NCAA tournament 2012: How did those teams get in?

There are questions every year about why certain teams are invited to the NCAA basketball tournament and others not. The author looks at the 2012 'March Madness' field.

Seth Wenig/AP
Connecticut's Alex Oriakhi (34) dunks over DePaul defenders during the first round of the Big East NCAA college basketball conference tournament, Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in New York.

Sunday night’s NCAA basketball tournament selection show, at least with regard to the first few seed lines, carried relatively few surprises, and was generally well received by analysts across the broadcast spectrum.

But the waters were roiled a bit when earlier on Sunday, North Carolina fell to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament championship game – followed by Michigan State’s win in the Big Ten tournament title game over Ohio State. Kansas, favored by many to receive one of the four #1 seeds, lost last Friday to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, and as a result, fell to a #2 seed as Michigan State took the final #1 seed in the West region.

It was a bit unsettling to hear Jeff A. Hathaway, the chairman of the NCAA selection committee, say at midday on Sunday - before the championship round of the Big 10 and ACC tournaments had even commenced - that the committee had basically finished its work, while allowing for various “contingencies,” which he did not elaborate on.

But a more immediate question involves the selection of very borderline Big East teams like ninth-seeded Connecticut, 10th -seeded West Virginia, and the University of South Florida - the latter of whom is playing in the “First Four” in Dayton, Ohio Wednesday to try and secure a 12th-seed in that elimination round. All told, nine teams from the Big East made the tournament – an inflated number at best.

West Virginia lost eight of nine games against ranked teams and was only 9-9 in the Big East. Not only that, it lost its first-round Big East tournament game to Connecticut. They were then, as some have reported, "rewarded" for their efforts with what amounts to a home game (in nearby Pittsburgh) against visiting Gonzaga who, despite their being seeded seventh, will have to travel the breadth of the country to play them.

The Huskies, for their part, finished at 19-12 for the regular season, 8-10 overall in the Big East (9th of 13 teams) and then lost to Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. They also lost four of their last five regular season games, with the only win being against Pittsburgh, who isn’t in the tournament and finished 5-13 in the Big East. Connecticut’s record is more worthy of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), though they were never really seriously discussed as a “bubble” team.

Partisans may say UConn should be included because the team lost so many games while head coach Jim Calhoun was absent with health challenges (he’s since returned), and that the team’s strength of schedule (SOS) was ranked third in Division 1. But with a talent pool like UConn’s, these excuses are quite flimsy. And losing games against a tough SOS is still losing games. In fairness, no team with a losing record in conference should really be in this tournament (unless of course they win their conference title, which Connecticut has done in previous seasons – despite sporting similarly ordinary statistics). Pairing them in the South region with 8th seeded Iowa State, who went 12-6 in the highly competitive Big 12 - including a win over Kansas, is just odd. 

The University of South Florida’s selection was equally unusual – particularly when teams like Drexel who, before losing in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) tournament final, hadn’t lost a game since January 2nd , and had 27 wins in all. And even though their SOS was only 248, Drexel was certainly more proficient than Iona – another squad whose selection was a head-scratcher. Iona’s conference SOS was 266, and they had two fewer wins than Drexel.

Those who favor “power” conferences over so-called “mid-major” teams bemoan the fact that there are more mid-majors getting bids to the tournament than ever before – and as they see it, diluting its quality. But seemingly forever, power conference schools have stacked the deck against those teams by dictating onerous terms, including making the smaller schools travel to them for non-conference games. Such teams often receive a fee for agreeing to those terms, but those who decline them usually won’t get put on the schedule.

Also refuting the power conference canard in recent years has been the superior play of teams like Butler University out of the Horizon League, who appeared in back-to-back championship games in 2010 and 2011. Gonzaga (seeded seventh in the East region) and its fellow West Coast Conference (WCC) regular season opponent, St. Mary’s (seeded seventh in the Midwest region), have been perennial upstarts – not to mention the past runs of well-coached mid-majors like George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, who have both gone deep in the tournament in recent years. Mid-majors have more than earned their place in this tournament – and really should be given added consideration over mediocre big conference teams.

But all told, at the highest levels (first through the fourth seeds), this appears to be a very strong field. No. 1 seed Syracuse appears to have a fairly straight-forward road to the East regional final – an encounter with either No. 2 Ohio State or surging No. 3 Florida State being the only potential impediment to reaching the Final Four.

North Carolina, No. 1 in the Midwest region, has a slightly more difficult schedule, where they would likely face either Georgetown or Kansas in that region’s concluding contest. The West is top seed Michigan State’s to lose. They are playing their best basketball of the year now, and even with possible late-round games against perennially strong Louisville or Marquette, they should move comfortably through the field to what would be a thrilling game against No. 2 Missouri for another Final Four berth. Kentucky, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed from the South region, should, if events go favorably for them, likewise travel to New Orleans, with no real major threats coming until the latter regional rounds: No. 2 Duke, third-seeded Baylor or perhaps even a dark-horse contender like highly athletic No. 5 Wichita State among those.

There are always potential pitfalls awaiting the regional giants along the Final Four odyssey, which begins tonight with two of the four play-in games broadcast on truTV at 6:30 p.m. ET. Regardless, this tournament promises to deliver three weeks of frenetic excitement culminating with a national champion in New Orleans on April 2nd .

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