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The Mid-Major Waiting Room

by Matthew Stevens | March 11th, 2009

For Creighton and St. Mary’s, let the waiting game begin.

Three mid-major schools with at least 20 wins and RPI rankings in the Top 65 are without automatic bids after experiencing embarrassing loses in their conference tournaments.

With Selection Sunday only three days away, the next 72 hours for these schools are going to determine whether or not their postseason tournament has three or four letters in it.

“I just tried to remind them that we’ve done some pretty good things, and we’re still a good basketball team,” Creighton head coach Dana Altman said after his team exited the MVC Tournament. “Regardless, we’re going to be playing (in a tournament) in 10 days, and we’ve got to get ready to go.”

The biggest news that has changed for each of these mid-major bubbles is the fact that with Cleveland State’s 57-54 victory at Butler in the Horizon League Tournament, the Horizon League is all but guaranteed two bids. The 17th-ranked Butler Bulldogs are now taking away an at-large bid.

“You’ve got to do a lot of little things to win a tournament championship, and obviously when you win your league in the regular season there’s a lot to be proud of,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said.

Before Creighton arrived at St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, league commissioner Doug Elgin mapped out the at-large path for the Bluejays.

“You really have to look at what’s left in terms of the 34 bids (because) I can tell you we’ll seriously rooting for teams like Utah State and Butler to win their tournaments,” Elgin said.

Not only did they not follow their own path, but were unable to get the help needed either.

“That’s not up to us, that’s up to the NCAA,” Creighton senior guard and 2009 MVC player of the year Booker Woodfox said. “We’re going focus on trying to get better.”

After Creighton (26-7) needed a buzzer-beater to beat Wichita State and then played horribly in its 73-49 semifinal loss to Illinois State, several MVC officials’ on-the-record position was “concerned” on the Bluejays getting a dance card, and the league immediately produced statistical evidence on behalf of Altman’s crew.

“It’s miserable,” Elgin told the Associated Press. “You stress over it. I’ve been texting colleagues on the cell phone already. It’s a rough week, with the fate of your teams in the hands of others.”

Three 26-win teams did not make the NCAA field last year — Stephen F. Austin (26-5), IUPUI (26-7), and Robert Morris (26-7), according to the Valley’s research. Stephen F. Austin had a 64 RPI in a 17th-ranked league, IUPUI had a 69 RPI in a 22nd-ranked league, and Robert Morris had a 135 RPI in a 24th-ranked league.

St. Mary’s case can be legitimately made before, during, and after the injury to star point guard Patrick Mills.

The one difference for St. Mary’s is that because of its recently added non-conference game with Eastern Washington, the selection committee’s last memory of the Gaels (XX-X) will not be its 83-58 to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament final.

Saint Mary’s went 6-4 without Mills and had a six-game winning streak before entering the WCC title game.

Mills was less than himself on the floor while posting a 5-for-28 shooting performance over the two games in Las Vegas. While there’s no doubt to Mills’ injury status, some analysts believed his ability to play effectively would weigh on the committee’s mind.

“There’s nothing wrong with my hand,” said Mills, who did not start but played 26 minutes. “That’s not what lost us the game. My hand’s fine. I’m not going to use that as an excuse.”

Gaels head coach Randy Bennett is actually at least giving the psychological impression that his team is making the NCAA Tournament and this Eastern Washington game is a pseudo-exhibition in order to keep from being flat and get Mills back on track offensively.

“Due to the unique situation, and the timing of Pat Mills’ return from his hand injury, adding a game at this time can help make us a better team in the post-season,” said Bennett. “We have a possible nine-day layoff, so adding this game during the break will keep our team in a regular routine.”

The worst part of the game is that everybody involved with these schools can only wait, watch, and root against the BCS bubble schools while they play in their own conference tournaments.

“I just don’t believe in politicking (and) I don’t believe in making statements,” Altman said. “We had a good year (and) hopefully it’s good enough.”

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