- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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The NCAA tournament selection committee obviously put more weight in a team's overall body of work this season, instead of what it accomplished during the last few days.
And truth be told, that's probably the right way to look at it when selecting 34 at-large teams to fill the NCAA tournament's 65-team field.
Mississippi State's unexpected run to the SEC tournament championship game was not enough to get the Bulldogs into the NCAA field.
Illinois was also left out after beating Wisconsin to reach the Big Ten tourney semifinals in Indianapolis.
To be honest, none of the bubble teams which were left out of the NCAA tournament have much to gripe about this season. Yes, Illinois or Virginia Tech might have been selected over Florida or Utah State, but neither of those teams did enough during the regular season to have much of an argument.
It was a very soft bubble -- perhaps the softest in a decade -- and every one of the teams left out of the NCAA tournament had its fair share of warts.
The Hokies finished 10-6 in the ACC standings during the regular season, which would normally guarantee a team a trip to the NCAAs. But the ACC wasn't as strong as it traditionally has been, and Virginia Tech greatly benefited from playing an unbalanced schedule. It played the ACC's best teams (Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Wake Forest) only once and padded its league record with wins over teams like Boston College, Miami and NC State.
"I feel for my kids," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said Sunday night. "We had a great year. We were picked anywhere between eighth and 11th in the ACC in the preseason and finished third. We're not alone. I'm sure the Illinois kids are hurting, the Mississippi State kids are hurting and the Rhode Island kids are hurting. But they're not my kids. Looking in their eyes while they were watching the selection show, and to see the disappointment and knowing how much they invested in the season, it was just very difficult to watch."
The Hokies seemed to be in decent shape for an at-large bid after defeating Georgia Tech 88-82 in its regular-season finale in Atlanta on March 6. But then Virginia Tech lost to Miami 70-65 in its only ACC tournament game, and the Yellow Jackets won three straight games to reach the ACC tourney championship game. Georgia Tech's ACC schedule was much more difficult than Virginia Tech's watered-down slate, so the committee was justified in taking the Yellow Jackets over the Hokies.
"The biggest thing that has to happen is there has to be a set criteria so you can schedule your games to that criteria," Greenberg said. "Every committee has its own personality and that's just the way it is. The problem is you can't schedule your games because you don't know what the committee's personality is."
Virginia Tech's nonconference schedule was ranked No. 339 nationally, and NCAA selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero said that hurt the Hokies' argument for an at-large bid.
"All the teams we looked at were quality teams," Guerrero said, during a teleconference with reporters on Sunday night. "They all had strengths. Many of them have blemishes. We deliberated at great length to make sure we peeled back the onion. There are certain things that ultimately will put someone in and certain things that ultimately will put someone out.
"The bottom line is, as you start to peel back the onion, you start to look at certain criteria that make the difference. One of the things that allows us to distinguish between one team and another, as you know, is strength of schedule, especially nonconference strength of schedule. That was an area that really hurt Virginia Tech as we talked about whether they made the cut or not."
Illinois played inspired basketball in Indianapolis, upsetting the Badgers and then nearly beating No. 1 seed Ohio State in the semifinals. The Illini had chances to beat the Buckeyes at the end of regulation and the first overtime, before losing 88-81 in two overtimes. Illinois looked like an NCAA-worthy team in Indy, but where was its emotion and effort when it lost five of six games during the final three weeks of the regular season?
"You know, [Illinois] did impress to some degree, obviously in their performance in the Big Ten tournament" Guerrero said. " But when you look at the entire body of work in a general sense, they had some situations where they lost to some teams below 100 on the RPI. They were below .500 versus teams in the top 100. Their conference strength schedule was not the strongest. In the end, Illinois did not make the cut."
Minnesota was invited to the NCAA tournament as the No. 11 seed in the West Region. The Illini finished one game better than the Gophers in the Big Ten standings during the regular season, but Minnesota did more down the stretch. The Gophers beat the Illini 62-60 in Champaign, Ill., on Feb. 27, and defeated Michigan State and Purdue in consecutive days to reach the Big Ten tourney championship game. How was the selection committee going to justify taking Illinois over Minnesota?
Mississippi State did essentially nothing for four months. The Bulldogs' only victory over an RPI top-50 opponent heading into the SEC tournament was a 69-55 win over Old Dominion in the South Padre Island Invitational on Nov. 28. MSU upset Vanderbilt 62-52 in the SEC semis to reach the championship game. The Bulldogs even took No. 1 seed Kentucky into overtime in an 75-74 loss in Nashville on Sunday, after losing to the Wildcats 81-75 in overtime at home on Feb. 16.
But was the NCAA selection committee supposed to ignore Mississippi State's first 31 games of the season? Florida did more than MSU, beating Michigan State, Florida State and Tennessee during the regular season. The Bulldogs beat the Gators 75-69 in the SEC tourney quarterfinals; Florida beat MSU 69-62 at home on Feb. 2. The Gators also play in the SEC East, which was much more difficult than playing in the SEC West this season. In the end, MSU probably couldn't overcome this eyesore: it lost to five RPI sub-100 opponents, including road defeats at Arkansas and Auburn.
"Mississippi State was definitely in the conversation," Guerrero said. "You know, we were all very excited to see them make that run there at the end. But it's the entire body of work in a general sense. We've said that all along. Their strength of schedule and their nonconference strength of schedule weren't that strong. Mississippi State was a quality team. Sometimes you have a tendency to want to do some impulse buying based on a great run in a tournament as Mississippi State just had. But in the end, that in and of itself wasn't enough to get them into the field."
Rhode Island probably blew its NCAA at-large chances by falling at St. Bonaventure and Massachusetts during the final two weeks of the regular season. Like Virginia Tech, the Rams also padded their 9-7 finish in A-10 play with an unbalanced schedule. Rhode Island played most of the A-10's best teams only once and lost to Temple three times. It also fell at Xavier and lost to Richmond at home.
UAB doesn't have much of a gripe, either. The Blazers defeated Butler 67-57 at home on Dec. 22, but it was swept by UTEP and Memphis during the regular season. If the Tigers weren't getting into the NCAA field, neither was UAB. The Blazers' 58-44 loss to Southern Miss in the C-USA tourney quarterfinals was probably the nail in their coffin.
Memphis had only two wins over RPI top-50 foes (both over UAB) and didn't help itself by losing to Houston 66-65 in the C-USA quarterfinals. End of story.