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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mid-majors hope for breakthrough

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— College basketball's traditional powers face a fierce battle for NCAA Tournament spots this year from the "mid-major" conference teams that are all the rage.

Suddenly, the distinctions between Missouri State and Maryland or Northern Iowa and Kentucky have become minute. The Missouri Valley Conference could get more bids than the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Colonial Athletic Assn. could have as many bids as the Pac-10.

Gonzaga and George Washington have positioned themselves for high seeds, warranting consideration alongside schools such as Duke and Texas.

Most consider this a breakthrough season for America's mid-majors, but conference and team officials will wait anxiously tonight to see if the NCAA selection committee agrees.

"I'll probably be jittery watching all the other games play out," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "But I believe in the system."

The NCAA selection process typically has rewarded big-name teams from big-name conferences, because they tend to play stronger schedules and produce more victories.

But a topsy-turvy season has shifted the balance of power.

Teams such as Arizona and Indiana, NCAA Tournament regulars most of the past two decades, went into their conference tournaments uncertain if they were "locks." Teams such as Maryland and Arkansas, former national champions, were not locks, either.

Meanwhile, a pair of schools from smaller conferences - Gonzaga of the West Coast and George Washington of the Atlantic 10 - have been regulars in the Top 10 this season.

The mediocrity that has persisted in the six power conferences - Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pac-10 - also has given rise to teams from conferences such as The Valley and the Colonial.

Sheer numbers appear to back the contentions of Elgin and Colonial commissioner Thomas Yeager that both leagues deserve multiple bids. Each conference has three teams ranked in the RPI's top 30, and the MVC has three more teams between 30 and 42.

Schools such as Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Hofstra all entered the week with better computer rankings than Kentucky, Kansas University and Syracuse.

But will the numbers be enough to sway the 10-member committee?

"The perception is that somehow they're paper tigers, and they aren't," Yeager said. "Everybody needs to hope the higher seeds hold on and win their tournaments. If Gonzaga had gotten beat the other night, that would have taken up one of the other spots."

Yeager's worst fear occurred Thursday, when George Washington was upset by Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament. That likely reduced the 34 at-large spots by one in the 65-team field, possibly at the expense of a hopeful mid-major team.

Some have suggested that the MVC deserves six bids, a number that could top those earned by some big-name conferences. Yeager was hoping for three.

But, in recent years, the mid-majors have dealt with more disappointments than celebrations.

The list of outsiders has included Butler, which won 25 games but was passed over in 2002, and Utah State, which in 2004 became the first team in 11 years to be left out despite finishing in the Top 25.

Last year, it was the Mid-American Conference's turn. Although it had five teams ranked in the RPI's top 55, only one MAC team - Ohio University, the tourney champ - made it.

"I'm not trying to compare us to the Big 12 or the MAC or the Atlantic 10 or anyone else," Elgin said. "All I know is that we have six teams, that by previous standards, are NCAA-tournament worthy and would certainly represent our conference very, very well. But it's such a difficult landscape right now."

Selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage, the athletic director at Virginia, acknowledges this year provides some unique challenges.

There were an unusually high number of mid-majors with solid RPIs. Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and Bradley - all MVC teams - entered this week ahead of former national champs Syracuse and Kentucky. North Carolina-Wilimington, Hofstra and George Mason - of the Colonial - were rated ahead of Boston College, Indiana and Kansas.

The committee also must sort out unbalanced schedules. Big East teams play nine conference opponents once, three teams twice and avoid three teams altogether. That has made it more difficult for the committee to evaluate.

Finally, committee members were trying to sort through the logjam in the middle of conference standings.

And then there are people who argue this year's RPIs are skewed and can't be used the same way they have in past years.

"I think it's been pretty clear from the committee over time that we're not going to be impressed with records that are somewhat artificially built," Littlepage said. "If we're comparing six or eight teams and two have put together a schedule of rigor where they play home and away from home, the committee is going to go with teams that have challenged themselves."

Scheduling always has been a problem for mid-majors.

Yeager said none of his three hopefuls played more than 13 home games, while Elgin argues MVC schools have made a concerted effort to play big-name teams. This season, Northern Iowa beat Iowa at home and won at LSU. Wichita State lost by one to Illinois, and Creighton beat Nebraska and George Mason.

But producing tough schedules remains a challenge.

"Wichita State opened a new arena last year and wanted to open it against a regional opponent, but no one within 300 miles would play them," Elgin said. "I participated in a phone campaign for six weeks to get someone to play them, and there's something wrong with that."

Despite schedules, RPIs and late-season trends, Yeager and Elgin still believe today's decisions could come down to reputation - and that's something both were trying to improve this week.

"I think part of it is branding," Yeager said. "After George Mason played Wichita, one of the columnists wrote that Wichita fans didn't know the difference between George Mason and George Costanza. It's true. But our three teams all have a better RPI than Indiana and the pundits are all saying Indiana is in."

All Elgin could do this week was sift through the numbers, make his points and hope the committee does what he considers to be the right thing.

"We believe that our teams that deserve to be in the field will be in the field," Elgin said. "I've been in this for 18 years and only one time did we have a team not go that I felt should have."

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