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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

The Big Dance isn't always an open floor

The NCAA basketball tournament, much like the BCS in football, has a way of slighting the mid-major conferences.

March 11, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Everything is skewed and tilted and teetered toward the power conferences and, because of it, the state of Utah stands to get mid-major(ly) ripped off.

It's outrageous, it's biased, it's unfair. It may even be a monopoly.

Oh well, that's college . . . basketball.

Utah football went 12-0 last season and didn't get a chance to play for the national title because of a system many have called rigged, un-American and anti-trustworthy.

After Utah got "relegated" to the Sugar Bowl, where it rolled Alabama to finish No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, the Mountain West Conference went on a crusade to overturn the Bowl Championships Series.

There are bills rumbling through Congress right now trying to abolish the BCS.

And though none of them will succeed, it's the thought that counts.

Meanwhile, in basketball, Utah State recently swept to the Western Athletic Conference regular-season crown. The Aggies enter this week's conference tournament in Reno with 27 wins and a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) power rating in the 20s.

Yet, the Aggies are being told by some bracketologists they must win the WAC tournament to earn an NCAA bid.

The argument is the Aggies simply have not done enough to warrant one of 34 at-large berths. Their strength of schedule ranking of 135 sticks out like the Wasatch. Another problem: all those games and all you've got to show for it is a quality win over Utah?

Of course, when Hawaii's football team came out of the WAC to earn automatic access into a BCS bowl game two years ago, the Warriors had an SOS of 111 out of 119 schools.

But the BCS didn't hold that against Honolulu.

Stick this nugget in your bracket: Utah State could win 29 games and not make the NCAA tournament.

The Aggies' ultimate at-large fate is in the responsible hands of 10 NCAA selection committee members.

Better those hands, no doubt, than voting jokesters in the USA Today coaches' poll.

I called WAC Commissioner Karl Benson on Tuesday to half-jokingly wonder whether he was prepared to sue the NCAA if Utah State, should it fail to win the WAC tournament, gets snubbed of an at-large berth.

Benson is a former NCAA tournament committee member.

Me, I'm a wise guy.

Benson, back in the mid-1990s, led the "little-guy" revolt against upper crust college football and used the threat-of-lawsuit stick to help secure improved BCS bowl access to non-BCS conferences.

No, Benson said, there would be no lawsuit, but then he made an at-large case for Utah State that sounded similar to the one people made for Utah in football.

"You put those credentials on the board without the name of the team attached to it and one would think they're a legitimate at-large selection," Benson said of Utah State.

This is not a pro-BCS rant. It's a bird-cage liner to point out football isn't being run by Commissioner Satan and the NCAA tournament isn't as fair as you might think.

Basketball is more equitable than football, by a Stephen Curry long shot, but it is not without its flaws. And too bad Curry won't play in this year's tournament because Davidson won only 26 games.

"Absolutely, it is not a perfect science," Benson admitted.

For starters, the best 65 schools do not make the NCAA tournament.

You knew that, right?

Schools such as Utah State and St. Mary's and Davidson are excluded at the expense of conference champions who would finish dead last in some leagues.

Chattanooga (18-16) had a losing record until it clinched an automatic bid by sweeping through the Southern Conference tournament.

That's not a knock -- that's what makes the tournament fun. But it's also a reason why No. 1 is 96-0 against No. 16 since the tournament was expanded in 1985.

Otherwise worthy mid-major schools are also bounced off the bubble by sixth-, seventh- and eight-place finishers from the six power conferences.

Georgetown, out of the rugged Big East, probably would have received an at-large bid had it finished 8-10 in conference instead of 7-11.

And former CBS analyst Billy Packer would have argued for Georgetown at 7-11.

The debate in the selection committee, Benson says, is whether you reward the most talented 34 at-large schools or teams that earned the right to be there.

They are not necessarily the same.

With star guard Patrick Mills back in the lineup after an injury, St. Mary's appeared a lock for an at-large bid until the Gaels, with Mills back in the lineup Monday night, got blown off the court by Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference title game.

That must have left tournament selectors scratching their heads.

Now what: hello NIT?

People love magical mid-major tales, but this year the story lines are getting slimmer by the minute -- and that's too bad.

George Mason, remember, was an at-large pick out of the Colonial Athletic Assn. in 2006 when it made its at-huge run to the Final Four.

This year, power conferences might devour 28 to 30 of the available 34 at-large bids, leaving table scraps to the Mountain West and the Atlantic 10.

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