Tulsa (20-11, 12-6, including a loss to Northern Arizona). Vanderbilt (19-13, 11-7). Syracuse (19-13, 9-9, including a loss to St. John’s). Six teams from the Pac 12, including Oregon State (5th) and USC (6th). One team from the WCC, and it wasn’t Saint Mary’s.
Those were the most maddening results from the NCAA Selection Committee deliberations announced Sunday. Although the committee used to give lip service to mid-major teams, it seems the tide has turned inexorably to those from the Power Five conferences, no matter how much mediocrity they display.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, covering up his disappointment with a cheerful facade, commented that as recently as a few years ago there were nine or 10 mid-majors chosen as at-large teams for the NCAA tournament compared with one chosen Sunday. “Any time you’re playing in a tournament beginning with “N” at this time of year, you’re fortunate,” said diplomat Bennett about playing in the NIT for the third year in a row.
Another myth laid to rest Sunday was one perpetrated by the selection committee itself: mid-major teams that take on Power Five teams on the road distinguish themselves and stand a better chance than teams — like Saint Mary’s — that play more cautious schedules. Tell that to Monmouth, which defeated UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown on the road en route to a 27-7 season and first place in its conference.
Because they lost to Iona on a buzzer-beater in their conference tournament, all of Monmouth’s yeoman work on the road against the big boys was tossed aside and they were relegated to the NIT along with Saint Mary’s. Any pretense of open-handedness regarding mid-major teams went out the window with the committee’s treatment of Monmouth. The window of opportunity for mid-majors is almost entirely closed, with only an automatic bid as a ticket to the dance.
Slight of slights
The committee’s slight of Saint Mary’s on Sunday hurt more than the Patty Mills snub of 2009. There were no quibbles over a potentially unhealed injury, just a slap in the face to a team with a 27-5 record and an RPI of 37 — higher than two dozen teams that were selected over the Gaels. In a radio interview before Selection Sunday, Bennett said the situation would be more bearable if the selection committee promulgated a set of objective criteria that all teams could measure themselves against.
Without such guidance — and no one is holding his breath waiting for it — the Gaels are perpetually left to the whims of a capricious committee. Bennett certainly knew he was flirting with rejection with his ultra-conservative 2015-16 schedule. He chose to roll the dice and hope an upset of Cal and a competitive game in the WCC conference championship game would overcome schedule weaknesses. He lost the gamble.
Lacking a clear-cut agenda from the selection committee, there does seem to be a reasonable path forward for the Gaels in the anti-mid-major era: schedule at least three games on the road against Power Five teams. Bennett will have to swallow his pride and give up his insistence on a home-and-home arrangement with Power Five teams. They are not going to play in Moraga, so the Gaels are going to have to hit the road and take their chances.
The Gaels’ 17-point beat-down of Stanford this season, the 2007 win over defending Pac-10 champion Oregon and the 2013 win over Creighton and Doug McDermott have sent strong warning signals. It seems less and less likely that any Power Five team will ignore them in the future.
The path forward
The good news is that Saint Mary’s has a readily accessible source of Power Five opponents at hand in the Pac-12. The Gaels have played at Arizona, Oregon, Cal, USC and Stanford in recent years, and have scrimmaged with Arizona State and Washington. Bennett obviously has connections to the conference, which is on an upswing and doesn’t seem to be trimming its sails anytime soon. The conference is considering moving its tournament from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas — a 13,000-seat venue — to a new facility across the Strip (the T-Mobile Center) that seats 19,000. It’s got money and prestige, as evidenced by the six teams it is sending to this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Certainly the Gaels could schedule road games against two of these — it already has Stanford scheduled next year — and one more against a team from another power conference — how about Notre Dame? Until the Gaels regain eligibility to participate in in-season tournaments in 2017, they have to get creative to gain respect with the selection committee. Let’s hope the committee will get so much static from screwing Monmouth that it will go back to rewarding mid-majors who take their show on the road. And the Gaels will have an excellent show to take on the road next season — let’s get on with it.
Oh, yes, the NIT
For those of you who believe the Gaels deserve support no matter how unpalatable the tournament, they will open the NIT on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in McKeon Pavilion. The opponent is a familiar one, New Mexico State, which had its own NCAA hopes dashed in its conference tournament on a buzzer-beater by Cal State Bakersfield. Yes, the Roadrunners, whom the Gaels dominated 94-59 back in December, are going to the Dance.
Irony, thy name is NCAA.
Randy Bennett, who made many brilliant decisions this season, may have made a bad one in opting for a weak non-conference schedule. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.