Jim Harris: Mid-Majors Kill Themselves With Tourneys

Only Middle Tennessee had everything to lose this past weekend in Hot Springs at the Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament. For the second straight year, the Blue Raiders went and lost it.

Meanwhile, for the fourth straight year, the Sun Belt Conference will send one of its middle-of-the-pack teams to the NCAA Tournament. For the second straight year, that team is Western Kentucky, which managed to get the right draw and some amazing last-minute breaks to win four straight games in Hot Springs.

Western Kentucky, which dealt with an assortment of injuries to key players throughout the year, and Florida International, which jelled late under first-year head coach Richard Pitino, were among the five or so teams coming into the tournament playing their best basketball of the season. In fact, after watching them survive and advance each night, it’s fair to say the finalists were playing the best of the teams in Hot Springs.

But Middle Tennessee, which won the league’s double round-robin by FIVE games, was the only team at Summit Arena that looked the part of an NCAA Tournament team —including the way presumably good NCAA Tournament teams choke away a pressure-filled game at the foul line. (Michigan managed to do the very same thing at home in losing a fabulous regular season finale to Indiana for the Big Ten regular season title.)

It says everything that Arkansas State head coach John Brady, just minutes after having suffered a heartbreaking loss to Western Kentucky in the Sunday night semifinal round, was trumpeting Middle Tennessee’s cause as an NCAA at-large team.

“If Middle isn’t a dead lock for getting in the NCAA, they need to throw out all the criteria,” Brady said.

He urged the media in the room to be pro-active in pushing Middle Tennessee’s resume. The problem is, we’re not Seth Davis, Pat Forde, Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm or any of the other national scribes who tout the big-name teams and downplay others. They were the ones tweeting and writing Sunday night how Middle Tennessee had played its way out of the tournament with a close loss to FIU.

Lunardi, of course, is the ESPN “expert” who spends all season predicting who will make the 68-team field and in which order — which teams are “on the bubble” or the “first four in” and the “first four out.” He’s not a member of the NCAA Selection Committee, thank goodness, and the committee shouldn’t be basing any of their criteria on Lunardi’s opinions but strictly on the information they have. But face it — endless talk all season long by TV commentators and national writers about which teams belong in and which conferences are the deepest (again, subjective, as everything changes and younger players and teams tend to improve more than older teams) has to affect the thinking of the NCAA administrators on the selection committee.

If enough people from Bristol, Conn., to the West Coast think Middle Tennessee didn’t do enough in a 19-1 conference season because it was upset in Hot Springs, the important people will start believing it.

A week ago, Middle had an RPI in the Top 25 and a strength of schedule in the Top 10. The NCAA selection committee members told the mid-majors several years back to show them what kind of teams they really had by playing good nonconference schedules, and the Sun Belt administration advised it as well three years ago. Kermit Davis Jr. took his 28-5 Blue Raiders to Tampa to play the Florida Gators — yes, like everyone else who played at Florida this season, they lost by double digits. The Blue Raiders also beat Ole Miss for the second year in a row, this time at home; they defeated Vanderbilt on a “neutral” court in Nashville; they lost to Belmont, which won its way into the NCAA Tournament by beating Murray State. Two of Middle’s five losses came in overtime.

Remember, also, that with the exception such teams as Ole Miss or Vanderbilt, nobody from a top league is stepping up wanting to travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for a beating. Those teams have their own precious records to protect, and a league reputation to uphold, to risk it by giving Middle a prestigious home game.

For instance, Arkansas State can’t get anybody big-time to come into Jonesboro these days. The reputation of A-State as a tough out in the Convocation Center was established under Nelson Catalina more than 20 years ago and hasn’t changed. ESPN is not going to help the way it helps the major conferences, such as bringing a powerhouse Syracuse into Fayetteville to play the Razorbacks early this season.

This year’s Middle Tennessee team had several returnees from a squad that was relegated to the NIT and won twice, including at Tennessee. Kermit Davis’ team went into UCLA last year and won. He didn’t schedule UCLA knowing the Bruins would ultimately have a down season under Ben Howland.

If the selection committee snubs Middle Tennessee again, is this on the school? Is it on the Sun Belt?

“What else is Kermit Davis to do?” Brady asked.

What else are mid-major conferences such as the Sun Belt to do?

The first question might be: Why even hold a post-season tournament if the NCAA selection committee continues to take only one team from your league and your tournament isn’t sending the league’s best team as its automatic qualifier?

What purpose does a 20-game round-robin league schedule serve if the clear winner can’t represent the league in the NCAA Tournament? Scratch a few league games have add a few more big-conference schools, even on the road, and see if the league can show its strength that way.

As Brady pointed out, it’s harder for him to get Arkansas State into the NCAA Tournament — because the Sun Belt gets just one team in, with the exception of 2007 and 2008, when it managed an at-large pick — than it was to get his previous employer, LSU, into the field. “It’s easier to get into the NCAA Tournament if you’re in the SEC,” he said. “A lot of times you’d go to the SEC [postseason] tournament and you’d already know you’re in.”

Instead, Middle Tennessee came into Hot Springs with the knowledge of last year’s snub and played not to lose again, played tight again, and couldn’t pull out a tight contest at the end again.

For the second year in a row, Western Kentucky lost twice to Middle Tennessee in the regular season, didn’t have to face the Blue Raiders in the postseason tourney, and reached the NCAA Tournament.

And, yes, let’s give postseason league tournaments their due. It’s not like they are a complete waste of time. There’s something unique about bringing all the conference teams into one site for a four-day, non-stop shindig. We’re not certain they serve much as money-makers on the mid-major level; Hot Springs’ attendance for men’s games dropped nearly 3,000 people to 13,302 for the four days this year.

Or course, in the bigger leagues, only the mediocre league teams are having to play their way in to the Dance; the top programs typically have a spot sewed up — but not the Sun Belt.

Richard Pitino won’t be going to the NCAA with his FIU Golden Panthers, nor are they likely to get an NIT invite. But he also made sure to note Middle Tennessee’s regular season accomplishments after his squad lost 65-63 in the Sun Belt final to Western Kentucky. Coach Ray Harper, whose WKU Hilltoppers didn’t have to see Middle along the way to the title, concurred about the Blue Raiders’ worthiness.

“Middle Tennessee deserves to be in the NCAA, no question about it, and I hope next Sunday there will be two teams representing the Sun Belt in the NCAA,” Harper said.

The NCAA tourney always features some loser that managed to get hot in a conference tournament and win one of the 31 automatic bids. Liberty is the latest 20-game loser to make the field. The Big South Conference, represented in recent years by Winthrop or North Carolina-Asheville, didn’t have one team that stood out among the rest in two divisions. A conference tournament in that case was a fair way to determine its one spot in the NCAA field.

The NCAA has 37 at-large spots to fill, and many of those will go to the Big Ten and Big East Conferences. The Southeastern Conference will be fortunate if it gets more than three invites.

There should be a place for Middle Tennessee. With the knowledge now that Gonzaga is among the nation’s beat teams and that Butler made the NCAA title game twice, and if NCAA selection committee is fair and just about its choices, more top teams from mid-major conferences should be represented than mediocre finishers from the “power” leagues.

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