Who will wear the glass slipper?
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.