I’m sure we’ve all heard by now…no no no, not that Carrie Underwood will be performing at the Stockton Arena (September 28th for those who feel like taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights)…but that the NCAA has officially approved expanding March Madness to 68 teams. But what does it really mean for our valley Mid-Major schools like Pacific, Fresno State and UC Davis?....well, the Spot put on his investigative hat too dig a little deeper and asked those in the know what impact it might have for some of our hometown schools…(ok ok, so I really just asked really nice and hoped people would answer)
The question on everyone’s mind is who will tourney expansion favor? Does this mean an additional 3 spots for deserving Mid-Majors? Or does it mean more teams from the ACC, Big East, SEC and all the other power conferences with 7-9 leauge records get the undeserving tourney bid (yep, as you can tell, the Spot is totally biased on this one). One person who was very enthusiastic about the impact that expansion will have on Mid-Majors was Angela Lento, co-founder of collegeinsider.com, a website devoted to all things Mid-Major. In Angela’s view:
“Expanding to 68 has made sense for years. Rather than having one game in Dayton, there can be four games. It would feel more like an NCAA Tournament site. Essentially it would be four play-in games, which means eight mid-majors. If done properly it can be a mid-major showcase of sorts, like a postseason ‘Bracket Buster Tuesday.’ I really like this concept a lot. I do think it will create more competitive 1 vs. 16 matchups. I don’t think the bye is really beneficial (see Big East Tournament this year) so there is an advantage to the mid-majors. Do I think we are going to see a run of 16 seeds beating 1 seeds? No, but I do think the 14-16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament are better than ever before, while the elite in college basketball are not nearly as strong as they were just a few short years ago.”
Angela also had a rather positive view of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. When asked if the tournament expansion would create more access for Mid-Majors, she was of the belief that:
“The NCAA Tournament selection process has become more predictable in recent years. Greg Shaheen has done a great job of conveying the NCAA ‘formula’ and selection process to the media and fans. Years ago it was easier for someone on the selection committee to push an agenda. That’s difficult today. The selection committee changes annually, but the criteria does not. In a given year mid-majors will be better represented. But how well mid-majors did in 2010 will not have any bearing on how many are selected in 2011 (remember Wake Forest, which was on the bubble, did not have a good showing in the last two NCAA Tournaments but that did not keep them out of the 2010 NCAA Tournament).”
Someone who is hopeful, yet realistic, about tourney expansion meaning greater access for mid-majors is Pacific Athletic Director Lynn King. Lynn has a quite a bit of experience with the NCAA tourney selection committee having served as the A.D. at Drake University (which just happens to be a member of the model for all Mid-Major Conferences, the Missouri Valley Conference) before his current ten year run at Pacific. In talking to Lynn (who was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a couple of my questions), the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has shown over time that they are not disposed to select mid-major teams when it comes to at-large spots. To back up his point, it’s interesting to note that the conference with the most NCAA Tourney snubs with teams that had a top 40 RPI just happens to be the mid-major poster child, the Missouri Valley Conference (5 teams with a Top 40 RPI were not selected, including Missouri State, which was once excluded with a RPI ranking of 21, the only team with a top 30 RPI ever to be excluded from the tourney). Other notable mid-major exceptions were the Patty Mill’s led St. Mary’s Gaels from 2009 and the 2004 Utah State Aggies, who weren’t selected even though they were ranked in the Top 25 (Then again, they lost to Pacific in the Big West Finals that year, so it’s not like the Spot is crying too much over that one!) In Lynn’s view, the Tournament Selection Committee is pre-disposed to the “power conferences” and it’s his expectation that we won’t see a change in philosophy in how the selection committee chooses its at-large teams.
Last but not least, there are those who are of the opinion that the focus shouldn’t be on who the extra three slots will go to, but that the focus for mid-majors should be on continuing to improve their product as to better compete with the big boys, both on the court and in the tourney selection room. In speaking with Big West Conference expert Steve Chen (why is he a Big West Conference expert? Probably because for his day job he serves as the Director of New Media for the Big West Conference…go figure!)…the focus shouldn’t be on trying to guess who will and who won’t get the three extra tourney spots. Instead, the focus for the Big West and its member schools (and all mid-majors for that matter) should be on:
“building programs that can compete in the tournament on a national level. In some sense, it's not a matter of just making the field, but also of having a chance to win. It can obviously be done, as Pacific has shown recently, and we have been in games in the past few years, though, of course, we would all like to win. When you look at the current crop of coaches and players that lead the Big West, they are all young and growing, so I think there's a bright future ahead.”
So there you have it Spot fans. Three different opinions on an issue that can probably garner 3 million different views in any given barber shop on Main Street U.S.A. So which will it be? Will expansion mean more opportunity for your favorite mid-major? Will it just mean more mediocre teams from the Big East and ACC (paging the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, please report to the mediocrity service desk)…well, we won’t find out until selection Sunday…and that everyone, is why they call it March Madness…
‘Till next time….