Big Schools Hold Their Ground For NCAA Tournament

Monday, March 12th 2007, 5:35 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ The nation's mid-major schools had hoped this would be their year.

Instead, they were nearly as surprised as Syracuse when the selection committee announced the NCAA men's basketball tournament field.

``I think it's the shock of the country,'' said Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross, whose team was excluded despite 22 victories and a 10-6 Big East conference record.

Sunday, it seemed the 10-member NCAA selection committee was forced to defend everything from game sites to selections. Even Tuesday's play-in game, between Florida A&M and Niagara, drew complaints.

``Nothing makes sense to me,'' said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, whose team is 22-11 and has won 11 straight. ``Let me be diplomatic here _ I'm confused.''

Chairman Gary Walters had acknowledged for weeks that deciphering the maze at the top of the brackets would be nearly as difficult as picking the final teams.

``It's not an easy decision,'' Walters said. ``Every year you have three or four teams who have a strong argument that can be made about their inclusion. I understand the disappointments; it disappoints the heck out of us. But we have a 65-team field.''

But when Florida, Ohio State, North Carolina and Kansas all won their conference tournament titles, it helped settle the four No. 1 seeds. Florida earned a top seed for the first time and will open play against Jackson State on Friday, while the Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed for a record 11th time and face Eastern Kentucky in nearby Winston-Salem on Thursday.

It didn't go as smoothly for the mid-majors, who got just six at-large bids _ Old Dominion, Xavier, Southern Illinois, Butler, Nevada and Brigham Young.

It's the third consecutive year that number has shrunk, forcing the committee to try to explain why only six of the 34 at-large bids went to smaller schools, allowing for fewer opportunities for a George Mason to emerge.

``What's really funny is the impression people have,'' Walters said. ``Last year we had eight at-large 'mid-majors' in the tournament, and the impression was the committee had gone overboard by selecting all these 'mid-majors' when, in fact, the historical range has been between five and 12. We throw conferences out the door and look at this, and then it starts to shake out.''

Neither Butler nor Southern Illinois seemed hurt by losses in their respective conference tournament title games. The Bulldogs, ranked every week since winning the NIT Season Tip-Off, were No. 5 in the Midwest Regional. The Salukis, which entered the week with a No. 6 RPI rating, got a No. 4 seed in the West.

Xavier, too, got in easily, earning the No. 9 seed in the South after losing in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

But Missouri State (22-10) missed out for the second straight year, despite a win against Wisconsin early in the season.

``I was shocked last year, and this year I'm even more shocked and sickened that Missouri State didn't make the cut,'' Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. ``It is very disappointing.''

Scheduling played a big role in the decision-making process.

One reason Syracuse was excluded, Walters explained, was the Big East's unbalanced schedule that prevented the Orange from playing multiple games against some of the league's best teams. Meanwhile, Stanford (18-12), made it in part because it played a typical round-robin in the Pac-10, facing all five of the conference's other NCAA qualifiers twice.

``Once you get past those first four lines, it's like (former chairman) Bob Bowlsby used to say 'It's tough to slide a piece of paper between teams,''' Walters said. ``A lot of them look like clones of each other.''

Syracuse, out of the tournament for the first time since 2002, found itself in good company.

West Virginia, Kansas State, Florida State and Clemson all missed the cut. Arkansas, which played its way into the tournament by beating two unranked teams in the SEC tournament, was the only representative from the SEC's west division.

As the tournament gets started in earnest Thursday, there are plenty of interesting storylines.

Duke managed to get a No. 6 seed in the West, despite a less-than-impressive season by Blue Devils standards. If it beats Virginia Commonwealth, dangerous Pittsburgh could be next.

Arizona coach Lute Olson tied Dean Smith by earning his 23rd straight bid, and ninth-seeded Michigan State extended its tourney streak to 10 straight appearances, the second longest streak in Big Ten history.

The Spartans face Marquette on Thursday in a game that pits former Tom Izzo assistant Tom Crean against his former mentor.

UCLA coach Ben Howland also could face his former school, Pittsburgh, in the regional final.

Third-seeded Texas A&M has a potential second-round matchup with sixth-seeded Louisville in Lexington, Ky.

That seeming home-court advantage prompted questions about the sites. Florida will spend the first two rounds in New Orleans and would travel to St. Louis if it reaches the regionals. Ohio State, meanwhile, will start in Lexington and would go to San Antonio, Texas for the South Regional.

Walters explained the mileage from Gainesville, Fla., to St. Louis and San Antonio was nearly identical and that St. Louis seemed a more natural spot for overall No. 1 seed Florida after routing Ohio State in December.

Now Walters is eager to see how it all plays out.

``This was, without question, the most difficult year of my five years on the committee,'' he said. ``We ended up with 104 teams that won over 20 games versus a previous high of 78, and that added more complexity to the whole process and maybe added more disappointment, too.''