As sure as the clocks jumped ahead one hour this morning, you can be sure that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee—the biggest bunch of idiots gathered in one room this side of Congress—will screw things up tonight and, in particular, find a way to screw the mid-majors.
But let’s give the NCAA credit where it is due: Hours before Twitter explodes with our collective fury over the latest Field of 64 (err, 68) snubs, the most crooked sporting governing body not named the IOC has already managed to stick it to the little guy, and all under the guise of helping us out.
As a Hofstra fan, you no doubt know that the Flying Dutchmen’s NIT hopes went from cautiously realistic last Sunday to all but non-existent this morning thanks to an amazing 14 regular season mid-major conference champions losing in their tournaments. The news has gotten worse with each passing day, “peaking” yesterday when top seeds McNeese State, Kent State and Long Beach State (moral of the story: state schools suck) all lost in their tournament finals.
The spate of upsets among the mid-majors wrecked havoc with the NIT field, since those 14 fallen top seeds will receive an automatic bid to the NIT if they are not selected to the NCAA field. Which, other than maybe Alabama-Birmingham of Conference USA, they won’t. If all 14 regular season champs end up in the NIT, that leaves just 18 at-large spots in the NIT, which means, even if the NIT were solely for mid-majors, someone—multiple someones—with 20 or more wins would be left out: There are 25 true mid-major teams (I discounted the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West) with at least 20 wins who have not yet clinched a spot in the NCAA or NIT.
The NIT, of course, is both literally and symbolically an extension of the NCAA, which has been running the NIT and saving it from extinction since 2005. A fox guarding a hen house thinks this smells funny. So there are going to be a lot of someones—including, almost certainly, our beloved Flying Dutchmen—left scrambling for a bid to the CBI or CIT tonight.
This isn’t about keeping out the regular season champions of the smaller conferences, who absolutely deserve this reward after proving themselves the best in their league over the long haul before having a bad day at a bad time. It’s about the chutzpah of the NCAA ensuring the NIT field is, just like the NCAA Tournament, bottom-heavy with vulnerable mid-majors who will be quickly dispatched as the NIT turns into an elitist and exclusive party for the big boys. Most of the bottom 12 spots in the field will be taken up by automatic bid winners who otherwise wouldn’t have even sniffed the field.
Of the 24 at-large bids awarded last year, only eight were claimed by schools outside the BCS leagues, Atlantic 10 or Mountain West. And three of those eight were snapped up by Tulsa, Memphis and Alabama-Birmingham of Conference USA, which was, for all intents and purposes, the ninth major conference in the land in 2009-10.
If the math holds this year—and you can probably bet the mortgage it won’t, and that the big conferences will get a larger share of the at-large bids—then there will be only six spots in the NIT for true mid-majors. Not only doesn’t Hofstra make that short list, it doesn’t even make the list of teams on the bubble.
Our friend John Templon, who has been authoring a mock NIT bracket all week at Chicagonow.com, has Wichita State (24-8, 62 RPI) and Marshall (22-11, 56 RPI) out as of late last night/early this morning, while Southern Mississippi (22-10, 64 RPI) and Cleveland State (26-8, 40 RPI) are barely in. All RPI rankings are as of Saturday at realtimerpi.com.
That’s FOUR schools with top 68 RPIs either out of the NIT or hanging precariously on to a spot—two schools from Conference USA, one from the annually excellent Missouri Valley and one from the Horizon, the league which only gave us last year’s national runner-up. That’s incredible, and an injustice.
NIT bubble teams from mid-majors have been fortunate the last five years, during which between five and eight spots were filled by automatic bid winners. But we should have seen a year like this coming in 2006, when the NCAA announced it would reduce the NIT from 40 to 32.
“It is more logical in terms of structure, easier to follow for fans and participants, more workable in bracketing,” NIT committee head C.M. Newton told USA Today. Oh sure, but the NCAA didn’t mind expanding from the perfect 64 (or 65) to 68 and changing the dynamics of and deadlines for not-for-profit (snicker snicker snort snort) March Madness brackets everywhere, did it?
The reduction of the field negated the one decent thing the NCAA has ever done for mid-majors. The NCAA began awarding regular season conference champions an automatic bid to the NIT upon taking over the NIT, and a 40-team field (which the NIT debuted in 2002) left plenty of room for the chaos of this season, when there would have been (math major here!) an extra eight at-large spots available. In that case, a school such as Hofstra is still likely out, but the aforementioned four schools on the bubble would be safely in.
The supply and demand of the NIT field is great news for the CBI and CIT, which will have deep and competitive fields and shouldn’t have to resort to begging anyone to play this year, and more evidence those tournaments are absolutely necessary in an expanded Division I landscape in which power is more consolidated than ever.
The NCAA, of course, could fix this in a hurry, and weaken or destroy the upstart tournaments, by expanding the NIT to 40 or even 48 teams and leaving plenty of room for mid-majors who have played well enough to warrant postseason play. I imagine that’ll happen, just as soon as we begin setting the clocks back an hour in the spring.