Who Let the Mid-Majors in the At-Large Pool?

by David Mihm | February 27th, 2006

Much has been made in the national media of the Missouri Valley Conference’s surge to the top of the RPI heap this year. The Valley has fluctuated between four and six in these rankings, at the expense of BCS members Big XII, SEC, and Pac-10.The SEC has shown itself to be underrated in the non-conference rankings, thanks to the revival of Arkansas and Alabama. Kansas and Oklahoma have made the Big XII more than just Texas. But the MVC still ranks ahead of the Pac-10 heading into Selection Sunday, and rightfully so.

Being based in Oakland, California, I’ve had the opportunity to watch numerous Pac-10 games this season, and of course I’ve watched several nationally-televised matchups involving MVC teams. I do not hesitate in saying that if the Pac-10 and MVC members were matched up on a neutral court in order of their finish in conference play (i.e. 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, etc.), the Missouri Valley would win at least eight of these games.

Wichita State and Creighton are The Valley’s only two locks heading into Arch Madness, the Missouri Valley’s clever name for its own conference tournament, held in St. Louis. But Northern Iowa, Missouri State, Southern Illinois, and red-hot Bradley would all put themselves in good position for a bid by reaching the conference semi-finals. Fewer than four bids for this conference would be shocking, and six bids is not all that far a reach.

And let’s not forget about the Colonial Athletic Association, home to George Mason, UNC Wilmington, Hofstra, and Old Dominion. (The Drexel Dragons, a team which gave Duke and UCLA fits in the Preseason NIT, also call the CAA home, but have struggled in conference play.) The CAA is looking good for at least one, and maybe even two at-large bids this year.

Other mid-majors which could “steal” multiple bids away from the power conferences include the WAC (Nevada, Utah State, Louisiana Tech), the MWC (San Diego State, Air Force, BYU), and Conference USA (Memphis, UAB, UTEP, Houston).

So what are all the mid-majors doing in the at-large pool this year? In my opinion, it’s a combination of two factors.

Big Brothers with Weak Resumes
Numerous BCS teams sitting in the middle of their respective conferences simply have weaker resumes than is typically the case. Think Syracuse, Maryland, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Colorado, and California.

Their weak resumes stem from two failings:
A) None of these teams went out and played a difficult non-conference schedule, and lack the quality wins that would offset a so-so conference record. This is not the case with several mid-majors, on the other hand. Northern Iowa owns a road win at LSU, and home wins over Bucknell and Iowa. Houston owns a home win over Arizona and a road win at LSU. Nevada owns a road win at Kansas.
B) An incredible number of these teams seem to be fading down the stretch. All have lost very winnable games against bottom-tier competition in the last three weeks, and very few of these teams’ “Last 10 games” statistics are going to be impressive on Selection Sunday (think Seton Hall, Colorado, Syracuse). Arkansas and Alabama are just about the only ones playing their way IN to the Tournament right now.

The RPI Formula
Remember last year, when we all marveled at Southern Illinois’ RPI heading into the Tournament? Imagine–a mid-major conference member with a Top 20 ranking! There were others with surprisingly high RPI’s as well: Creighton, Nevada, St. Mary’s, and Buffalo are a few.

Before last year, it was almost unheard of for a mid-major team who was not a conference champion to have an RPI above 40. But prior to the start of the 2004-2005 season, the NCAA tinkered with its RPI formula, weighting road wins more heavily, among other things. The end result was intended to help mid-major teams at least have a chance to earn more at-large bids to the Tournament. We heard a lot about the change throughout the course of the season, but it was almost forgotten when Selection Sunday came around.

Because for the most part, when it came to Tournament selections, it was business as usual, with the major-conference teams soaking up somewhere close to 90% of the at-large bids.

This year, that RPI formula change is still in effect, and we are seeing smaller-conference teams take advantage of it. The Missouri Valley Conference alone has six teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, and the CAA has three. Nevada is ranked in the top 20, and Utah State is number 51. Even Western Kentucky, playing in the lowly Sun Belt Conference, has a top 50 RPI.

I currently project eight out of the 34 at-large bids being awarded to teams from mid-major conferences (nearly 25%), due in large part to the RPI rankings.

I’m puzzled by the fact that more has not been made of last year’s formula change by the national media this year. We only hear incredulous commentators and analysts saying that the ACC, Big East, and Pac-10 deserve three or four extra bids at the expense of the mid-major leagues. No reasons are given, but one suspects these talking heads are just skeptical of the RPI numbers.

To be honest, I’m skeptical of the power-conference teams’ RPI numbers. There’s no way you can tell me that Maryland is one of the best 50 teams in the country. Arizona is in the top 20? Come on. Syracuse is number 30? No way!

If the NCAA uses the RPI in the same manner it has in years past, these mid-major teams and leagues deserve and will be awarded the extra at-large bids. When it comes time to analyze the Selection Committee’s work, we can only hope Vitale, Gottlieb, and others are not hypocritical. I for one would not like to hear them moan and scream about a Tournament without the likes of Maryland, Syracuse, or Colorado after being such ardent “advocates” for mid-major leagues and teams in past years.

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