Many of the conference tournaments that matter will have ended before the ACC tips off its annual convocation next week at Philips Arena, and here’s how we distinguish between league tournaments that do and don’t matter: Almost nobody cries real tears after losing a final in one of the big leagues. That’s because teams in the BCS Six already know their in-or-out NCAA fate.
Yes, there are exceptions, Georgia winning the 2008 SEC tournament and heading to the Big Dance being the most glaring. But conference tournaments in the big leagues are, as a rule, window dressing. For proof, we turn again to Georgia. It was believed that the Bulldogs’ Round 2 game against Alabama at the Dome last March was an in-or-out game. Nope. Georgia lost and made the NCAA field as a No. 9 seed. Alabama won and went to the NIT.
Turning to this year: Festivities in the Colonial Athletic Association — that’s Georgia State’s league — begin Friday in Richmond. Doings in the Atlantic Sun — that’s Mercer’s league — commence Wednesday in Macon. The winner of each makes the field of 68. There’s a chance not one of the losers will.
Such is the peril of being a mid-major, even one with a bit of a pedigree. In 2002 Georgia State was 20-10 and had lost the A-Sun championship game by a skinny point when a final shot didn’t fall, and yet Lefty Driesell, the Panthers’ coach, was reduced to begging. “You’ve got to help me get in this tournament,” he implored this correspondent, but we both knew there was no chance. No matter that GSU had actually made the NCAA field the year before and upset Wisconsin once there. The A-Sun was seen as a one-bid league.
Ten years later, it still might be. If Belmont, which is 24-7 and went 16-2 in conference play, loses the final to Mercer by one point on Mercer’s floor — the Bruins just won by a point at Mercer on Saturday — Belmont could miss the NCAA. This is the same Belmont that came within a point of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November, and that’s also the lot of a mid-major: If you want to beat somebody big during the regular season, you have to do it on the road.
VCU proved last March what a plucky middleweight could do on neutral courts. The Rams — whose NCAA invitation was derided by the crew on ESPN, Jay Bilas chief among the detractors — won five games in the Big Dance, beating Southern Cal, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. VCU of the CAA beat representatives from five of the six BCS leagues and was undone only by Butler, itself a mid-major. And yet ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has VCU’s conference as a one-bid league in 2012.
After Old Dominion won in overtime at Georgia State last week, Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor was asked how a conference that sent three teams — ODU, VCU and George Mason — to the 2011 Big Dance could have seen its stock fall. He noted that the league’s upper tier had sufferedearly losses for varying reasons: Drexel because of injuries, Mason because it was adjusting to new coach Paul Hewitt, ODU itself because it dared to schedule Kentucky and Missouri. Then he said:
“The difference between a BCS league and a mid-major is that we never get past those losses. It’s like you’re sitting in church and the collection plate comes by — teams from the bigger conferences can put a little more money in and buy more forgiveness.”
Case in point: Texas. The Longhorns are 18-11, having gone 8-8 in Big 12 play and 0-5 against the league’s three best teams. Yet Lunardi’s projections have Texas in and VCU, which is 23-8 and finished second to Drexel in the CAA, out. Does anyone seriously doubt that VCU couldn’t beat Texas on a neutral floor? No, but the NCAA committee goes by RPI, which is largely a function of how your opponents have fared, and if you’re a mid-major a majority of your opponents will by definition have played mid-major schedules.
(Speaking of money in the collection plate: Texas has its own TV network; at last check, VCU does not.)
Were I king of the world, I’d cap the number of at-large bids for teams from the six BCS leagues at 25 and leave a dozen to the mid-majors. (In Lunardi’s latest bracket, the split is 29 to 8.) If the past few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that the likes of VCU and Butler and George Mason and Northern Iowa and Davidson can, if given a chance, stand with anyone. Were I king of the world, I’d make it my mission to give them that chance.
By Mark Bradley