Don't call me crazy. The fact that I'm already talking about at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament while it's still months away. No, that's not crazy.
Amidst this whole BCS issue regarding non-AQ teams such as Boise State, NCAA hoops has its flaws too.
It's one of the oldest problems known to college hoops. Who gets an at-large bid: A 26-4 mid-major or an 18-11 major school?
Points can be made for both ends, but I, being the Cinderella-lover that I am, side mostly with the mid-major (depending on its non-conference schedule, RPI, etc.).
The problem is evident every year, probably since the beginning of the tournament as a whole. But the year that I noticed something was seriously wrong was 2005.
As a big follower of the Missouri Valley Conference, I was steamed when I heard Wichita State had been snubbed for an at-large bid. Instead, the NCAA committee decided on the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa finished 19-10. Wichita State finished 19-8.
Sounds pretty even, right? Wrong. Iowa's non-conference schedule consisted of one road game. They travelled to Drake, another MVC team, who finished 13-16 that year.
I'll give Iowa its props: They beat Louisville and Texas early in the season (in Hawaii, a neutral site). Some say they also earned a bid with three-straight wins against conference opponents at the end of the season. Two of them were against Big Ten bottom-dwellers Penn State and Michigan, while they knocked off Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.
Meanwhile, Wichita State defeated its toughest non-conference opponent of the year—Providence—on the road. The non-MVC team to play the Shockers at home? Missouri-Kansas City.
So, what gives Iowa the advantage here? It's the fact that they got to play games on television, plus the fact that they play in the Big Ten; they could excuse losses to teams like Michigan State and Illinois. Meanwhile, the Wichita State Shockers were hung out to dry—another mid-major team merely forgotten about.
In order for mid-majors to make a case for an at-large bid, they have to go out and beat good teams. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. First off, it's nearly impossible to get a major team to travel to that mid-major's gym. The coaches of these majors have jobs too, you know. A loss to a mid-major looks terrible to that coach, as well as that team, when it comes to Selection Sunday.
Thus, the only way to play major teams (beside tournaments) is to travel to that school. It's called a "buy game." Major schools pay these mid-majors something like $50,000 to travel to their arena. The downside is, most mid-majors: 1) can't afford long distance traveling most of the time, 2) balk at the fact that they'll play in a very hostile environment (compared to what they're used to, at least) and 3) rarely ever win these games.
Most fans think mid-major coaches and ADs should pack their non-conference schedule with these "buy games." That wouldn't be extremely smart, however. Coaches do want to improve their teams' résumés with games (preferably wins) against major schools, but they also want to prepare their team for the conference schedule and tournament. Numerous tough games against Top 25 teams? That's not preparation. That's beating your players into the ground.
This is why November hoops is so important for mid-major teams. For some schools, it may be their only chance to challenge major teams all season. Tournaments like the Maui Invitational, Old Spice Classic and Puerto Rico Tip-Off give mid-majors opportunities. Teams, for the most part, jump at these opportunities.
Hofstra and Western Kentucky had the chance to play in Puerto Rico last week. Unfortunately, neither team took advantage, as Hofstra finished 0-3, while WKU finished 1-2 (their only win came against Hofstra).
In Maui, the Wichita State Shockers nearly knocked off eventual champions UConn. The NCAA Selection Committee surely looks at close games, even if the mid-major doesn't come out on top. Wichita State went on to later beat Virginia in the tournament.
The latest case of a mid-major making a name for itself would have to be VCU. Shaka Smart's VCU Rams nearly took down the 24th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. Led by sharp shooting from Brandon Rozzell (23 points on 7-of-15 shooting), VCU proved it was able to hang with Bruce Pearl's squad until foul trouble ultimately defeated the Rams.
What does it matter, though, if the mid-major doesn't pull off the upset? Well, a win isn't always necessary. The NCAA selection committee merely looks at play on the road or at a neutral site. VCU proved it can play well at a neutral site, as Wednesday's contest took place at Madison Square Garden.
When March rolls around and the NCAA committee researches teams for potential at-large bids, I pray they look back to November, when some mid-majors (VCU, Wichita State) proved they're NCAA Tournament-worthy (as long as they don't collapse midseason). I pray that, this time, they give the mid-major the edge.
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