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Sunday, March 13, 2011

NCAA Tournament: Last Four in? Keep them Out

In what has become an annual event in Blacksburg, Va., Virginia Tech is sweating the final hours of Selection Sunday.

For the last three seasons, the Hokies were sent to the National Invitational Tournament, presumably as one of the final teams to miss the NCAA Tournament at large cutline.

This season, though, with a stronger non-conference schedule – Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Penn State – and a late-season win against then-No. 1 Duke, head coach Seth Greenberg’s team may return to the sport’s biggest stage for the first time since 2007, when it beat Illinois before losing to Southern Illinois.

But none of this season’s accomplishments would have been cause for optimism if not for an offseason gift from the NCAA. There will be 68 teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament field, three more than the previous 10 seasons, and four more than the from 1985-2000. And to think, the NCAA and a number of “Big Six” conference coaches prefer the field be expanded to 96.

Does America really want to see 28 more teams, whose chances for a national title fall between slim and none, try to win seven games in three weeks? I would think college basketball fans want that as much as NFL fans want an 18-game regular season schedule. (Although any schedule would be nice at this point.)

The mainstream pioneer bracketologist, ESPN’S Joe Lunardi, has Virginia Tech as the second-to-last team in the field as of late Sunday morning, one slot ahead of USC. St. Mary’s and Clemson are the top two of the “Last Four In.” Jerry Palm’s of CBS’s “Last four in” are, in order, Virginia Tech, VCU, Clemson and St. Mary’s. Even more telling, though, may be the two prognosticators’ “First Four Out.”

For Lunardi: Alabama, Georgia, Boston College, UAB.

For Palm: Boston College, UAB, Colorado, Harvard.

By RPI, Alabama’s top non-conference win came against Lipscomb. (That’s in Tennessee, in case you’re wondering.) The Crimson Tide lost to Big Ten and Big East bottom-feeders, respectively, Iowa (11–20) and Providence (15–17).

How can we expect Alabama to repeatedly beat the top teams in those conferences, all of which will be somewhere in the NCAA Tournament field?

Boston College, meanwhile, lost to Yale and Rhode Island, and failed to beat either of the top two teams in its own conference, Duke and North Carolina. Not to mention a 70–47 ACC Tournament loss to Clemson, another borderline entry.

The other “Last Four Out” nominations have similar résumés.

Forget that these teams would be even further excluded if it were not for the additional three slots in this year’s field, and consider who some of the next 28 teams could be.

In the interest of simplicity, I’ll use the No. 93–96 teams in the latest RPI rankings. (Understanding that some of the automatic bid teams, who all deserve a spot in the field, are ranked lower than 96, and would therefore "bump" these teams.)

St. Peter’s (93) is already in with for winning the MAAC Tournament, so we’ll use No. 92 Wisconsin-Milwaukee instead. Followed by Baylor (94), Vermont (95) and Maryland (96).

As a one-time diehard Maryland fan and someone who still follows the team as closely as my free time allows, let me be the first to dismiss the validity of considering them in any tournament to decide the sport’s national champion.

If the Terrapins were going to stake any sniff of a claim for inclusion into this year’s field, they would have needed to make more than 15 of their 28 free throws (0–for–6 in the first half) before Duke pulled away late in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

Vermont lost by a combined 44 points to BYU and Connecticut – three and two seeds, respectively, via Lunardi – with no victories against any projected NCAA Tournament teams, including 0–2 against conference counterpart Boston University, the America East champion.

Baylor’s best non-conference win by RPI came against – Guess who? – Lipscomb. (They’re the Bisons, in case you're wondering.)

If you need reasons to exclude Wisconsin-Milwaukee, look no further than some of the Panthers’ losses: Western Michigan, DePaul, Wright State, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Loyola (Ill.), Buffalo and Florida Atlantic.

Would the NCAA Tournament be improved with 28 more teams? Is it better off with the three spots that were added? Probably not.

Who cares, then, whether St. Mary’s is selected instead of Clemson, or Virginia Tech instead of Virginia Commonwealth? Certainly not me. But I can think of someone who does.

“You guys are the experts,” Greenberg said to the ESPN College Gameday crew via telephone Sunday morning. “Are we in?”