This could be year for mid-majors' at-large splash
Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2007 NCAA Tournament bracket right up to Selection Monday in March. Click here for this month's field of 64 Women's Bracketology and Charlie's team-by-team analysis. This projection includes games through Jan. 22.
|To check out Charlie Creme's latest bracket projection, visit ESPN.com's Bracketology index.|
Many of the letters over the past two weeks have asked about the mid-majors. What's the highest seed Bowling Green can get? Can Middle Tennessee make a deep run? Can the Colonial Athletic Association get multiple teams in the tournament?
The answers? The Falcons might go as high as a five-seed. Yes, Middle Tennessee might get to a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. But it's the third question, or ones similar to it, that is the most compelling. And history indicates the answer is an emphatic "no!"
Just last season, the Colonial's James Madison went 24-6 with an RPI in the mid-50s. The Dukes finished second to Old Dominion in both the regular season and the conference tournament. Indiana State had an even higher RPI (47 by the NCAA's final release) and won the Missouri Valley Conference going away -- but the Sycamores stumbled in the tournament final. Neither team made the Big Dance. Yet 18-11 Cal (RPI 66) and 21-9 Missouri (RPI 65) both went in as at-large choices with the committee citing their tougher overall schedules and more wins against good teams.
In 2005, Gonzaga finished at 27-3 and 14-0, but the Zags did the unthinkable, losing to Santa Clara in the conference tournament final. Despite a respectable No. 48 RPI, they were left out of the bracket, too.
Two lessons here: Don't make RPI the end-all, be-all, and don't expect the smaller leagues to get any of the at-large bids.
Only twice in the past five tournaments (Louisiana Tech out of the WAC in 2005 and Santa Clara out of the WCC in 2002) has a school from outside the BCS leagues, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 or Conference USA before the defections two years ago, gotten in without earning its conference's automatic bid.
However that could change in 2007.
In a season where finding 25 teams actually worthy of any top-25 list is difficult (in fact, I had to stop for a while after 21 on this week's S-curve because no one seemed to have earned the 22nd spot), it's reasonable to assume that extra teams from the Colonial (Delaware, Hofstra), MAC (Ball State), Sun Belt (Western Kentucky) and the Big Sky (if Montana isn't the automatic bid, which the Lady Griz aren't in this projection) could hear their names on Selection Monday.
These teams are helped by their gaudy records, but also the relative mediocrity of the middle of the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12. If the committee is looking for "good" wins, top-50 wins, as a difference maker, it isn't going to find them after getting by the big three in the ACC or Michigan State as the third-best Big Ten team. Even Nebraska, which is second in the Big 12 and has looked like a solid NCAA team all season, has only NC State to call a quality win -- and the Wolfpack simply qualify as another of the very average teams I'm discussing here (New Mexico could move into the category of "good" win, but not now).
Illinois? Virginia? Wisconsin? Neither these schools nor their brethren have done anything to distinguish themselves with their only decent victories coming against each other.
So why not Western Kentucky or Ball State?
Well, remember I'm labeling this an opportunity, a year when it could happen, but none of these schools has a big win to talk about, either.
Western Kentucky was competitive against Vanderbilt and Louisville, but earned no wins. A second meeting with Sun Belt leader Middle Tennessee is the Hilltoppers' last opportunity to truly make noise. The best case for the Sun Belt would be Western Kentucky or someone else winning the league tournament because the Blue Raiders do have good wins and can't possibly be left out. However, this week Western Kentucky just misses the cut. A highly rated SOS doesn't make up for the fact that the Hilltoppers haven't beaten anyone. That seemed to be the committee's mantra last March.
Ball State did beat Xavier and that's it, but right now that's enough and the real difference between the Cardinals and Western Kentucky. Ball State does have a problem, though. The schedule isn't great and isn't getting better with nothing but MAC games left. Beating Indiana would really have helped. At season's end, the Cardinals might ultimately look too much like Indiana State a year ago.
The James Madison/Delaware/Hofstra group in the CAA is similar. All three schools reside in the RPI top 50, but as we've seen, that doesn't always matter. The Pride have the league's best win, beating Michigan State, but now Hofstra has three league losses, including two to Delaware. The CAA probably has a real chance at one extra bid, but no more -- and Hofstra is out.
This week also brought us the rare in-season example of a heavy conference favorite with an impressive-looking record and solid RPI not getting the automatic bid. That's what happened in the Big Sky when Montana, which had been knocking on the door of the top 25 in both major polls, got dominated at Weber State. That likely means a huge step backward. That, plus the fact Davidson is the Lady Griz's best victory, puts Montana on the outside in this projection. Best advice: Win the Big Sky tournament.
So, we have Ball State and James Madison in. Western Kentucky, Hofstra and Montana are out. That's still two more mid-major at-large choices than is typical. This could still be wishful thinking, especially based on the committee's decisions from last year. But Cal had beaten UCLA and Arizona State, two clear tournament teams. Missouri knocked off Baylor. Not one of the BCS conference bubble teams has a similar victory yet in 2006-07.
So, again, why not?
Click here to send Charlie Creme an e-mail.
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Kentucky's Stallworth (knee) out 3-4 weeks
- Women's regionals to return to neutral sites
- Sun earn top pick in the WNBA draft lottery
- UConn remains No. 1 heading into off week