SEC, newcomers highlight draw
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The NCAA tournament selection committee thought the SEC was the nation's best this year, and rewarded the league with a record five regional host sites Sunday. A day later, the committee reinforced its opinion by granting the SEC a record nine tournament bids and six (out of 16) No. 1 seeds.
"The SEC this year was far and away better than any conference," NCAA selection committee chairman Charlie Carr said. "Their non-conference record was outstanding and their record against teams they played was far and above teams from any other conference.
"Were we concerned (with taking nine SEC teams)? Sure. Not for the nine SEC teams, but for other schools wanting to make the NCAA tournament. We wanted to be fair."
Every team in the eight-team SEC tournament field made the regionals, with tourney winner South Carolina grabbing a No. 2 national seed. Mississippi State, the ninth team to get in, made it without participating in the SEC tournament, a precedent set by Florida last year. The Bulldogs had a Ratings Percentage Index among the nation's top 30, even though they were 13-17 in league play.
"Mississippi State was a good team playing in a great conference with a very good schedule," Carr said. "They won enough games to get in the tournament. I'm sure coach (Ron) Polk would have liked to have won more games, but he did enough to get in."
No other team in the tournament was four games under .500 in conference play -- not even Youngstown State, which went 7-10 in the Horizon League but won the conference tournament. Four other teams -- UC Irvine, Missouri, North Carolina State and Tennessee -- made the field despite losing conference records.
"There's never been anything to tell us we can't take one (with a sub-.500 league record)," Carr said. "You look at it as a caution or reluctance in some sense, but you look at the overall record and how they got where they are."
The SEC surpassed the eight bids it received in 2001 and '03. Three other leagues tied their previous records for bids. The ACC received six (as in 1998), as did the Big 12 (1999). The Pac-10 earned five, which it did in a 48-team field in 1997.
While 38 of the 64 teams were in the field last year, the tournament also has eight first-time entries: Birmingham-Southern, UC Irvine, College of Charleston, Jacksonville State, St. Bonaventure, Stony Brook, Texas Southern and Youngstown State.
Western Kentucky and Vanderbilt both made the field for the first time since 1980. George Mason got in for the first time since 1993, TCU for the first time since '94 and Virginia for the first time since 1996.
Biting Their Nails
Middle Tennessee State is the only No. 4 seed that's not an automatic qualifier, so it's safe to assume the Red Raiders were the last team in. MTSU went 40-20 overall and 16-8 in the Sun Belt Conference to finish in a tie for the regular season title, but lost to Western Kentucky in the conference tournament.
George Mason, Birmingham-Southern and College of Charleston joined Middle Tennessee as regular-season champions from smaller conferences that received at-large bids.
"We look at each school and their record," Carr said. "We try to be open to every team and not just because they are not in one of the large leagues or conferences. We were very, very careful this year and it worked out very well.
"You had a number of teams that were at-large without winning their tournament, but we talked about it a lot and tried to determine who to put in. Hopefully it creates diversity from a national perspective as you are trying to look at it."
George Washington, which posted the second-best record in the Atlantic-10 at 41-18, 19-5, was the only one of the nation's 26 teams with 40 Division I wins that didn't appear in the brackets.
Along with GW, the other teams that could complain about missing out include Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Houston and Creighton. It's hard to find an undeserving at-large team in the field if you buy the Mississippi State argument, however. Nebraska and Auburn could make cases, but both schools had rough finishes and poor league records.
"We don't really look at how many wins, but what kind of wins and who they are against," Carr said. "Thirty wins is sometimes better than 40 or 45 wins because if you don't beat or play a Top-25 team it makes it very hard to value those wins."
Carr said the selection committee considered 10 teams for the field's final two spots. "It sounds like it's difficult, but it was not as difficult as other years," Carr added.
West Coast Bias?
Four West Coast regional sites fed into two super-regionals last year, forcing those teams to knock each other off before reaching the College World Series.
This year, there are just two West regional sites -- and teams in those brackets wouldn't face each other until Omaha.
However, each Western regional pits arguably the top two teams from the Pac-10 and Big West conferences against each other.
Arizona State, which like Washington did not bid to serve as a regional host, earned the top seed at the Fullerton Regional, where Big West champ Cal State Fullerton is a No. 2 seed -- the best second seed in the tournament.
Up in Palo Alto, Calif., Pac-10 champ Stanford is the host and top seed, with Big West runner-up Long Beach State as the No. 2. It marks the fourth straight year, and fifth time in six years, that the Dirtbags will travel to Stanford. Both of these possible regional finals matchups were super-regional matchups a year ago.
"What kind of tied the hands of the committee is we don't have a lot of bids from the West Coast," Carr said. "We would be very happy to have the options and a better opportunity. So we're a little bit strapped, but by the same token, it is a regional."
Further complicating matters for Big West schools is that the league's third entry, UC Irvine, which finished in a tie for fourth place at 10-11, is the only one not in a regional with a national seed. The Anteaters, which drew Notre Dame as their No. 1 seed at the South Bend Regional, seem to have an easier draw than the two teams that finished ahead of them in conference play.
"We're just happy to be in the tournament," Irvine coach John Savage said. "I thought Long Beach and Fullerton were going to be high seeds."
"It's a sterile answer," Carr said, "but you have to balance the brackets. It's not just the top teams but all four. Sometimes one of the seeds is a little better than another, but we try to balance the bracket as a whole. (But) it's not perfect, as I'm sure you'll tell us."
Change Those Travel Plans
Along with the potential Fullerton-Arizona State and Stanford-Long Beach regional finals, two more regionals are set up to yield rematches of super-regionals from 2003, if the teams advance that far: South Carolina-North Carolina and Miami-North Carolina State.
While these matchups are familiar, a handful of neighborhood rivals avoided each other in the brackets. Clemson went to Georgia instead of the closer alternative at South Carolina. And neither North Carolina nor N.C. State got to make the two-hour trip down to Kinston to face No. 1 seed East Carolina. Southern Mississippi is headed to Louisiana State and Tulane is going to Mississippi, and each of those two pairings could have been reversed as well.
"One of the things we look at as a committee is trying to give an experience to the student athletes," Carr said. "A lot of times it works so well to put two very good programs together, but some years we need a change."
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