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Thinking about the first round -- and Saint Mary's

3/20/2009

American Guts: American guards Derrick Mercer and Garrison Carr are barely tall enough to get on the rides at Disney World, but they played with great heart and courage against Villanova. Carr is a great shooter coming off screens and spotting up in transition, and Mercer is a great leader on the floor. It was really fun watching them compete. American runs a good offense and really moves the ball. Like most smaller conference teams, the Eagles are just as skilled, but smaller. Their hearts, however, are just as big.

Villanova Strength: In the first half against American, Villanova played right into the hands of the Eagles. American wanted to make the game into a shooting contest, and Villanova obliged. Half of Villanova's shots in the first half were 3-pointers, and the Wildcats did not get to the free throw line. In the second half, trailing by 14 points, Villanova started to drive the ball, punching it inside to Dante Cunningham and crashing the offensive glass. In the second half, the game was about the free throw line. Villanova was able to get American in foul trouble and shot a ton of free throws, which was the difference in Villanova's 13-point victory.

Keeping Up with Jones: American coach Jeff Jones has spent his life around big-time basketball. Jones grew up in Owensboro, Ky., and played in high school for Rex Chapman's father. He played at Virginia with Ralph Sampson and played in Philadelphia in the 1981 Final Four. He coached at Virginia and took the Cavaliers to the Elite Eight. Now he is at American and he seems happier than ever.

Jones is coaching a group of players who are grateful for everything they have but simply play under the national radar, such as Frank Borden, a national champion decathlete that went to junior college because he wanted to pursue basketball. Borden may not be a great player, but he plays just as hard as anyone that has played in this NCAA tournament.

Funny Contrast: It was a bit odd to see Villanova tower over American, and then to think that Villanova is the smallest team in the Big East. Villanova is always considered the little guy in the Big East but the Wildcats would not be so little in the Patriot League.

VCU's Near Miss: VCU is a very good team because it has two pros on its roster, some excellent athletes, and a very good coach. Anthony Grant, the former Dayton star and assistant to Billy Donovan, had the ball in the hands of Eric Maynor when the game was on the line. He had UCLA right where he wanted it. Perhaps no player in the tournament has a knack for the big moment like Maynor, but he was well defended by Darren Collison, UCLA's great defensive point guard, and UCLA squeaked out a win. This is not a vintage UCLA team, but it is good enough to grind out a win against good teams.

Keeping The Blinders On: VCU coach Anthony Grant showed his team some tape before the Rams' matchup with UCLA. Most coaches do. But the tape Grant showed his team was of Secretariat winning the Kentucky Derby in 1973. Grant's point was that Secretariat could not hear anything said about him and was oblivious to any off-track distractions. He just ran the race. And that is what Grant wanted his team to do, to have that singular focus on VCU and UCLA, and to run their race. Pretty cool way to get a point across to your team.

Mr. Robinson: UConn's Stanley Robinson is really coming on. An incredible athlete with great second-effort rebounding ability, Robinson has played two high-level games in a row -- with 28 points against Syracuse and 24 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks against Chattanooga. If Robinson keeps coming on like this, UConn will miss Jerome Dyson much less.

Woody: How good was North Dakota State's Ben Woodside? He is a big-time scorer that is in the top 10 in the nation in scoring. There was no way for Bill Self to adequately explain to his team just how good Woodside is -- they needed to experience it for themselves. The Jayhawks experienced it to the tune of 37 points.

Taking Them Lightly?: It is interesting how we in the media continue to insult the little guy that we purport to champion. American plays a great first half against Villanova, but Villanova dominates the second half and wins. What is Jay Wright asked after the game? Whether the Wildcats took American lightly. East Tennessee State gives Pittsburgh a great effort, and it is said that Pitt was just going through the motions and overlooked the Bucs. How insulting is that?

We can't claim that the smaller conference teams can play with the big shots and then blame the big shots for letting the little guy stay in the game. The best of the mid-majors are very good and can beat almost anybody. American's performance was a tribute to how well the Eagles can play, not an indictment of how Villanova played. And don't think that our condescending attitude toward mid-majors doesn't filter down to the players. Whenever a high-seeded major is threatened by lower-seeded mid-major, like East Tennessee State, you can see the major tighten up down the stretch. There was a look of near panic on the faces of the Pittsburgh players near the end of the game, and the stress was clear on the face of Jamie Dixon. We talk about how good the little guy is, then beat up the big guy for losing to the little guy.

The "Little Guy" Argument: On our Bracketology Selection Show, our analysts got into a worthy discussion about the tournament field and what it is all about. That is as it should be. Spirited debate is a good thing among friends, because we all see different things in the game, and we all bring a different perspective. And, we are all passionate about the game.

In the discussion of whether Saint Mary's was snubbed, two distinct and different topics merged into one. First, the discussion was about whether Saint Mary's was snubbed and "unfairly" left out of the field. Second, the discussion moved to whether the mid-majors could get quality games to prove they are "legit." Those are two very different things.

Here is my take on Saint Mary's: the Gaels were a tournament team no matter the schedule they played. If you recall, I picked Saint Mary's before the season as the team that could be this year's Davidson. The Gaels have a pro in Patty Mills and two truly outstanding big men in Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan. In December, the Gaels were ranked and would have been in the field no matter how many "quality wins" they had by Selection Sunday. The only reason that Saint Mary's was left out -- and this was the only reason -- is that Patty Mills was injured and no one was certain of his true status. Absent his injury and the uncertainty surrounding it, Saint Mary's would have been in the field. Period.

If you say that a team got jobbed, you have to say which team should be bounced in its favor. In this case, it was unanimously Arizona. I asked my good friend Dick Vitale which team he thought was better (not which team would win in a head-to-head, because that is more about matchups). Dick said Saint Mary's was the better team, which is the winning argument, and a judgment with which I would take no issue. However, if the argument is that our hearts bleed for the little guy and let the little guy in because life isn't fair, that is a losing argument.

The issue of fairness in scheduling is where things got passionate. Dick and many others believe that mid-majors get shut out of getting games by the BCS conference teams, and that the shunning of mid-majors is keeping the mid-majors from gaining equal footing with the BCS conference teams.

That is simply not true. While we can all point to anecdotal evidence that BCS teams will not schedule really good mid-majors, the bulk of the evidence belies the theory that the majors are afraid to let the mid-majors out of the pen. It is really hard for mid-majors to get home games when they are really good, and hard for mid-majors to get games exactly when they want them. But the idea that mid-majors cannot get enough games to prove they are good teams is simply wrong.

Think about it ... the BCS conferences have 71 teams. The rest of Division I is made up of 343 teams. There is no way that the BCS conferences can provide home games to 271 teams and make everyone happy. Plus, the BCS conference teams have to have home games to pay the bills, and have to schedule quality opponents on the road for television and for the selection committee. Remember, when a BCS school schedules a mid-major on the road, we care only when the big school loses.

Let's take a quick look at the postseason majors on the road this season:

Duke played Xavier and Southern Illinois on a neutral court

North Carolina played at UCSB and at Nevada

Florida State played at Jacksonville, at La Salle and at Georgia State

Clemson played at Charlotte

Boston College played at Saint Louis and at UMass

Wake Forest played at BYU, at ECU and at Richmond

Kansas played UMass on a neutral court

Oklahoma played Tulsa on a neutral floor and at Rice

Missouri played Xavier on a neutral court

Oklahoma State played Tulsa, Gonzaga and Siena on a neutral floor

Texas played Saint Joseph's on a neutral floor

Louisville played Western Kentucky at home early in the season

UConn played at Buffalo

Pittsburgh played Siena at home

Villanova played at Penn and at La Salle

Marquette played Dayton on a neutral floor

West Virginia played at Duquesne and played Davidson on a neutral floor

Georgetown played Wichita State on a neutral floor

Notre Dame played at Loyola Marymount

Michigan State played at IPFW and played Wichita State on a neutral floor

Purdue played at Ball State

Illinois played Tulsa on a neutral floor

Ohio State played Butler

Minnesota played at Colorado State and gave games to North Dakota State and Cornell

South Carolina played at College of Charleston and at Princeton

Tennessee played Siena on a neutral floor, at Middle Tennessee and at Temple

Vanderbilt played at UMass, and played VCU and Drake on a neutral floor

LSU played at Utah

Auburn played at Xavier, and played Dayton and Northern Iowa on a neutral floor

Mississippi State played at St. Bonaventure

Alabama played Saint Joseph's on a neutral floor

Arkansas played at Missouri State and at South Alabama

Ole Miss played at New Orleans, at New Mexico and played Utah on a neutral floor

Georgia played at Western Kentucky

Washington played at Portland, and played Cleveland State on a neutral floor

UCLA played Southern Illinois on a neutral floor

Arizona State played at San Diego State, and played Charlotte and UTEP on a neutral floor

Cal played at Utah

Stanford played at Yale, at Colorado State and at Santa Clara

Washington State played at Idaho

USC played Chattanooga on a neutral floor

How many road or neutral games do the majors need to play? And why are away games so bad for mid-majors? They make more money, and they get credit for just coming close on the road.

And that doesn't count all of the opportunities that majors provide to mid-majors to get quality wins on the road, like Kansas playing Siena when the Saints returned its entire roster and Kansas lost its entire starting unit. Oklahoma played American and Davidson, Mississippi State and Louisville played Western Kentucky, and Minnesota played North Dakota State and Cornell. Maryland played American. And Duke played Davidson. I could go on and on with road opportunities for mid-majors.

Nobody is arguing that the system is fair or equitable. It is not. But it is not keeping the mid-majors down, either. No sport is fairer to the little guy than college basketball. Twenty-five spots via automatic bid to the NCAA tournament are reserved for the "little guy." But the next 34 slots are reserved for the best 34 remaining teams.

Injury Break?: The Patty Mills injury raises a really good question. Should the committee take injuries into consideration at all? After all, injuries are a part of the game, and it clearly affects the "body of work" to factor in injuries. Would it be so awful to put Saint Mary's in the field based upon the body of work and risk that Mills would not be the same? Similarly, would it be so awful to seed Oklahoma a bit lower because it lost games without Blake Griffin? I don't know the right answer to those questions. The system is imperfect, and there will always be a legitimate beef with the final selections of the committee.

I can tell you this, though, if Saint Mary's was judged to be a lesser team because of the Mills injury, then Marquette and Illinois should have been held to the same standard. Illinois played without Chester Frazier, and Marquette played without Dominic James. That needs to be better addressed in the future.

My suggestion to improve the tournament was to eliminate automatic bids and just take the 64 best teams. Of course, that is like suggesting reasonable gun-control laws to the NRA. Some people immediately assume that the suggestion is made to squeeze more BCS teams into the field, which is false. The best 64 teams would have included Saint Mary's, Creighton, Tulsa, San Diego State, George Mason and Niagara.

And if you think that the committee dinged only little guys with 20-plus wins, consider that South Carolina has 21 wins, Florida had 23 wins, Auburn had 22 wins and Penn State had 22 wins. The committee was fair and consistent. The only legitimate argument was for Saint Mary's, and the only sticking point was the injury to Mills. What if the suggestion were to eliminate only the automatic bid for the BCS conferences? That would provide six more at-large berths to the tournament and eliminate the possibility of USC, Mississippi State and perhaps Baylor from "stealing a bid" from a bubble team. That might not meet as much resistance because we would only be killing the dreams of a middling BCS team.