has been the poster child for mid-major schools lobbying for inclusion in the NCAA tournament field.
George Mason received a controversial at-large berth in 2006 — the kind of give-the-little-guy-a-chance decision that Larranaga, now the coach at Miami in the ACC, is urging the selection committee to avoid this year.
“There have been years — and last year was one of them — where the mid-majors’ performance was outstanding. With the expansion of the field from 65 to 68, a couple of more mid-majors were able to get in,” said Larranaga, whose George Mason team was one of those. “In this particular year looking at their nonconference performance, it would appear to me that those spots should be reserved for the high-majors who played a much more difficult nonconference schedule and were far more successful than any of the teams in the mid-majors.”
Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, a veteran of the tournament bubble, couldn’t help but joke: “Jim’s a smart guy. It’s amazing, though, how eight, nine months, he’s had revelations.”
Such an about-face from Larranaga, whose Miami team is squarely on the bubble this season, raised eyebrows.
But it was typical of the public lobbying college basketball coaches engage in to shift perceptions in favor of their teams.
Some coaches, however, wonder if it makes much of a difference.
“Look at us last year, how many people were negative about our inclusion in the tournament. But they did not matter,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart, who doesn’t believe in campaigning for a bid, even as his Rams are back on the bubble this year after advancing to the 2011 Final Four. “It was just the people sitting in the selection room that decided, ‘Yes, VCU is worthy of an at-large bid.’ ”
That didn’t stop Larranaga from relying on mathematical formulas such as the Ratings Percentage Index as he described how teams in his former conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, had suffered “a considerable drop-off” compared with last year, when it received a league-record three bids to the NCAA tournament.
But first-year George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt, who spent the previous 11 seasons at Georgia Tech of the ACC, believes league affiliation is meaningless now that conference expansion and unbalanced league schedules are the norm.
He pointed to the 2010 NCAA tournament: The Yellow Jackets finished 7-9 in the ACC and received an at-large bid over Virginia Tech, which finished 10-6 in league play.
That year, the Hokies only played four games against ACC teams that finished with an above-.500 league record.
Georgia Tech had 12 such games, “and certainly that was something the selection committee looked at,” said Hewitt, who believes the CAA will get two bids to the NCAA tournament this year, even though he said the Patriots (23-9, 14-4) would likely need to win the CAA tournament to reach the NCAA tournament.
“Four or five years ago it dawned on me: You just gotta win games and when you get your opportunity to get what they call a marquee win or a good win, you’ve got to take advantage,” Hewitt added. “It’s all changed now.”
Greenberg’s team isn’t on the NCAA tournament bubble this season for the first time in four years. He has a more cynical view on the process after falling short so many years in a row.
He believes campaigning on behalf of your team is fruitless, but “if you can have access to that person in that room who has a vote,” he said last week before cutting himself off. “It is a very sacred process, I’m sure, but in anything and everything anyone does, there’s a human element.”
George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor, who spent five years on the NCAA tournament selection committee and was the committee’s chairman during the 2008 selection process, laughs at the variety of theories he hears related to the bubble. The committee members are sequestered, O’Connor insists, and “there’s no politicking. It’s not about who you know. It’s who you played, how you played, where you played and what’s the result.”
However, he added, there is no set formula when the 10-member committee is forced to choose between teams whose résumés have paper-thin differences.
“Part of it is you project a little bit in that not only are they in, but if they get an at-large, do they have the type of basketball team that can be successful in the tournament,” O’Connor said. “People kind of get hung up on the fact of just making the tournament, but it goes beyond that in my mind. . . . What we get a kick out of on the committee building up to it is we’re watching during our breaks that people are speculating and guessing, but when it comes right down to it, it has no bearing on it whatsoever.”
In that regard, O’Connor likes to tell a story about one particular break when a television announcer adamantly told viewers: “Take it to the bank. This one particular team will be in the tournament.”
“Well, we had eliminated the team the day before,” O’Connor said. “We got a little smile about that and we got on with our task.”
The bubble, it seems, can bring out the ruthless side in anyone.