by Mike Hayes - 03/13/2006
While Selection Sunday is always sure to provide fodder for some debate over which bubble teams got lucky and which ones got shafted, there are a number of exclusions and inclusions in this year's field of 65 that simply make no sense.
That is, of course, unless it is the intention of the NCAA to use the 34 at-large bids whenever possible to give some of the smaller conferences a bit more exposure rather than simply filling the brackets with the best 34 available teams.
Look at it from a gambling perspective. Is there any circumstance you can think of in which Cincinnati would not be favored over Air Force? How about Michigan against UAB or Utah State on a neutral court?
The most glaring omission are the Bearcats, whose fate was evidently decided when Gerry MacNamara canned an unbelievable 3-point shot to give Syracuse an opening round win over the Bearcats in the Big East Tournament last week.
Cincinnati has the biggest gripe for a number of reasons -- the most obvious is that their credentials are better than those of Big East partner Seton Hall, which for reasons I'm still trying to understand jumped off of the bubble and into the Big Dance ahead of the Bearcats.
At least Cincinnati lost to the eventual Big East champion, and by just a point. The Pirates on the other hand lost handily to NIT-bound Rutgers (17-13) in opening round action.
Making the choice even more difficult to understand, however, is that Cincinnati has an RPI of 47 - about 20 spots higher than the Pirates, and a strength of schedule rated 5th best - that's correct - 5th best, in the nation, while the Pirates SOS was ranked far behind at 36.
While Cincinnati (18-12) clearly has better credentials than Seton Hall (18-11), the Pirates could still be considered worthy of inclusion, especially when Air Force, UAB and Utah State received bids.
I didn't even consider Air Force a bubble team entering the weekend due mostly because they belong to the Mountain West Conference - the 10th rated conference in the country which as such is not deserving of more than the automatic berth earned by San Diego State. Add to the equation an RPI of 56 and a SOS of 158 - a ranking that puts the Falcons in the bottom half of all of the Division I programs in the country - and I'm not certain Air Force belongs in the NIT.
You could make a better case for BYU, which at 12-4 finished in a second-place tie with the Falcons in conference play and has an RPI of 67 with a SOS of 128.
Utah State is another team that doesn't belong in the field for similar reasons. The Aggies finished second in the Western Athletic Conference -- the No. 9 rated conference in the country -- behind Nevada. They do have an RPI of 38 but it came against a SOS of 102.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham also got in ahead of those more deserving. UAB boasts a 23-6 record with an RPI of 36 against a SOS of 115 playing in Conference USA, the 15th ranked conference - behind the likes of the Horizon Conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Association Conference.
Behind Cincinnati on the list of those that got shafted is Missouri State. Sure, there is some question as to how good the Missouri Valley Conference might actually be, even though it is rated as the fifth or sixth best in the nation. The fact is though, that prior to this year no school with an RPI below 33 has been omitted from then tournament and the Bears have a RPI of 20 against a respectable SOS of 46 and a 4-3 mark against teams ranked 26-50. Again confusing matters is that conference mate Bradley, slightly better though almost identical credentials, did get a berth. At 11-7 Bradley finished a game behind the Bears in the MVC and their RPI of 29 and SOS of 50 are both a shade higher than Missouri State's.
I mentioned here last week that Hofstra needed to beat UNC-Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game to get in because it was unlikely the CAA was worthy of three bids and George Mason was a lock.
Well, the Pride lost the championship game and proved me correct, but considering some of the above-mentioned schools that made the tournament, Hofstra also deserves inclusion. With an RPI of 21 the Pride are right behind Missouri State and while Hofstra's SOS of 129 is not great, they did post a 3-2 mark against top 25 teams and a 4-2 record against those ranked from 51-100. Included among those top 25 victories are two over George Mason.
If you go strictly by RPI, Cincinnati, Missouri State and Hofstra would be joined by Michigan 18-10, with an RPI of 49 and Creighton 19-9, with an RPI of 35, as well.
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