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Big Dance Breakdown

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By Selection Sunday standards, this season's rendition was a bit tame. No real surprises in the mix; few complaints from the masses. For the most part (with a possible exception or two that we'll note in a moment), the Committee seems to have gotten the 68-team field right for once.

Still, the perception that the process is anything other than a subjective act continues to be forwarded by the Selection Committee, when nothing could be further from the truth. Among the TV talking heads on Sunday, only ESPN's Jay Bilas was inclined to question the Committee's process because of what appeared to be some inconsistencies both in seeding and in eventual criteria for separating teams at the cut line.

For us, we conceded long ago that the Big Ten was going to be given a wide berth by the Committee, though upon closer inspection we wonder why. Moreover, it was as if the Committee simply borrowed the talking points from sorts such as Andy Katz and Joe Lunardi about the SEC being in such a down cycle this season. Regarding the latter, however, we detected some inconsistencies with the Committee and, for that matter, the majority of media talking heads who have similarly downgraded the SEC this season.

We have long believed that the selection process, while tedious, is also mostly overblown by the media and the Committee itself, which guards the secrets of its 10-man enclave in Indianapolis as if it is dealing with national security. There are a handful of former national defense secretaries like Bob Gates and Leon Panetta who are looking for things to do these days; perhaps they should be included into next year's Big Dance Selection Committee mix to maintain that cloud of secrecy.

For us, we have to wonder about the sharpness of the Committee when it violated one of its supposed tenets and slotted regular-season rematches (supposedly a no-no) at the top of a sub-regional round. The reaction of the CBS crew (Doug Gottlieb in particular) confirmed that oversight when UNLV and Cal were unveiled as a Thursday matchup in San Jose. The Runnin' Rebels and Golden Bears played a regular-season game back on December 9 at Berkeley, and their rematch was one of the questions addressed to Committee Chairman Mike Bobinski, who fumbled around for a proper answer.

Apparently, according to Bobinski, the Committee had boxed itself in and had no alternative but to put UNLV and Cal against one another. Which we find curious, as with a simple paper, pencil, and notes, we have been able to seed a projected NCAA field for the last two months while avoiding rematches at the top of sub-regional action. All it takes is a pencil with an eraser to move some of the teams around to prevent what is supposedly a Big Dance no-no.

The wide space granted to the Big Ten might also be a bit misplaced. Especially when referring to Minnesota, whose 5-11 record over its last 16 games was never mentioned once by one of the talking heads that instead seemed to be comparing the Gophers to Bill Russell's old USF title teams when discussing what a fundamental mismatch it would be for UCLA when facing the "mighty" Golden Gophers in the first round.

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Upon further inspection of information from the first half of the season, we acknowledge some of the Big Ten's impressive performances, but it's not an airtight case for Big Ten superiority. Wisconsin, after all, lost almost every challenging non-league game (vs. Florida, Creighton, Virginia, and Marquette...three of those losses by double-digit margins) it played. Ohio State's non-conference victims list is dotted with Rhode Island, Savannah State, Northern Kentucky, and Winthrop; the Buckeyes lost when stepping up to face Duke and Kansas. No shame there, but similar criteria when used to evaluate teams from other leagues was apparently overlooked.

Indiana had two significant non-conference games; it beat Georgeotwn in OT in Brooklyn before the Hoyas hit stride, and lost vs. Butler. The win over North Carolina came long before the Tar Heels hit stride later in the season. Michigan State beat Kansas and several lesser entities but lost vs. UConn and Miami-Florida. While Gonzaga was disparaged by several talking heads for its loss to Illinois and a so-so non-league slate (which was not true, as the Zags went 5-0 vs. the Big 12), Michigan got lots of credit for its win over Kansas State and a pair of other successes vs. Pitt and N.C. State teams that were no better than the eighth-line teams in Dance seeding. Iowa beat Iowa State, but was whipped by Wichita State and Virginia Tech. Illinois won at Maui and dealt Gonzaga one of its two regular-season defeats, but was also routed in St. Louis by SEC rep Missouri.

Speaking of the SEC, we have to wonder why the Committee and the talking heads seemed to absolve Florida of its association with the league and rewarded the Gators a three-seed in the Dance while downgrading the rest of the loop. Florida lost every game it played that was decided by single digits and dropped five SEC games played away from Gainesville, including the conference tourney finale in Nashville vs. Ole Miss. If the SEC was so terrible, why did the Gators keep losing league games, as did supposedly highly-regarded Missouri, which lost seven of nine road games in the league as well as a pre-conference date at UCLA? But, for some reason, the Committee made exceptions for Florida and, to a lesser extent Missouri, as did the talking heads by refusing to clump those two with the rest of the loop.

There were also inconsistencies (as ESPN's Bilas noted) about the inclusion of Middle Tennessee as one of the last at-large teams (or, apparently, the last at-large, as Committee Chair Bobinski seemed to indicate) at the expense of a Tennessee, which was hot down the stretch. Bobinski again stumbled for answers other than noting that MTSU had beaten the same Ole Miss team that had toppled the Vols twice. The Blue Raiders, however, lost other challenging non-league assignments vs. Florida, Akron, and Belmont.

We're on record as having no problem with mid-majors like the Sun Belt catching an occasional break from the Selection Committee. And Tennessee could have probably moved to the safe side of the cut line had it beaten Alabama in the quarters of the SEC tourney last week in Nashville. Still, we might have picked the Vols over MTSU.

Elsewhere, there were questions related to seeding, especially the apparent downgrading of the Pac-12, where Oregon and Cal both received lower-than-expected 12 seeds (although Bobinski noted that each was originally an 11 seed, and was moved down a line in the procedural "bump" the Committee reserves in order to balance the field). Still, we believe this is really much ado about nothing, as 12 seeds usually have a better deal than eight or nine-seeds that are almost assuredly going to have to face regional number one seeds in the round of 32, as opposed to a more-beatable 4 or 5 seed. Although a downgraded seeding can dent the psyche of a team, in fact it often acts as a blessing in disguise. The fact that a 12 seed has advanced to the Sweet 16 in all but three years since the modern seeding of the tourney began in 1985 (a much better percentage than eight of nine seeds) is a confirmation that sometimes it can be better to be a bit downgraded at the outset.

We also wonder about all of the discussion regarding the top regional seeds, which seems like a manufactured storyline to us. Practically speaking, there is effectively no difference between a one and a two seed, except that a handful of 2's have been knocked off by 15 seeds in the last three decades. Whether Gonzaga is a one or two seed is going to have little impact on the proceedings save for being a nice feather in the Zags' hat.

The bottom line? The Selection Committee is comprised of humans, and they make the decisions, not the machines. We just wish that more members would confirm the selection process as a subjective exercise. And we'd also suggest a sequester of the Committee members from exposure to the TV talking heads who so seem to influence their thought process.

ANY GEORGE MASONS OR BUTLERS IN THE HOUSE?

The unexpected runs of mid-majors such as George Mason and Butler (and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011) to the Final Four in recent years have prompted us to offer a "mid-major alert" each of the past few seasons, highlighting teams to watch that could emerge and deliver a similar run in the Dance. Following are a handful of those sides that we would watch closely...

Davidson (SUR 26-7; seeded 14th in East)...Among all of the mid-major entries, we suspect the Wildcats might be the most complete and dangerous team. All starters returned from last year's side that made it to the Dance and gave Louisville a fight in the sub-regionals. Well-balanced, with six players who led the team in scoring in at least one game this season. A unique weapon in Ryan Kelly-like, Euro-style 6-10 F Jake Cohen (14.8 ppg), and a matchup nightmare in 6-7 swingman De'Mon Brooks (13.8 ppg), who can post-up smaller defenders. Team FT shooting (80.1%) is the best in the nation; G Nik Cochran (94.1%) tops all. Underrated, vet HC Bob McKillop has taken several teams to the Dance that did not include Stephen Curry. Pushed New Mexico to the limit in a challenging non-conference slate that also included Gonzaga and Duke. Junior-senior dominated roster that returned eight of nine top contributors from last season...the sort of team makeup that suggests it can at least be a dangerous underdog.

Belmont (SUR 26-6; seeded 11th in West)...No longer a well-kept secret, vet HC Rick Byrd's Bruins make a return visit return to the Dance after moving from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley. Electric backcourt featuring senior G's Ian Clark (18.3 ppg & 54.3% FGs) and Kerron Johnson (13.5 ppg). But balanced beyond the backcourt, with four starters scoring in double figures. Whipped South Dakota State at Nashville in December; other notable wins over Stanford and Ohio. Not big (no starter taller than 6'7) and probably a bit too perimeter-oriented to make a Mason, Butler, or VCU-type run, but Byrd is due for a win in the Dance after losing in five previous tries. Arizona is forewarned for the Thursday game in Salt Lake City.

South Dakota State (SUR 25-9; seeded 13th in South)...Back for another try after competitive loss vs. Baylor in the sub-regionals last year. Four starters returned from that tourney team, led by hot-shooting G Nate Wolters (22.7 ppg), who exploded for 53 points in a Feb. 7 win at IPFW. Wolters is more than a shooter, also a drive-and-kick penetrator who can count upon a squadron of dagger-throwing teammates including F Jordan Dykstra and G Chad White, both 43% beyond the arc. Efficient on the attack end by limiting TO's, this is still a perimeter-oriented squad that has some defensive liabilities. But could be a very tricky matchup nonetheless, especially vs. a team that is lax in defending the arc. Famously won at The Pit vs. New Mexico in December after an arduous 1200-mile bus ride from Nashville (after the Jackrabbits lost to Belmont) necessitated by weather conditions that grounded air travel. Rumor has it the team made at least one Waffle House stop en route to Albuquerque.

Bucknell (SUR 28-5; seeded 11th in East)...The alma mater of CBS head honcho Les Moonves, the Bison could be the latest in a string of Patriot League reps that have made some noise in recent Dances, including a year ago when Lehigh famously dumped Duke in the sub-regional. The Bison returned four starters from last year's NIT team, including 6-11 sr. C Mike Muscala, one of the best-kept secrets in the country after scoring 19.1 ppg and hauling in 11 rpg this season. Which means that foes are going to have to vigorously defend the post vs. Bucknell. The "outside" part of the inside-outside balance is courtesy of capable Gs 6-5 jr. Cameron Ayers (12.7 ppg) and sr. Bryson Johnson (11.5 ppg), both proficient shooting 3s. Notable wins this season include Purdue, La Salle, and New Mexico State.

Northwestern State (SUR 23-8, seeded 14th in South)...KO'd favored Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Tourney finale, although that was the Demons' second win in three tries vs. the Lumberjacks. Led the nation in scoring offense for much of the season thanks a relentless lineup that goes 10-deep; top scorer F DeQuan Hicks (14.2 ppg) usually comes off the bench. Defense a bit suspect, as we noted in its BracketBuster loss at Niagara, but NW can prove an awkward matchup due to its go-go style for HC Mike McConathy. Beat La Tech in early December and was a close loser at Oklahoma and LSU.

Montana (SUR 25-6, seeded 13th in East)...The Grizzlies were functioning minus top scorer F Mathias Ward (14.8 ppg; foot injury) for the last month of the season, this after high-scoring G Will Cherry (14.5 ppg) missed the first month of the campaign with his own broken foot. Cherry also missed some late-season action with another foot injury, but was back in the lineup for the Big Sky Tourney and win in the finale vs. dangerous Weber State. With Cherry and Ward absent for long stretches this season, F Kareem Jamar (14.2 ppg) stepped into the breach and was named Big Sky MVP. Lost four games early with Cherry out of starting lineup due to injury, but sent a warning shot in the BracketBuster at Davidson, pushing the Wildcats into OT despite being minus Ward and with Cherry re-injuring his foot in the 2nd half. Repeat Big Dance qualifier after losing to Wisconsin in sub-regional action last season.

Let's hope we're still talking about one or more of these teams next week for the Sweet 16; the tourney is always a bit more memorable when at last one Cinderella side emerges!

  
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