Jim Harris: NCAA Tournament Shockers, Thrillers Make It Easy to Forget Selection Process


ncaa tournament madness

We were all set to blast the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee as perhaps the worst ever assembled, giving us the worst 65-or-better team bracket in the past 29 years, when Lady Luck stepped in to redeem this basketball tournament. On opening night (and toss in the opening afternoon Dayton-Ohio State game as well) we were witness to five of the most exciting games of the college basketball season.

Even defending champion Louisville, which provided one of the sources of criticism from all over the country because of the selection committee’s awarding the Cardinals only a fourth seed instead of something much more deserving of their recent play, was part of the late thrills, managing to prevail in the final moments over a 13th seed.

The 5-12 seed matchups again gave us more shocks and near surprises. More first-round upsets have come from that pairing than any from 11 to 16.  It turns out there is little difference between a team considered the 17th to 20th best in the country and one considered Nos. 45-48, and this didn’t start with the current tournament. We’ll contend, too, that there is little difference in about 20 at-large teams in this field and 20 who are competing in the National Invitation Tournament, including Arkansas.

Still, we saw No. 5 seed St. Louis stage a miraculous comeback against at 12th-seed, North Carolina State, rallying from 16 points down with a little more than 7 minutes left using the same strategy that onetime NC State coach Jim Valvano employed to lead his Wolfpack to a surprising 1983 national championship. This time, the announcers referred to it as “Hack a Pack” as the Billikens used as many fouls as they could to send NC State to the line and watch them miss.

For purists, it was an abomination at the foul stripe, and the Billikens were almost just as bad, too. But St. Louis wasn’t the one having to be being fouled, but rather doing the fouling to stage its comeback. The Billikens forced overtime and won in the extra period. Perhaps NC State was leg-weary in the final 12 minutes of action — the Wolfpack were awarded a play-in game at Dayton against another 12th seed, Xavier, on Tuesday before having to fly in to Orlando. That may not bode well for Tennessee tonight after having to “play-in” as an 11th seed against Iowa on Wednesday in Dayton and then fly to Raleigh to play sixth-seeded UMass.

Frankly, a look at NC State’s or Xavier’s resume belie either’s selection into the tournament over SMU, Wisconsin-Green Bay or several other schools that were passed over. This also includes Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia and maybe even LSU, all of whom won their opening games in the consolation tournament, the NIT.

Oklahoma was yet another 5 seed that was put on the ropes, but this time the 5 seed fell. North Dakota State led throughout, fell behind late, forced overtime on a well-defended three, survived three close attempts by the Sooners in the final seconds, and then won in overtime. They play some pretty good ball way up north, it appears.

Don’t say this or any other previous NCAA Tournament Selection Committee doesn’t consider a little irony into their pairings — these aren’t all random, by any means. Witness the mirror image of Manhattan and former Rick Pitino disciple (Kentucky player, NY Knicks ball boy) Steve Massielo and his Jaspers against Pitino’s big, quick Cardinals. It was an even game until the final two minutes, when unsung Luke Hancock got loose for two three-pointers and 8 straight points to carry the Cardinals into the second round.

If you managed to stay up past midnight for the first round, you saw San Diego State somehow let New Mexico State tie their game in regulation, but Steve Fisher’s Aztecs survived the overtime.

Dayton and Ohio State got us off to a great start with a one-point game won by the Flyers. This was somewhat akin to Arkansas State beating Arkansas in a tournament game, if this would ever happen again, as Ohio State has played some in-state schools in major sports but has until now dismissed Dayton’s attempts to schedule the Buckeyes in basketball. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft always seems to have the ball in his hands with a chance to win and the end for the Buckeyes and messes it up somehow. Bracket hopefuls dreaming of collecting $1 billion from Warren Buffett were already disappointed with the tournament one game old.

Tournament top seed Florida, which went 21-0 through all its SEC competition, didn’t play well but survived 16th seed Albany.

Throughout the day, though, we were left confirmed in our belief that the Southeastern Conference got jobbed again with only three teams selected to the field. If you don’t want to debate Arkansas’ merits, that’s fine; but the seedings giving Kentucky and Tennessee weren’t right, and Missouri certainly did enough in its nonconference schedule, including beating NC State in Raleigh and UCLA, to earn a line in the NCAA bracket. One can argue that Missouri didn’t do enough in its own league; one can turn that argument around also and say that the SEC as a league is as tough on each other (with the exception of Florida) as any conference in the country, and that no road game is a certain win for anyone. Even Florida had scares throughout on the road.

Pundits and even fans from other parts of the country — perhaps all of them suffering from SEC football fatigue because of the league’s dominance on the gridiron — can say over and over again that the SEC is weak in basketball, and perception becomes the reality. But it’s misguided viewpoint, and the evidence should be clear by watching any of the 16 tournament games Thursday. Arkansas, LSU, Missouri and the like all would have matched up well with any at-large team we saw Thursday, and that’s likely to prove true in the first round.

The selection committee defenders and the Big Ten supporters in general will cry the usual refrain that “it was just one game” is explaining losses for Iowa and Ohio State so far, but isn’t “one game” how the selection guys make their picks? They judge the results of one game in November and that carries weight all the way to March for them.

But then, the criteria will change depending on the team. For SMU, it was their supposed weak nonconference schedule, yet the Mustangs’ great performance against some proven AAC teams didn’t matter? Here’s another: Want to know how many experts on Sunday, in examining Virginia’s merits of getting a No. 1 seed, mentioned Tennessee’s 35-point blowout in late December of the Cavaliers? None, not a one on CBS or ESPN in breaking down the brackets. That would have made the SEC look pretty potent. But they were quick to point out one-game results where their arguments mattered, as did the selection committee mouthpiece, chairman Ron Wellman, the athletic director at Wake Forest.

As far as anyone could tell when the brackets were announced, the committee could have sat around eating room service and watching cable all weekend, as much thought as it appeared went into this bracket and the seedings.

As for the SEC, it needs to start doing a better  job promoting basketball and its strengths the way it does its football. There’s no sign that league will stop its cannibalizing anytime soon, and 10-8 records for most of the better teams will be the norm; 11-7 will be special, and 18-0 will be magical, as Florida’s season has been so far.

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