Championship Week coverage
It's pressure-cooker time for teams in the mid-major conferences, baby! My heart bleeds for them.
When the 65 teams are posted on Selection Sunday, we will see some mediocrity being rewarded. We will see teams from the heavyweight conferences getting extra bids, leaving some of the little guys out in the cold. Unfortunately, that's the nature of the game.
Simply stated, the best at-large teams are picked after the automatic berths are given out. At-large bids are determined largely by quality of competition. It goes back to that old story ... how can the little guys play quality competition when they're not given the opportunity?
Tennessee Tech, Hampton and Central Connecticut have enjoyed super regular seasons but now have the pressure of winning their tourneys or missing out on the NCAAs.
If they do get the opportunity, it's on the terms of the big boys, with a visit to their arena. It's difficult to develop schedule strength when you're in the middle of the pack.
There is one simple way for these mid-majors to get invited to the Big Dance. As Al Davis has said, "Just win baby!" These schools MUST win their conference tournament championships or they can forget about dancing. Let's hope that if they fall short in the conference tournaments some of these schools get a chance in the NIT, which has expanded to 40 teams. This was done to help honor teams from the mid-majors that enjoyed a big-time season but didn't win their postseason tournaments.
Look at some of the schools that have enjoyed super regular seasons but now have the pressure of winning their tourneys or missing out on the NCAAs: Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley Conference), Hampton (MEAC), Central Connecticut State (Northeast), Montana State (Big Sky), Valparaiso (Mid-Continent) and Alcorn State (SWAC).
Think about the job Jeff Lebo has done at Tennessee Tech. He will be among the hot names when coaching vacancies open up. This former North Carolina guard has done a fine job in guiding his team to the Ohio Valley regular-season title. Tennessee Tech hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1963. That was before Lebo was even born (in 1966)! Failure to win the conference tournament would mean heartbreak hotel for Lebo and his kids.
Hampton is another interesting team. We remember coach Steve Merfeld's club from last season, when it scored the big-time upset over Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Then this season, right out of the gate, Hampton shocked the nation by beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Hampton has continued its brilliance in league play, with the lone league blemish coming against Howard recently. The bottom line is, besides the league loss, this team has dominated -- yet one bad night could mean no NCAA bid.
The same with Central Connecticut, a team that played Oklahoma tough in the Preseason NIT before a late Sooners run. Central has a fine coach in Howie Dickenman; remember, he did a fantastic job as a lieutenant under Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. The Blue Devils have won 16 games in a row, the nation's longest winning streak. I'm not talking about the Duke Blue Devils, either!
But Central had better win its conference tournament -- and that's pressure, baby! One misstep and it's off to the sidelines. These teams aren't rewarded like those from major conferences, which enjoy several opportunities.
First of all, in the bigger conferences, winning the regular-season championship basically locks you into the field of 65. If you win the tournament championship, you get an automatic berth. If that doesn't work and you finish .500 or better in your conference, you have another opportunity.
There's no doubt -- the heavyweights get rewarded and the little guy can only get it done with success, success, success in the win-or-else environment of mid-majors championship week. For these mid-majors, there's no margin for error.