One year after an unprecedented number of at-large selections from mid-major conferences, the committee has done it again. Three in 2010 made the field (Green Bay, Arkansas-Little Rock and Fresno State) and three made the field again this year (Louisiana Tech, Houston and Middle Tennessee).
Some might quibble with Conference USA's label as a mid-major, but the truth is that since the mass defections to the Big East after the 2005 season, only once has the league produced multiple bids. While Houston's inclusion this season was no shock, it is news when C-USA gets a second team in.
Just like a year ago, two of the three are not at all surprises. Houston and Louisiana Tech were expected to and should have received bids. Middle Tennessee's inclusion, while not egregious by any means, was not clear-cut and should be questioned.
The committee clearly gave MTSU a pass for losing in the quarterfinals (after a first-round bye) of the Sun Belt Conference tournament (and perhaps the Blue Raiders deserved the pass given the horrible circumstances of losing a teammate the way they did just days before the game). Here's why.
When non-BCS, non-Atlantic 10/Mountain West conference teams have received at-large bids in the past, they have achieved some combination of the following: a huge overall winning percentage, clearly won the league's regular-season championship, had a top-40 RPI, or made it to at least the conference tournament final. Middle Tennessee does not qualify under any of those circumstances (the Blue Raiders did win the east division of the Sun Belt and had the same league record as UALR, but without the divisional separation they would have lost a tiebreaker to UALR). That would make MTSU's inclusion an anomaly of sorts. Here are the numbers for sake of comparison to the other mid-major teams selected over the past four years (conference record, overall record, RPI).
Louisiana Tech (WAC) -- 15-1, 24-7, 28 (won regular season by one game; reached WAC tournament final)
Houston (C-USA) -- 16-0, 26-5, 26 (won regular season by four games; C-USA tournament semis)
** Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) -- 14-2, 23-7, 44 (won Sun Belt east division; Sun Belt tournament quarterfinals)
Fresno State (WAC) -- 16-0, 27-6, 34 (won regular season by five games; WAC tournament final)
UALR (Sun Belt) -- 17-1, 26-6, 57 (tied MTSU for the regular-season title; Sun Belt tournament final)
Green Bay (Horizon) -- 15-3, 27-4, 66 (won regular season by one game; Horizon tournament semis)
VCU (CAA) -- 15-3, 26-6, 32 (second place regular season; CAA tournament semis)
UTEP (C-USA) -- 16-0, 27-3, 16 (won regular season by five games; C-USA tournament final)
Taking a more sympathetic view of MTSU's Sun Belt tournament loss is understandable, but let's remember when one team is given a break over something it can't control and then included in the field of 64, another team, not selected, is thusly hurt by that very same factor. For example, not penalizing the Blue Raiders ended up penalizing LSU.
Let's say the committee was voting on a group of teams that included MTSU, Syracuse, Michigan and LSU for that last spot in the field (I'm not saying the Blue Raiders were the last team in, but it certainly appears they were one of the last two, along with Dayton). The three which did not get a bid played better schedules and had more good wins than MTSU. Certainly part of that is due to playing in conferences which provide more of those opportunities. Also, with full disclosure in mind, only LSU among this group of four won a game in its conference tournament.
But, if it is "only being fair" to give Middle Tennessee a pass because of a teammate's death and its conference's inability to offer enough topflight games, isn't that then, in turn, penalizing Syracuse, Michigan and LSU for those exact same situations, which are really out of those schools' control? In the selection process, a "break" can't be given to one school without it hurting another.
Bottom line? I'm not necessarily saying Middle Tennessee doesn't belong this year (in fact, Texas was the bigger head-scratcher). However, it should be noted that this selection process is a numbers game. To overlook a circumstance or not scrutinize a situation the same way because it seems like the "fair" thing to do for one team means another team is being penalized for that same outlook.
In 2008, the committee put fellow Big East members Connecticut and Rutgers in the same region as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and was roundly (and rightfully) criticized for the unusual move that didn't seem necessary.
The explanation was that a great attempt was being made to keep teams, especially those near the top, in their natural geographies. As long as the teams didn't meet before the regional final, it didn't matter whether they were from the same conference (although this also violated a stated principle in placing teams in the bracket, but that wasn't acknowledged).
Perhaps hearing the complaints from the coaches and the media, the committee did not repeat the decision in either of the past two brackets. In 2009, Oklahoma was a No. 1 seed in Oklahoma City and Baylor and Texas A&M were both No. 2 seeds. If the committee had been consistent from the previous year, one of those two schools would have also gone to Oklahoma City along with Oklahoma, but neither did.
Instead, Auburn went to Oklahoma City, Texas A&M was placed in Trenton, N.J., and Baylor was shipped to Raleigh, N.C. On a geographical level, there's no way that can be considered logical. The only reasonable explanation is that the committee didn't want to follow its ill-conceived decision with UConn and Rutgers. Bravo. Learn from a mistake and correct it.
Last year, if the geography excuse had been used, then Notre Dame would have been the No. 2 with the Huskies in Dayton, Ohio, and Texas A&M would have been placed with Nebraska in Kansas City. But those scenarios were also avoided. Good move. Better tournament.
But, this year it happened again.
Baylor is the No. 1 and Texas A&M is the No. 2 in the Dallas Regional. Why? The answer all week will certainly be what it was in 2008 -- keeping teams in more geographically friendly regions and all else be damned. Why, then, the change in philosophy each of the past two years? It doesn't make sense. The fix is easy. Flip-flop the pods that A&M and Notre Dame are in. The Aggies play into Dayton, the Irish play into Dallas. Is that really such a big deal when it avoids the top teams in arguably the top conference potentially meeting before the Final Four for a fourth time?
Ironically, Texas A&M is paying the price for the change in philosophy. To keep the Aggies away from Nebraska last year, they were sent west to the Sacramento Regional. But they never reached it because of an upset loss to Gonzaga -- in Seattle.
This exact same issue happens in the Spokane Regional this year with Stanford as the No. 1 and UCLA as the No. 3. It's completely unnecessary. Fans don't want it, coaches don't want it and the media doesn't want it.
The bracket is tough to put together, no question about that. This one isn't so tough, though. Get UCLA away from Stanford. Put the Bruins in Dallas or Dayton. Yes, it will force someone else to travel more, but there is a level of going overboard with the geography issue -- and that level was hit this year.
Why was it OK for Notre Dame to play in Kansas City last year, but not OK for the Irish to be in Dallas this year? At least provide some consistency. The 180-degree shift in philosophy is dumbfounding.
What was true last year isn't the same truth this year. That shouldn't be. And that's what frustrates fans.
Other quibbles and questions
• Good to Be the Buckeyes. Bad to beat the Buckeyes. Of those teams presumed to be close to the field but not in (let's not call them all snubs because they all had flaws), three -- Michigan (twice), Duquesne and Syracuse -- all registered victories over Ohio State. The Wolverines and Dukes even did it in Columbus. So while the Buckeyes' body of work (helped tremendously by the big late-season push) was good enough to get a No. 4 seed, being able to beat Ohio State was not a good enough résumé element to get those three over the hump and into the field.
Michigan's problem clearly was the four losses outside the RPI top 100, because the Wolverines had better victories, more wins against the RPI top 50, a better road record, a better conference performance and a better finish than Texas.
Give Syracuse the advantage over the Longhorns in all of those categories, as well -- plus the Orange didn't have a bad loss. It had to be Syracuse's nonconference schedule other than Ohio State that the committee didn't like. Big road wins over tournament teams Marquette and St. John's didn't quite get it done, either.
• RPI does matter. We hear during the selection process every year that RPI is just one of the factors in selection. But it appears to have taken on more than that this year. The only criterion that gave Texas an advantage (and that includes the eye test because the Longhorns played some poor basketball aplenty this season) was its RPI. At 38, Texas had a higher RPI than any of the other schools discussed. Middle Tennessee's RPI (44) was the next highest, followed by Dayton's (46). While all other signs point to Syracuse, LSU and Michigan all being in instead, their RPIs were lower than the trio that did make it. It's doubtful this was just mere coincidence.
• Don't see the SEC. LSU's exclusion from the draw is actually historic. It means the SEC will have as few as four teams in the tournament for the first time since the league expanded from a 12- to a 14-game schedule (of course, it's 16 now). And, LSU becomes the first SEC team since that 1998 expansion with at least a .500 conference record and at least 18 overall wins not to make the NCAA field. Most would agree this wasn't a banner season for the conference, but this becomes an unprecedentedly poor showing. Probably enough reasons to keep the Lady Tigers out existed, but they certainly had as good if not a better case than Texas, Middle Tennessee or Dayton. LSU had more quality wins than any of them and had the single best win (at UCLA). LSU had a rough season in spots, but if the committee's job is to pick the best 33 at-large participants, then the Lady Tigers probably should have been in. Now that they are not, SEC history has been rewritten.
So with the SEC taking a numbers hit this year, here is the conference breakdown:
Big East: 9 teams
Big 12: 7
Big Ten: 5
Sun Belt: 2
Mis-seeded? Texas' being selected is not a crazy notion. The Longhorns probably shouldn't be in, but the bubble was soft, so we'll live with it. But making Texas a No. 9 seed conveys that the Longhorns were in more easily than they should have been. Maybe there was a seed line shift that made Gail Goestenkors' team a No. 9, but if not, that's extremely puzzling. Arizona State was too high as a No. 7 and Marist was probably too low at No. 10. Ironically, those two were supposed to play each other this season, but a snowstorm canceled the Red Foxes' trip to Tempe, Ariz.
Aggies get the same treatment. Let's just say I wouldn't want to be the desk in Texas A&M coach Gary Blair's office tonight, because he's going to be pounding it more than once. Not only did A&M get placed in the same region as Big 12 rival Baylor, but for the second straight year Blair's team has been sent to play in a subregional where the second-round game could be in his opponent's home territory (Louisiana Tech is about an hour away from Shreveport, La.). Repeats of this situation are supposed to be avoided, if possible. And the committee needs to do everything possible to protect the highest seeds. Sometimes, with the predetermined host sites, it is unavoidable. This one was preventable. Moving teams a seed line is permissible. Do it here. Make the Lady Techsters a No. 11 seed. It's not that vital if La. Tech is a No. 10 or a No. 11. Put a No. 3 seed in that position. Certainly don't do it to the same No. 2 seed two years in a row.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.