Anybody who enjoyed watching the big boys squirm during the first year of college basketball’s mid-major revolution is going to love the second.
No longer content with just stealing spots in the NCAA field from their big-conference brethren, this season’s versions of George Mason, Bradley and Northern Iowa could pick off a few choice seedings, too. We won’t know for sure until Selection Sunday rolls around March 11. But considering the tournament committee’s success in playing hunches a year ago, expect more of the same.
That explained, in part, Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s jubilation after beating Wisconsin.
There was plenty for Matta to get emotional about, the Buckeyes locked up the nation’s No. 1 ranking and a Big Ten regular-season title with a 49-48 win over the Badgers, but the biggest prize may be the one he talks about the least.
Though the conference tournament still looms, the win put the Buckeyes in the driver’s seat for a No. 1 seed when the NCAA brackets come out. And for all the changes the college game has undergone in recent years, there are few better predictors of success.
The one-and-done tournament format means there are no guarantees, but since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, top seeds have made it to the regional semifinals 84 percent of the time.
A week ago, after beating Minnesota, someone asked Matta how important it would be to get a No. 1 seed and play their games in the Midwest all the way through the regional final in St. Louis. He demurred looking that far ahead, replying, “You just listed sites where I didn’t know there were sites.”
Like the Buckeyes, UCLA is likely a lock for a No. 1, but losses by Florida and North Carolina over the weekend and a recent surge by Kansas means there is plenty of heavy lifting to be done. The Badgers aren’t out of the picture, either.
What’s made those numbers more important than ever is the unprecedented depth in the college game. A top seed can count on an easy first-round game, and with luck, a big edge in the second. But that’s about it.
More kids are staying another year or two, defending champion Florida returned its starting lineup intact, and the new NBA minimum-age limit has forced high school stars to spend at least one season on campus.
Even so, the grip that coaches at big-time programs had on talent has been gradually loosening.
They’re now forced to choose between recruiting top talent and trying to win right away or dropping down a tier on the recruiting lists, the way Gators coach Billy Donovan did, and trying to keep a few players long enough to benefit from cohesion and experience.
That was never a choice for the mid-majors. George Mason, for example, had three fifth-year seniors on the roster last season and the edge in experience showed. No major-conference favorite with designs on winning it all wants to run into Southern Illinois, a veteran team auditioning for this year’s George Mason role, before somebody has softened up the Salukis.
Last year, NCAA selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage came under withering criticism for awarding George Mason the Colonial Athletic Association’s first at-large since 1986 at the expense of Cincinnati, which went 8-8 in the Big East, and second-tier Atlantic Coast Conference finishers like Maryland and Florida State. Almost as loud was the cry that went up when Bradley and three other Missouri
Valley Conference teams totaled as many invitations as the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 each did.
The upstarts were so happy just to be seated at the table last year they didn’t dare complain about the seedings. But there will be plenty of howling if Missouri Valley Conference champ Southern Illinois gets the same No. 7 slot given league champion Wichita State in 2006. With the MVC tournament set to begin Thursday, the 25-5 Salukis have won 11 straight and boast the nation’s fifth-best RPI.
It’s worth remembering that for all the stunning upsets a year ago, the longer the tournament runs, the less likely the mid-majors stick around. At some point, talent matters more than the size of the chip on a team’s shoulders and maybe even more than experience. So by the time the survivors collect in Atlanta a little more than a month from now, there will be plenty of familiar faces. But because the mid-majors will likely claim not just more perches in the field, but higher ones than they’ve been granted before, it’s going to be a tougher road than ever.