Mid-major schools create major second-guessing
INDIANAPOLIS -- There seemed to be a palpable air of tension in the conference room on the 15th floor of the Westin Hotel on Sunday, just short of 7 p.m.
CBS personnel were still tearing down equipment from its live interview/assault of NCAA Tournament selection committee chair Craig Littlepage when other media members entered the room. At least one NCAA staffer sounded openly displeased with the interview.
Littlepage, stoically, said nothing. When asked later about the rough on-air treatment, he simply raised his eyebrows and kept quiet.
On behalf of excluded fat-cat programs like Florida State, Cincinnati, Michigan and Maryland, CBS' lead announcing team of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer laid a physical double-team on Littlepage. In ripping some of the committee's decisions on the field of 65, they treated Littlepage about the same way Carl Krauser treated Allan Ray's eye socket. Although there was nothing accidental about this gouging.
When it was over, CBS didn't even give Littlepage the banal courtesy of congratulating the 65 teams that were invited, cutting off the Virginia athletic director in mid-sentence. The committee chair is always going to catch some heat, but this almost made it seem as though CBS was the entity running the show, and its NCAA underlings had strayed off reservation in drawing up the bracket.
What had Nantz and Packer riled up was the committee's ground-breaking opening of the gates to a number of mid-major programs, including a record four bids for the Missouri Valley Conference and two for the Colonial Athletic Association.
"This is something that evolved, and I think something we should feel very good about," the Virginia athletic director said. "There is great basketball played throughout the country. ... This was one of the unique challenges that no committee before has faced: the number of high-quality basketball teams in non-traditional power conferences."
The committee gave those conferences their chance (although the MVC will argue that Missouri State got hosed, earning distinction as the highest RPI team ever excluded; and the CAA will cry foul on behalf of Hofstra). But giving the little guys unprecedented access to the Big Dance led to a big backlash from the big network that writes the big check to the NCAA (not to mention other TV analysts who questioned whether the best 34 at-large teams were selected for the tournament field).
At least two of the complaints voiced by Nantz-Packer are poorly reasoned:
Clearly, by giving three top-four seeds to ACC teams and no top-six seeds to Valley teams, that's not what the committee is saying. The ACC is better at the top than the Valley, and everyone knows it. But the committee did say that the Valley's third and fourth teams are better than the ACC's fifth and sixth.
It's abundantly clear that teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC have done better than teams from the Valley, Colonial and other allegedly lesser leagues. But what Nantz and Packer left out was the fact that the best teams from those leagues always start out with higher seeds and weaker opponents.
Sure, the last six Valley entrants in the NCAAs have only won one game. They've also been seeded seventh, 10th, 14th, ninth, 11th and sixth in that time. Valley teams went 1-1 in games where it had the higher seed during that three-year span, and every loss was by single digits. If Southern Illinois losing by a point in 2003 as a No. 11 seed and by a point in '04 as a 9-seed reflects poorly on the Missouri Valley, that's a fairly merciless standard to apply.
And if Nantz-Packer had gone back to 2002, they'd see that the Valley went a combined 3-2 in the dance with teams coming from No. 11 and No. 12 seedings. (All three victories came against higher-seeded teams from power conferences, by the way.)
So here's the BCS-school mindset that the Valley and CAA will be up against this tournament: now that we've let you in, work miracles or we'll rip you.
By seed, those six schools should be favored in one first-round game. That would be No. 7 Wichita State against No. 10 Seton Hall. Every other Valley and CAA team is basically predicted to lose.
Of course, it should also be noted that seeding has likely never been this difficult. There were at-large teams from more leagues than ever to evaluate, and there were too many teams from super-sized conferences that played unbalanced league schedules. Just looking at league records didn't come close to telling the whole story for a lot of teams.
"When we got to the seventh line of this field, that's where things really started to get bunched together," Littlepage said. "They all started to look the same."
The committee that granted the mid-majors unprecedented access is stacked with representatives from mid-major conferences. Seven committee members hail from the have-nots (Southwestern Athletic Conference, Ivy League, CAA, Horizon, Mid-American, Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference), while just three hail from the haves (SEC, ACC, Pac-10).
One thing Nantz and Packer didn't bring up with Littlepage but should be known, just for full disclosure:
The athletic director of one of the more controversial inclusions, George Mason, was on the committee. By rule, Tom O'Connor had to recuse himself from the room when the Patriots were being discussed. But you still have to wonder whether his presence on the committee was any sort of boost for a school that will play its first-round game without its second-leading scorer, guard Tony Skinn, who is suspended after groin-punching a Hofstra player in the CAA tournament.
What Skinn did to Hofstra's Loren Stokes was worse than what Jim Nantz and Billy Packer did to Craig Littlepage. But there were similarities.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.