The buck stops here. It seems the politics start there. This isn't about West Virginia, any more than it is other schools that are among the best 65 in the nation, but are not playing in a tournament that promotes itself to possess such. Most things in life are political, from playing time in Little League to promotions on the job. This season, however, the already politically-motivated, and cash-driven, NCAA took measures to a whole other level with its pickings. A peek inside the 10-member selection committee makeup reveals much.
SEC Commish Michael L. Slive, formerly of C-USA and the Pac-10, managed to get five schools out of his league in, including an Arkansas program that was rumored to be close to canning head coach Stan Heath before it won three games in the postseason. The Razorbacks' resume: A 21-13 mark, including a 10-10 conference record built upon a run in the tourney consisting of wins over a 14-16 South Carolina team, a one-point victory over Vanderbilt and a semifinal win over Mississippi State, a team that went 18-13 and made the NIT. That's the semifinal game in the SEC. Arkansas and Mississippi State, a squeaker of an NCAA squad and an NIT foe. In the Big East, one faces no team lower than an NCAA six-seed this season. And the ‘backs were the lone team from the SEC West Division even to get in, leading one it believe it fed on poor foes throughout the vast majority of the conference slate, not unlike WVU.
The Pac-10 and Big Ten each matched the Big East's six teams. Yet those conferences have six and five fewer schools, respectively, and rank just ahead in what was considered a down year for the Big East despite it having more teams within the RPI top 40 than the Big Ten and equal the number of the Pac-10. And no other conference besides the SEC has three teams within the top 15 of the RPI. But both the Big Ten and Pac-10 had athletic directors on the committee, ones from Ohio State and UCLA.
Purdue is 21-11 with losses at Indiana State (139) and Minnesota (191) with two wins over top 50 teams against five losses. And even if one could build a case for inclusion, as could be made with such info, could one argue the Boilermakers into a nine seed, meaning there were approximately 8-10 teams taken after Purdue that came from major conferences? Illinois is 3-8 against top 40 teams, most of those in the low 20s, and it rates 30th in the RPI. Should not a team that ranks within that range beat most of the teams near it. The Illini didn't. And The Pac-10 somehow squeezes in 67th-rated Stanford, 18-12 and 10-9, a school that lost in the first round of its conference tournament. Consider the Cardinal even for Cal's romp through their band.
The biggest coup was pulled by the ACC. It landed seven teams in, likely courtesy UVA AD Craig Littlepage, who managed, with the committee, not only to gain bids for more than half the league's teams, but secure a four-seed for his 20-10 school whose RPI was 55 and plummeting, along with Georgia Tech's, at the end of the year. The Cavs lost half of their final eight games, one to Wake Forest, a cool 122 in the rankings and arguably the worst team in the league. At least UVA was 11-6 in conference play. GA Tech went 8-9 and got thrashed at dead-last Miami, much like WVU did at Cincinnati. Two losses in as many games to Wake didn't help, either. But the addition of those two teams brings almost another cool million to the conference's coffers, somewhat depleted after its dismal showing in the last two ACC football title games and BCS berths.
Then there were the seeds, Duke garnering a six when no better than an eight or nine was warranted. But one can't put a name like Duke against truly a good team in the second round, so six it is. The Devils' advocate here also pulled down the four (UVA), a ten for a Tech team that deserved a 12 for barely getting in, and a five-seed for a Virginia Tech team with bad losses against Western Michigan, Marshall, Florida State, NC State (twice within one month) and Clemson, allowing the latter to salvage something from is swan dive at the end of the year. But the Hokies, losers of three of their last four and 5-6 in their last 11, swept North Carolina and beat an average Duke team, playing the Selection Committee's game better than any other team.
It seems that the idea isn't to defeat teams one is supposed to beat, but instead lay the occasional egg as long as one finds a huge win or two. Better, then, to go 2-2 with losses against teams of 150-plus in the RPI paired with wins over a top five squad. Flash-in-the-pan ability is desired more than constant solid play, and Tech, with its 20 wins and 11 losses overall, is no better example. The Hokies were perhaps a three or four seed, then, before they could not beat anyone of substance down the stretch. But at least they faced UNC before Tyler Hansbrough had his nose broken. He might have missed the game, turning UNC into the Mountaineers' UCLA win, listed ad nauseam as UULAWODC, or UCLA (without Darren Collison). Here's a thought: Get some depth at point guard for what was at times the nation's No. 1 team.
That's really the question, isn't it? What WAS the committee searching for. It seemed especially adrift this year. It didn't go mid-major crazy, but took major conference teams that were at best on the bubble, leaning toward those conferences that had reps at the table. Why Stanford over Syracuse? Purdue as an eight? UVA as a four? All legit questions, the answers cloaked in the lies, damn lies, and statistics problem called the RPI. The NCAA committee wants to insure itself via a numbers game. It pokes and prods the RPI and the conference schedule strength and the wins here or there, apparently ignoring horrid losses. Let's use real basketball knowledge, some CSI, or Common Sense Index, a la the NIT, which, as chairman C.M. Newton said last night, evaluates teams on how the committee believes they will perform. Look at a team's body of work, and when it was done. A win over a red-hot Oklahoma State team playing incredible basketball early in the year should hold up, not be deflated when the team hits a skid late in the year and has its RPI crash, sinking the winner's with it.
A win over Clemson at the mid point was a thing on which to hang the hat. By the end, it was just grasping at tigers' tails, more meaningless than anything else. Note that West Virginia's win over Connecticut proved itself to be average, the Huskies never amounting to anything. But recognize, too, that taking a truly very good team into overtime should indeed be rewarded. It reads like a lot of work, all this evaluating of teams and their styles and fits and abilities. And it is. It's the Selection Committee's job, and if it needs longer than a day, take it and slide the announced pairings back another 24 hours.
"So many people have this notion of a smoke-filled back room where deals are brokered," Charles Harris, former Arizona State athletics director and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner, who served on the committee from 1996-99, told NCAA.com. "The reality is quite contrary to that. I get a sense sometimes that those who have not been in the room look at the decisions that are made as being preordained."
Only because the evidence points so heavily to such. A major second step is revamping the committee, and placing a rep from every major conference, or every conference, on it. Take blind votes for which schools get in and which don't. Don't allow a league's jealousy one year to intrude upon the next, or all the selections will be each season is a payback tour.
Perhaps a better idea, and one put forth recently by a fan, is to continue to give each conference tournament winner a bid, leaving the 34 at-large bids. Allow the other 68 schools, or even 136, a chance to play into the tournament with a one- or two-game setup via seeding. It takes one weekend. And at least then, nobody with any reasonable chance at all could argue they were left out. Think Drexel is better than Old Dominion, or Stanford should still be in over some others? Let's find out. Because this season, the second round of the NIT is better than the first, and arguably the second, of the NCAA will be. Still, in the end, it's better to simply win enough games to leave no doubt. I guess the question then is, how many is enough to leave no doubt. Because at least in the non-represented Big East, 10 wasn't enough in conference, 11 if you count the postseason. Neither was 22 overall, against just nine or 10 losses. And even major wins became ESPN acronyms of influence, a la UCLAWODC.
Where is that fine line? Shifting, that's where, from year-to-year and committee-to-committee, each favoring not the most deserving teams, but the almighty buck and a bit of payback. And that's no way to decide a national champion.