Tough Choices As NCAA Picks Field

March 9, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS - The NCAA selection committee likes to evaluate thecold,hard numbers when choosing its tournament field.

It looks at wins and losses, RPI ratings, strength of schedule and howateam finished in its last 10 games.

The problem with the numbers is that they also tend to shift thebalance ofpower in favor of a handful of conferences, which they likely will do againthis year when the committee reveals its 65-team field Sunday.

'Our job is not to judge by emotion, but to just go with the facts,'selection committee chairman Mike Tranghese said.

These are the facts: Of the Top 25 teams, only St. Joseph's of theAtlantic10 and Fresno State of the Western Athletic Conference do not belong to oneofthe nation's six 'power conferences' - the Atlantic Coast, Big East, BigTen,Big 12, Southeastern and Pac-10.

Only three teams not from those conferences - Fresno State, St.Joseph's andCreighton of the Missouri Valley - began the week in the top 30 of the RPI,acomputer formula that is one of the tools used by the committee to evaluateteams for both selection and seeding.

On Sunday, conventional wisdom goes, the power conferences will reaptherewards of their impressive numbers - with an even greater impact than inpastseasons.

Tranghese, the Big East commissioner who is on the selection committeeforthe fifth year but the first as chairman, takes issue with such banter.

'I think if you look back at the history of this committee, I thinkthiscommittee has taken more mid-majors in the past six years than we ever didbefore,' he said. 'We owe them some close attention and we try to do that.'

But this season may wind up being very different.

For one thing, the mid-majors have not made terribly strong cases. Evenperennial NCAA tournament teams such as Temple and Utah, are on the bubble.

Then there are the teams, such as Butler of the Midwestern CollegiateConference or Georgia State of the Trans America Athletic Conference, thatcould have made cases for at-large bids had they not won their leaguetournaments.

Even leagues that traditionally have sent multiple teams to the NCAAtournament, such as Conference USA, may struggle. Conference USA could getonlyone team - Cincinnati - in this year if the Bearcats win the leaguetournament.

Commissioner Michael Slive believes his league will send three teams -Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi and Charlotte - but admits this has notbeen astellar year for Conference USA.

'I think we're having what I define as an ACC-type year like they had acouple of years ago when they got only three teams in the tournament,' hesaid. 'Our teams go on the road, and we've got teams beating each other up.'

But so do other conferences such as the ACC, which has four teams inthe Top12 and five in the Top 25.

With only 34 at-large bids and at least half of those likely to go Top25teams that don't receive automatic bids, the committee has only 17 remainingslots.

Many are expected to go to teams such as Tennessee, Indiana andSouthernCalifornia - all of which are among the RPI's top 20 but are not in the Top25.

'You also have conferences with RPIs and that will be a significantfactorin our selection process,' Tranghese said. 'Each team has an overallstrength-of-schedule number and a non-conference strength-of-schedule. Soyoucould have a team in a very good conference with a high RPI rating and a lownon-conference RPI, and I think you have to take that into account.'

The strongest case for a mid-major could be made by Creighton (24-7),whichwon 11 straight before losing in the conference semifinals to Indiana Stateandentered the week at No. 23 in the RPI.

The problem for many mid-major teams is that their RPI suffers becauseofschedule strength.

If Gonzaga, which has a history of NCAA tournament success, hadn't wontheWest Coast Conference tournament, it might not have made it with an RPI of86.

Valparaiso set a school record with 24 wins this season, played threeBigTen teams and beat Ohio State. Yet the Crusaders' RPI is still only 107.Afterlosing to Southern Utah in the Mid-Continent's title game, they are unlikelytobe in the NCAA.

While both teams have tried to build stronger schedules, the committeehaslittle empathy.

'It's the most difficult thing we do, comparing a team from a bigconference who has the opportunity to play a lot of good teams against amid-major that doesn't have as many opportunities,' Tranghese said.

The Mid-Continent Conference is about to try something new, creating aleague-wide fund to offer guaranteed money for playing stronger opponents.

That may help down the road, but not this season when the Mid-Continentproduced two 24-game winners - Valparaiso and Southern Utah - and, probably,just one NCAA bid.

'Given where the RPIs are, and we know that's not an overriding factor,wewould love to get two bids,' commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. 'I don'tknow if that's possible.'

Probably not - given the numbers, which is what Tranghese and hiscommitteemust evaluate.

'I go in with the premise that whoever is the 66th, 67th, 68th or 69thteamis going to be unhappy,' he said. 'I don't think that's ever going tochange,whether you take 20 mid-majors or three. We've got to take the 34 bestteams.'

AP Sports Writer

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