March 9, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS - The NCAA selection committee likes to evaluate the cold, hard numbers when choosing its tournament field.
It looks at wins and losses, RPI ratings, strength of schedule and how a team finished in its last 10 games.
The problem with the numbers is that they also tend to shift the balance of power in favor of a handful of conferences, which they likely will do again this year when the committee reveals its 65-team field Sunday.
"Our job is not to judge by emotion, but to just go with the facts," selection committee chairman Mike Tranghese said.
These are the facts: Of the Top 25 teams, only St. Joseph's of the Atlantic 10 and Fresno State of the Western Athletic Conference do not belong to one of the nation's six "power conferences" - the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pac-10.
Only three teams not from those conferences - Fresno State, St. Joseph's and Creighton of the Missouri Valley - began the week in the top 30 of the RPI, a computer formula that is one of the tools used by the committee to evaluate teams for both selection and seeding.
On Sunday, conventional wisdom goes, the power conferences will reap the rewards of their impressive numbers - with an even greater impact than in past seasons.
Tranghese, the Big East commissioner who is on the selection committee for the fifth year but the first as chairman, takes issue with such banter.
"I think if you look back at the history of this committee, I think this committee has taken more mid-majors in the past six years than we ever did before," he said. "We owe them some close attention and we try to do that."
But this season may wind up being very different.
For one thing, the mid-majors have not made terribly strong cases. Even perennial NCAA tournament teams such as Temple and Utah, are on the bubble.
Then there are the teams, such as Butler of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference or Georgia State of the Trans America Athletic Conference, that could have made cases for at-large bids had they not won their league tournaments.
Even leagues that traditionally have sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament, such as Conference USA, may struggle. Conference USA could get only one team - Cincinnati - in this year if the Bearcats win the league tournament.
Commissioner Michael Slive believes his league will send three teams - Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi and Charlotte - but admits this has not been a stellar year for Conference USA.
"I think we're having what I define as an ACC-type year like they had a couple of years ago when they got only three teams in the tournament," he said. "Our teams go on the road, and we've got teams beating each other up."
But so do other conferences such as the ACC, which has four teams in the Top 12 and five in the Top 25.
With only 34 at-large bids and at least half of those likely to go Top 25 teams that don't receive automatic bids, the committee has only 17 remaining slots.
Many are expected to go to teams such as Tennessee, Indiana and Southern California - all of which are among the RPI's top 20 but are not in the Top 25.
"You also have conferences with RPIs and that will be a significant factor in our selection process," Tranghese said. "Each team has an overall strength-of-schedule number and a non-conference strength-of-schedule. So you could have a team in a very good conference with a high RPI rating and a low non-conference RPI, and I think you have to take that into account."
The strongest case for a mid-major could be made by Creighton (24-7), which won 11 straight before losing in the conference semifinals to Indiana State and entered the week at No. 23 in the RPI.
The problem for many mid-major teams is that their RPI suffers because of schedule strength.
If Gonzaga, which has a history of NCAA tournament success, hadn't won the West Coast Conference tournament, it might not have made it with an RPI of 86.
Valparaiso set a school record with 24 wins this season, played three Big Ten teams and beat Ohio State. Yet the Crusaders' RPI is still only 107. After losing to Southern Utah in the Mid-Continent's title game, they are unlikely to be in the NCAA.
While both teams have tried to build stronger schedules, the committee has little empathy.
"It's the most difficult thing we do, comparing a team from a big conference who has the opportunity to play a lot of good teams against a mid-major that doesn't have as many opportunities," Tranghese said.
The Mid-Continent Conference is about to try something new, creating a league-wide fund to offer guaranteed money for playing stronger opponents.
That may help down the road, but not this season when the Mid-Continent produced two 24-game winners - Valparaiso and Southern Utah - and, probably, just one NCAA bid.
"Given where the RPIs are, and we know that's not an overriding factor, we would love to get two bids," commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. "I don't know if that's possible."
Probably not - given the numbers, which is what Tranghese and his committee must evaluate.
"I go in with the premise that whoever is the 66th, 67th, 68th or 69th team is going to be unhappy," he said. "I don't think that's ever going to change, whether you take 20 mid-majors or three. We've got to take the 34 best teams."
By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer