Who will wear the glass slip­per?

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By JOHN FE­IN­STEIN

It’s never too early to look at March Mad­ness and pos­si­ble Cin­derella can­di­dates

Be­lieve it or not, Se­lec­tion Sun­day for the NCAA men's bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment is only five weeks away. The 10-mem­ber bas­ket­ball com­mit­tee will send out its white puffs of smoke and sagely ex­plain what all their com­puter print­outs told them to do.

This year will pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing test for the com­mit­tee. Why? Be­cause there just aren't that many qual­ity teams in the power con­fer­ences this sea­son.

I am no brack­e­tol­o­gist (God for­bid), but as of Fri­day, I counted 33 teams from the top eight con­fer­ences that should be locks or vir­tual locks to make the field of 68 on the night of March 17 bar­ring a ma­jor in­jury or a col­lapse. In all like­li­hood, eight of those teams will re­ceive au­to­matic bids given to each of the 32 con­fer­ence tour­na­ment cham­pi­ons. For the sake of ar­gu­ment, let's say two multi-bid con­fer­ences pro­duce a bid-stealer, an au­to­matic-berth cham­pion not among my 33. That means those con­fer­ences would re­ceive 27 at-large bids, leav­ing nine open.

But if the re­cent past is an in­di­ca­tor, it will be dif­fi­cult for teams from out­side the power con­fer­ences to get any of the 36 at-large berths. In men's col­lege bas­ket­ball there are eight leagues that have reg­u­larly re­ceived mul­ti­ple bids: the five foot­ball power con­fer­ences, plus the Big East, At­lantic 10 and Amer­i­can. Ev­ery­one else is likely to re­ceive only its au­to­matic spot in most years.

Last sea­son, one team from out­side the top eight leagues - Ne­vada of the Mountain West - re­ceived an at-large bid. Two years ago, Saint Mary's of the West Coast was the only out­sider. In 2016, Wi­chita State, which is now in the AAC, was an at-large out of the Mis­souri Val­ley.

That's quite a drop from the seven at-large spots that non-power con­fer­ences filled in 2011, the first year the tour­na­ment ex­panded to 68 teams, and the eight handed out the next year.

A num­ber of fac­tors have con­trib­uted to the de­cline. One is that a num­ber of the best pro­grams from smaller con­fer­ences, such as But­ler, Ge­orge Ma­son, VCU and Wi­chita State, have jumped to more prom­i­nent ones.

But there is more to it than that. There is clearly a bias to­ward big-con­fer­ence teams be­cause, for the most part, they draw higher TV rat­ings and be­cause the com­puter print­outs - whether they be the old Rat­ing Per­cent­age In­dex or new NET rat­ing, which the com­mit­tee leans on heav­ily - tend to skew to­ward teams from power con­fer­ences.

With so much money at stake - $270,000 to con­fer­ences for each bid, and the same amount for each tour­na­ment win that fol­lows - that tilts the cy­cle fur­ther to­ward big-time leagues. You can bet Duke Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Kevin White, the ACC rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, will be cam­paign­ing for N.C. State (the best team in history to score 24 points in a game) and Clem­son to get his league's eighth and ninth bids. (Side note: When the com­mit­tee tells you that White had to leave the room when those schools were be­ing for­mally dis­cussed, do you think any of the other nine don't know where he stands? Se­ri­ously?)

The com­mit­tee chair this year is Stan­ford Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Bernard Muir. The Pac-12 cur­rently has one team wor­thy of a bid: Washington. If the Huskies don't win the Pac-12 tour­na­ment, it will create a sec­ond bid. Should there be more than that? No. Might there be? Of course.

Muir will cer­tainly weigh in on be­half of the Pac-12 and, prob­a­bly, the Big East, which has two teams that are clearly bid-wor­thy: Villanova and Mar­quette. You can bet the league will have more than two teams in the dance.

The lit­tle guys are al­ways asked to play power schools on the road - if they get to play them at all. Some strug­gle to get into neu­tral-site hol­i­day events be­cause power schools will de­mand they not be in­vited. Think any­one wants to play Ver­mont out of the Amer­ica East? Hof­s­tra out of the Colo­nial Ath­letic? Not so much.

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