NCAA Tournament: Storm Warning For 68-Team Field

  on March 18 2013 7:50 PM

It’s getting to be a little mid-major mania when it comes to March Madness anymore. For the second year in a row, the non-power conference lot has been bestowed 11 of the available 37 at-large berths for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

The Mountain West and Atlantic Ten head that list, grabbing four apiece. The bigger deal, really, is seeing the West Coast (Saint Mary’s), Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee State) and Missouri Valley (Wichita State) conferences squeeze an extra place beyond their automatic qualifiers.

Before going crazy about the tables turning, though, keep in mind that cycles happen and, frankly, are pretty common in sports. Just this millennium, in fact, we’ve seen a mid-major rising greater than this current “experience.” In 2003 and ’04, 22 of a total of 68 slots went to the non-power schools, including 12 of 34 that second year – which stands as the height of mid-major acceptance thus far.

Yeah, you think WCC champ Gonzaga’s 1-seed this year is a big deal? Consider this, Saint Joseph’s of the A-10 got one in 2004, and it didn’t even win its conference tournament. It was an at-large choice, and coming off a 20-point blowout loss to Xavier.

The Hawks, behind national player of the year Jameer Nelson, made a run to the Elite Eight that season, as did Xavier, and mid-majors all told combined for a 17-21 mark in the tournament. A repeat performance by mid-majors – not to mention Kelly Olynyk sparking the Zags in Nelson-like fashion – would do wonders to prove that they are worthy of more acclaim and respect.

THIS YEAR’S BUTLER: Well, it isn’t going to be Butler. The Bulldogs may have a win over top-ranked Gonzaga this season en route to posting a 26-8 mark, and their determination and moxie seems to be matched more and more all the time. If anything, fellow A-10 entrants Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth have the look of squads capable of making an unlikely run to Atlanta, site of this year’s Final Four.

VCU isn’t exactly a stranger to such a party, having crashed it back in 2011 – along with Butler. But the Billikens are the ones who took the conference double, winning both the regular-season and the tournament titles. Both present matchup nightmares for just about any team, mostly because they play tenacious defense – VCU’s being more of an all-out assault up and down the floor and Saint Louis’ being more along the lines of physically draining the opposition.

But, just checking my bracket, I don’t have the Billkens making it to the second weekend, and I have VCU falling in the Elite Eight. Nope, the mid-major – if you really can call it a mid-major – the eyes behind this see as making it to the final weekend of the tournament is New Mexico, thanks to favorable matchups it is likely to see out West, where, ironically, mid-major standard and top-seeded Gonzaga will get bounced in its second game.

DOESN’T ADD UP: No surprise with Indiana getting a 1, considering popular “vibe.” But it still doesn’t jive with what the selection committee has hammered home previously on its yearly explanation class for seeds. Yeah, the Hoosiers went 27-6, winning the rigorous Big Ten’s regular season. But they also lost in the conference tournament and dropped three of their last six games. Additionally, they set a nothing-to-brag-about mark for most losses by a team in a single season when it was ranked No. 1, having fallen three times in that position.

It seems to be more a case of rep and not wanting to let go of preseason beliefs that nailed down that position for IU. Both Miami, which pulled the double (regular- season and tourney titles) in the ACC, and – drum roll, please – New Mexico, which did the same in the MWC, could argue that they did more to earn that 1.

PHILLY FILE: Tons of talk about NCAA berths and not one team from the City of Brotherly Love getting any existed throughout the 2012-13 season. La Salle carried the town’s banner for most of the season, but faded down the stretch. Meanwhile, respected programs Villanova and Temple were down and up, up and down seemingly the entire time. When Selection Sunday rolled around, it was a very real possibility that Philly’s three hopefuls would go 0-for-3 on bids. Instead, they went 3-for-3.

Now they face the very real possibility of going 0-for-3 in the tournament with ’Nova taking on North Carolina, Temple facing N.C. State and La Salle squaring off with Boise State. All the Philly schools currently are underdogs in those matchups, the first two being 8-9s in the South and East regionals, respectively, and the last one a first-round battle to be the 13th seed to face fourth-seeded Kansas State in West on Friday.

STAY AWAY: The temptation exists to go for upsets, especially when a mid-major has some hook, or big man, to legitimately spark some thought. That being the case, we got Bucknell looking to out-Butler Butler in the second round as the Bison bring in 7-footer Mike Muscula, a 19-point/11-rebound guy, to the table.

The only problem is, the Bulldogs can counter with 6-11 Andrew Smith, who continuously proves to be far more than serviceable, they’re physical across the board and their guard play can be fantastic.

NO RESPECT – AT ALL: OK, we get it, the Pac-12 isn’t that hot this season. But conference tourney champ Oregon only getting a 12-seed in the Midwest? To make matters worse, the Ducks get a dreadful draw, having to face 5-seed Oklahoma State.

Ironically enough, Oregon tied California for the Pac-12’s lowest seed while UCLA, Arizona and Colorado all got higher ones.

ON TO ATLANTA: Buckle up, 1s, this could be a rough ride. No real feel for a single one reaching the destination spot – but a pair of 2s and pair of 3s seem just right: Duke and Miami, and New Mexico and Florida. Also on tap seems to be Ole Miss and Oklahoma State making runs that really surprise, with Butler having a moment or two and VCU probably three.

In this, the year most everyone’s favorite basketball conference – the ACC – took a major step back to others, including the mid-majors, how ironic would it be if two of its members tipped off in the national championship game?

Miami vs. Duke … Round 3 … Sounds good … Lets go with it.

Hurricanes, behind nifty point guard Shane Larkin, prevail.