As an occasional teacher of history, I sometimes (have to, really; it's in the secret history teacher by-laws) overuse the philosopher George Santayana's quote about the past, namely "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As an ardent fan of mid-major insanity taking over March Madness, thinking about the recent history of the tournament, I think "those that can remember the past are not going to be happy on Selection Sunday."
An examination of the recent at-large bids given does not give a fan of mid-majors confidence that they will be well represented. I went back through the most recent eight years of tournament selection, and found some grim data. Of the 275 total at-large bids given (34 between 2004-10 and 37 last year), a total of 60 have gone to teams outside the Big 6 conferences, which is a rate of 21.8 percent. A closer look at those selections paints a grimmer picture still.
I chose to stop going backward when I reached 2004, and saw teams like Louisville and Depaul receive "mid-major" bids, from a time when Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 could expect to receive as many bids as one of the major conferences. The re-alignment that soon followed scuttled that ship. However, here's who has received at-large bids from non-Big Six conferences in the last eight years:
2004 - St. Joseph's (Atlantic 10 [A10]) - #1 seed/Memphis (Conference USA [C-USA]) - #7 seed/DePaul (C-USA) - #7 seed/UAB (C-USA) - #8 seed/Charlotte (C-USA) - #9 seed/Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley [MVC])/Louisville (C-USA) - #10 seed/Dayton (A10) - #10 seed/Richmond (A10) - #11 seed/Air Force (Mountain West [MWC]) - #11 seed/BYU (MWC) - #12 seed/UTEP (Western Athletic [WAC]) - #13 seed -- total = 12 out of 34
2005 - Cincinnati (C-USA) - #6 seed/Utah (MWC) - #6 seed/Southern Illinois - #7 seed/Charlotte - #7 seed/Pacific (Big West) - #8 seed/Nevada (WAC) - #9 seed/St. Mary's (West Coast [WCC]) - #10 seed/UAB - #11 seed/Northern Iowa (MVC) - #11 seed -- total = 9 out of 34
2006 - Wichita St. (MVC) - #7/George Washington (A10) - #8 seed/UAB - #9 seed/Northern Iowa - #10 seed/George Mason (Colonial Athletic [CAA]) - #11 seed/Utah State (WAC) - #12 seed/Air Force - #13 seed -- total = 8 out of 34
2007 - Southern Illinois - #4 seed/Butler (Horizon) - #7 seed/Nevada - #7 seed/BYU - #8 seed/Xavier (A10) - #9 seed/Old Dominion (CAA) - #12 seed -- total = 6 out of 34
2008 - Xavier - #3 seed/Gonzaga (WCC) - #7 seed/BYU - #8 seed/St. Mary's - #10 seed/South Alabama (Sun Belt) - #10 seed/St. Joseph's (A10) - #11 seed -- total = 6 out of 34
2009 - Xavier - #4 seed/BYU - #8 seed/Butler - #9 seed/Dayton - #11 seed -- total = 4 out of 34
2010 - New Mexico (MWC) - #3 seed/Xavier - #6 seed/BYU - #7 seed/Richmond - #7 seed/Gonzaga - #8 seed/UNLV (MWC) - #8 seed/UTEP - #12 seed/Utah State - #12 seed -- total = 8 out of 34
2011 - BYU - #3 seed/Xavier - #6 seed/Temple (A10) - #7 seed/UNLV - #8 seed/GMU - #8 seed/VCU (CAA) - #11 seed/UAB - #12 seed - total = 7 out of 37
So, what conclusions might we draw from this data? Some that are obvious to almost all fans of college basketball, and others that are less so:
1) The NCAA selection committee does not particularly favor non-Big Six conferences when it comes to at-large bids. Yes, and by the way, here's another shocker—the sun rises in the east. The roughly 22 percent number is bad enough for the last eight years, but if you remove 2004 and 2005, when teams now in the Big East were getting at-large bids from mid-major conference, the number drops to just under 19 percent (39 out of 207 available at-large bids went to teams outside the Big Six conferences), with no more than eight in any year since 2006. Nineteen percent of the 37 bids this year, in case you were wondering, evens out at a mere seven bids.
2) Mid-major success in the tournament does not seem to bring about a cause-and-effect response. Not a positive one for mid-major fans, anyway. After George Mason made its run to the Final Four in 2006, the next year saw two less at-large bids received. This is not a good counter to those people who have suggested the success of Butler and VCU last year would bring about better luck for the mid-major teams this year.
3) Mid-major teams who tend to sustain success are more likely to get rewarded with at-large bids. Again, possibly a no-brainer, but Xavier, BYU, UAB, and So. Illinois have collected 30 percent of all mid-major at-large bids over the eight-year span in question, and 36 percent of them over the last six years. That would have been good news for the loser of Gonzaga/St. Mary's tonight in the WCC final, even if their profiles weren't as strong as they are. Both of those teams will dance, but it might have made VCU feel better if they hadn't won the Colonial final tonight (and congrats to the Rams!), and it might spell good news for teams like Xavier and BYU and Dayton.
4) The news is not any better near the bubble for mid-majors. If we consider the 11-13 seeds as the "bubble teams" that got in, we see that 14 of the "bubble" teams were mid-majors over the last eight years. If we see that form holding, then no more than two mid-major teams currently on the bubble would be selected.
5) Conferences that have gotten teams selected as at-large picks are far more likely to see a repeat occur. Of the 60 mid-major at-large selections, exactly four selections (Butler 2x, Pacific, South Alabama) have come from conferences with only one at-large selection of the last eight years. This does not bode well for teams like Iona, Middle Tennessee State, Harvard and Long Beach State. The first two have already lost in the conference tournaments, and the last two better win their conferences, or be ready to be very unhappy on Selection Sunday.
6) Expansion of the number of teams in the tournament doesn't mean more mid-major teams will be invited. Granted, this one is a little sketchy since we have only one year to work with, but in the first year of a 68-team tournament, the number of at-large bids went down one from the year before. To sustain a close percentage to 2010's numbers, we might have expected an additional bid for mid-majors. Yet, even with a smaller number, there were many vocal critics of even the teams that did get selection. Does everyone remember Jay Bilas using the word "indefensible" to describe the selections of UAB (perhaps he was right there) and VCU (OOPS!)?
Now, with all of that said and done, where are we, with six days to go until the 68-team field is set for the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? If we like mid-major additions, apprehensive, to be honest. We can consider Wichita State, the loser of St. Mary's/Gonzaga, Temple, UNLV and San Diego State to be pretty much locked into spots. Murray State and Creighton did the bubble big favors by holding on to win their conference tournaments, because they would have taken spots as well.
Which of the following teams is most deserving of an at-large bid should they need one?
I'm not saying there aren't other mid-major teams that are going to the Big Dance, but can St. Louis and Southern Miss feel safe if they don't make deep runs in their conference tournaments, with no at-large history to work with? Is New Mexico's history, and place within a conference that consistently receives at-large bids a sign that they are already in even if they lose in the quarterfinals of the MWC? And what about Colorado State, with its gaudy RPI? That didn't save Missouri State in 2006, as it (and its RPI of 21) were consigned to the NIT. Is Drexel's 27 wins enough to save it on Sunday? This all assumes that teams likely to make the tournament win all of the conference tournaments, keeping the bubble at its largest possible size.
How many mid-major teams will make it and which ones? All we can do is watch and wait and use some past information to keep our hopes in check.