by Mike Hayes - 03/14/2006
When the four Missouri Valley Conference schools take the court in opening round action of the NCAA tournament this week there is significantly more at stake that the right to play another day.
Of course, there's the Hoosiers angle, when just before the big game Merle says to his Hickory High School teammates, "Let's win for all the small schools that never had the chance to get here," but there's more than that. The integrity of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) as an accurate measure of a team's ability is at stake here as well as the reputations of blowhards like Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, who flipped at the notion of the MVC having the same number of bids as powerhouse conferences like the ACC, Big-12 and Pac-10.
There's no doubt that everybody loves a Cinderella squad, but with only 34 invitations available to the Big Dance, a ticket is given only to a select few deemed worthy of such an honor and, quite frankly, it has become an elitist tournament as it is indeed rare that Cinderella even gets an invitation.
With that said, it is now up to the MVC invites to prove the Billy Packers of the college basketball world wrong and the NCAA selection committee and the RPI right.
A good performance and at least a couple of wins will not only validate a process which has often left us scratching our heads, but will go a long way to opening the door to conferences like the MAC, MAAC, CAA and others for consideration of future at-large nods.
Should the MVC get swept here however, and are not as competitive as their RPI indicates they should be, then Packer and Nantz are for the most part proven correct. However, their arguments will still be flawed. No one is suggesting that in receiving four bids the conference is on par with the ACC.
This is nonsensical. Have they even looked at the brackets? The highest seeded team from the MVC is Wichita State with a No. 7. In fact, the Shockers -- a 2.5 point favorite over Seton Hall -- are the only MVC even expected to win a game. This is even though, in all but one match-up, Kansas vs. Bradley, the MVC rep has a better RPI than their higher seeded opponent.
Do Packer and Nantz believe Seton Hall has a chance to reach the Final Four? How about Indiana? The Hoosiers, by the way, lost this season to ninth-place MVC finisher Indiana State. Who do they think most college basketball fans would prefer to see? A second-tier Big East team like the Pirates or a potential Cinderella in Bradley or Northern Iowa?
On WFAN radio in New York Nantz cited a recent published report that said the MVC has learned how to work the RPI and created a "vortex" that piles up more and more credit in conference play based on such events as Northern Iowa's win over LSU.
If that is, in fact, the case, it first must be pointed out that the system only works with an event that cannot be predetermined, in this case Northern Iowa's win over a team deemed to be worthy of a No. 4 seed, LSU. Obviously somebody in this conference can play.
It is interesting to note that if the RPI were the primary tool used in selecting the at-large field, the MVC would also be represented by Missouri State, the No. 21 rated team in the country and highest-rated team in history to be excluded from the tournament, not to mention Creighton with an RPI of 39.
How the Bears were excluded is mystifying. In addition to their impressive RPI, the Bears had won eight of nine to end the regular season with their worst loss being a 4-point contest at Arkansas, a No. 8 seed with an RPI of 45.
The MVC will have its chance to state its case and affirm the validity of the RPI beginning Thursday when the Shockers and their 27 RPI take on the No. 58 rated Pirates when play begins in Greensboro, N.C.
On Friday, No. 10 seed Northern Iowa, with an RPI of 25, will take on 36th rated Georgetown, where the Hoyas have been installed as a 4-point favorite.
Also Friday, West Virginia, with an RPI of 37, is a 4-point favorite over Southern Illinois, a No. 11 seed with a 29 RPI and Kansas is a 7.5 favorite over Bradley.
Kansas, a No. 4 seed, had an RPI in the 40s, higher than the Braves, until the last calculation spit out by the computer moved the Jayhawks up 25 spots to 20 and moved 13th seeded Bradley from about 29 to 33.
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