Committee's message? Play someone
The 2009 NCAA tournament selection committee made clear that regardless of conference affiliation, November and December games matter just as much as conference games.
NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Slive, the commissioner of the SEC, made it clear the "body of work" from November to March matters most.
"The whole season is important. November and December are not exhibition games -- it's part of the body of work," Slive said. "It also gives teams the opportunity to differentiate themselves."
Slive went on to say that nonconference scheduling is an important part of "the body of work."
Later Sunday night, Slive didn't shy away from the problem his league had in getting teams in the field or strong seeds. The Southeastern Conference got only three bids and the seeds are an 8 (LSU), a 9 (Tennessee) and a 13 (tourney champ Mississippi State). Clearly, Slive didn't play favorites. Under the rules of the committee, Slive had to leave the room for any discussion on SEC teams, and the computer he was working on wouldn't have allowed him to vote on any of his conference teams, anyway.
Since the SEC expanded its league (12 teams) and its schedule (16 games) in the early 1990s, no 10-6 team had ever been left out of the NCAA field. That was the league record of South Carolina and Auburn this season, and neither one of them made it. The decent nonconference wins for teams like the Gamecocks and Tigers were simply not there. And with the exception of a November win over Washington, the same goes for Florida.
"The message is the same to all of the teams, and that is they need to schedule in a way so that they can differentiate between the quality of competition, specifically in the nonconference portion of the schedule," Slive told ESPN.com in an e-mail. "As a footnote, the SEC has won seven of the last nine national championships in football, men's and women's basketball. And as SEC commissioner, that is something we are extremely proud of. Obviously, we would like more teams in the tournament. What commissioner wouldn't?"
The committee's emphasis on the importance of "body of work" was evident in the selection and seeding of teams.
Arizona got a bid by playing a big-time nonconference schedule, something former coach Lute Olson prided himself on throughout his tenure in Tucson. Zona's bid was earned through beating teams like Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State in its nonconference slate, to go along with conference wins against teams like UCLA and Washington.
Slive said Arizona's early-season wins, coupled with those Pac-10 victories, "meant a lot to the committee."
Penn State didn't have anything close to those nonconference wins. The highest-rated RPI team it beat outside the Big Ten was No. 118 Mount St. Mary's. That was simply not good enough.
Maryland got in by complementing a marquee ACC home win over North Carolina in overtime and a Wake Forest win in the ACC tournament with early-season wins over Big Ten champ Michigan State on a neutral court, and over Michigan at home.
"The one thing that the NCAA made clear to the coaches is that we're not going to judge you on which league you play in, whether it's the ACC or the Big Ten," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "If you don't beat good teams in November and December or you don't play those teams or do well, then that won't get thrown out anymore [in conference]. They've made it clear that it's nice to have good wins."
Maryland played in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., and that helped. The committee made it clear that playing in these early-season tournaments, in which a team gets three quality games, can make a difference for a bid, rather than loading up on nonconference home games. The Terps got a win over Michigan State in Orlando and two losses to quality teams in Gonzaga and, at the time, Georgetown.
Siena went 0-3 in the event, losing to Tennessee, Wichita State and Oklahoma State. The Saints also played at Kansas and at Pitt. Siena didn't win those either, but that strength of schedule, along with MAAC regular-season and tournament titles, earned the Saints a 9-seed, opposite Ohio State in Dayton.
"It's been my experience that the committee has been fair to everybody," Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. "We know we have to schedule well in the nonconference to get our strength of schedule up. That's why we played Kansas, Pitt and in the Old Spice and at Holy Cross and at Cornell. Arizona did it in their way -- it had an impact. It used to be that 20 wins did it for you, but that's not as big a deal anymore with everyone playing 30 games."
On Saturday, UCLA coach Ben Howland said he couldn't get over how much November and December games mean now. The college football argument against college basketball's regular season has always been that the regular season doesn't mean as much. But that is proving to be false.
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Auburn's early-season loss to Mercer, even without a key player, has relevance. Boston College lost to Harvard and had to do more to make up for it, like beating the ACC regular-season champ (North Carolina) and the tournament champ (Duke). Look, all games matter. And if you lose early to a lesser team, you'll have to make up for it.
Gonzaga has consistently scheduled up, because if it doesn't, the body of work won't be there with simply West Coast Conference games. The Zags played in the Old Spice Classic, beating Tennessee for the title. Gonzaga did lose its share of these marquee games to Memphis, Arizona, Utah and Connecticut. But the Zags did turn around and win at Tennessee later in the season.
"Every year, the thing that I watch closer than our matchup is when the committee chair starts explaining why," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I want to see how our schedule reflects year in and year out -- if our schedule works. They always talk about what you do with the games you control -- your body of work. We all have a certain number of games we control, if you schedule aggressively."
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