Cin­derella can’t ball

In­equal­ity is grow­ing in col­lege bas­ket­ball, with mid-ma­jors re­ceiv­ing fewer and fewer at-large NCAA tour­na­ment berths. That means . . .

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - ADAM KIL­GORE

Col­lege bas­ket­ball un­der­goes con­stant evolution, a form of Dar­win­ism that can turn well-es­tab­lished fix­tures into long-for­got­ten relics. The four-year su­per­star went the way of the dodo. The no­tion of ge­o­graph­i­cal align­ment of con­fer­ences van­ished. Play­ing the Fi­nal Four in an ac­tual bas­ket­ball gym grew quaint. If cur­rent trends con­tinue, a quin­tes­sen­tial slice of col­lege hoops may join the en­dan­gered list: the mid-ma­jor at-large NCAA tour­na­ment berth.

“I 100 per­cent think mid-ma­jor teams get­ting at-large berths is not only di­min­ish­ing but — what is it when we have a crea­ture that’s about to die?” South­ern Illi­nois Coach Barry Hin­son said. “It’s on life sup­port. It’s get­ting ready to be an ex­tinct species.”

As lower-tier con­fer­ence tour­na­ments be­gin next week, al­most ev­ery mid-ma­jor team faces grim and pres­sur­ized cir­cum­stances: Win the tour­na­ment and its au­to­matic berth into the 68-team NCAA field that will be an­nounced March 12, or plan on spend­ing March Mad­ness at a lesser event or at home.

The NCAA bracket will still be loaded with mid-ma­jor teams. But the dearth of at-large berths for schools out­side the five power con­fer­ences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pa­cific-12 and South­east­ern Con­fer­ence — will al­ter the feel and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the tour­na­ment. Watch­ing an Illi­nois State try to top­ple a power con­fer­ence op­po­nent has been more part of the char­ac­ter and, for many fans, ap­peal of the NCAA tour­na­ment than, say, a firstround matchup be­tween Min­nesota and Texas Tech.

“The Wi­chita States, the Ge­orge Ma­sons, the VCUs — these are the teams that make the tour­na­ment fun,” Hin­son said. “If we take that away, then our greed is go­ing to over­take. And we’re not go­ing to have a tour­na­ment that’s pop­u­lar. The tour­na­ment is made on Cin­derella, and when there’s no Cin­derella any­more, you’re just go­ing to have an empty ball, and it’s not go­ing to be fun.”

In the zero-sum game of NCAA tour­na­ment berths, in­equal­ity

be­tween the haves and have-nots ap­pears to be grow­ing. In 2006, Ge­orge Ma­son ad­vanced to the Fi­nal Four out of the Colo­nial Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion. Over the next seven sea­sons, But­ler, VCU and Wi­chita State fol­lowed suit from mid-ma­jor con­fer­ences. While But­ler won the Hori­zon League to earn its berths in the sea­sons it ad­vanced to con­sec­u­tive na­tional ti­tle games, Ma­son, VCU and Wi­chita State all earned at-large berths, seeded be­tween ninth and 11th.

As tele­vi­sion rights deals have boomed in re­cent years, the ma­jor­ity of the money has flowed into the cof­fers of ma­jor con­fer­ences, am­pli­fy­ing their re­source ad­van­tages. An even more in­sid­i­ous cul­prit may be con­fer­ence re­align­ment, which has sapped op­por­tu­ni­ties from mid-ma­jor con­fer­ences in both ob­vi­ous and sub­tle ways.

The ef­fects sur­faced last March in stark fash­ion. If you group the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence and the At­lantic 10 among power con­fer­ences, Wi­chita State was the only mid-ma­jor team to earn one of the 36 at-large berths.

This sea­son, un­de­feated, topranked Gon­zaga and No. 20 Saint Mary’s of the West Coast Con­fer­ence should be locks to make the field. While Mid­dle Ten­nessee State of Con­fer­ence USA and No. 25 Wi­chita State and Illi­nois State from the Mis­souri Val­ley Con­fer­ence, to name three, have ré­sumés the com­mit­tee will have to con­sider, it’s pos­si­ble this year’s bracket again will yield just one mid-ma­jor at-large en­trant.

“The eye of the nee­dle for teams out­side the power con­fer­ences is get­ting nar­rower and nar­rower,” Hori­zon League Com­mis­sioner Jonathan LeCrone said.

Jerry Palm, the bracket expert at CBSS­ports.com, com­piles a mock bracket ev­ery week dur­ing the sea­son, up­dat­ing his pro­jec­tions daily as March ap­proaches. Ev­ery sea­son, he said, he has a plan for which con­fer­ence tour­na­ment up­sets could throw his pre­dic­tion into dis­ar­ray. When a mid-ma­jor fa­vorite loses, the topranked mid-ma­jor of­ten would knock out some other team for an at-large berth. This year has been dif­fer­ent.

“When we get to cham­pi­onship week, it al­ways seems like we need two or three bid-steal­ers,” Palm said. “This year, it’s hard to see where the bid-steal­ers would come from. There just aren’t any at-large can­di­dates from the smaller con­fer­ences.”

Mid-ma­jors must deal with the same is­sues they have al­ways faced: the dif­fi­culty (if not im­pos­si­bil­ity) of sched­ul­ing home games with power teams who make too much money off home games to sac­ri­fice them; the re­source im­bal­ance; and the per­cep­tion bat­tle. Con­fer­ence re­align­ment may be the most im­por­tant factor in the re­cent plunge in at-large teams.

Hav­ing been raided it­self by the ACC, the Big East sur­vived by plun­der­ing other con­fer­ences in 2013. Creighton, But­ler and Xavier jumped to the new Big East from, re­spec­tively, the Mis­souri Val­ley, Hori­zon and At­lantic 10. Creighton’s de­par­ture pro­vides a keen ex­am­ple of how dam­ag­ing los­ing just one school can be.

One im­pact of Creighton’s ab­sence is ob­vi­ous: It meant the Mis­souri Val­ley had one fewer well-es­tab­lished pro­gram ca­pa­ble of con­tend­ing for an at-large berth most ev­ery sea­son. It also meant po­ten­tial con­tenders lost two chances ev­ery sea­son to notch an im­pres­sive vic­tory, two cru­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties to bur­nish their case.

“This is the first time the Mis­souri Val­ley has only two top-100 teams in a decade,” Palm said. “It’s hard to ré­sumé-build in that league any more. You used to see four or five top-100 teams a year.”

It also be­came less likely for an MVC school to climb into the top 100 of the Rat­ing Per­cent­age In­dex, a for­mula the NCAA tour­na­ment com­mit­tee re­lies on to judge teams. The for­mula is based in part on strength of sched­ule, so when a qual­ity team flees a con­fer­ence, it ef­fects ev­ery team’s rat­ing. Hin­son es­ti­mated that the Mis­souri Val­ley, ranked 12th in con­fer­ence RPI, would be sit­ting at eighth with Creighton in the league.

“If they leave, that’s 18 games you don’t get against that top-25 team,” MVC Com­mis­sioner Doug Elgin said. “It does have al­most a mul­ti­plier ef­fect.”

Both Elgin and LeCrone lamented the dearth of at-large mid-ma­jors without com­plain­ing. “I’ve been very hes­i­tant to ar­gue in a pub­lic fo­rum the odds are stacked against us,” LeCrone said. “I would just use that en­ergy to try to get bet­ter.” But he also pointed out that met­rics such as RPI can “over­pe­nal­ize” leagues with par­tic­u­larly poor teams at the bot­tom that can drain an op­po­nent’s RPI just by show­ing up. They also shrink the mar­gin for er­ror.

“If you’re Illi­nois State and you get beat at a bot­tom-tier league school, the na­tional me­dia is go­ing, ‘Oh, they’re out,’ ” Hin­son said. “It’s so mag­ni­fied. You’re not un­der the same mi­cro­scope as a Power Five school. The rules aren’t the same.”

At a re­cent game, Elgin ran into Hin­son, the South­ern Illi­nois coach. “What do we need to do as a con­fer­ence?” Elgin asked him. “The is­sue with our league right now isn’t our league,” Hin­son said. “The is­sue with our league is re­align­ment and who we’ve lost.”

Hin­son, whose Salukis scrim­maged Mid­dle Ten­nessee State be­fore the sea­son, said MTSU was the best team they’ve played this sea­son other than Louisville. “It would be a trav­esty” if the Blue Raiders, who are 24-4 over­all, 14-1 in Con­fer­ence USA, don’t make the field, Hin­son said. But he also said he ex­pected they would be left out if they do not win the C-USA tour­na­ment.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Hin­son said. “Un­til you find a dif­fer­ent eval­u­a­tion process or ex­pand the tour­na­ment, you’re go­ing to have this ev­ery stink­ing year.”

FERNANDO SALAZAR/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Mis­souri Val­ley’s RPI dropped af­ter con­fer­ence re­align­ment; Wi­chita State and Mis­souri State, above, have felt the ef­fects.

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