Friday, January 16, 2004 Updated: January 19, 8:34 PM ET
NCAA-worthy teams at large
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
The NCAA Tournament selection committee must keep its word, and the middle of the Pac-10 and Big Ten must remain mediocre into March -- so that if there are a few extra at-large bids come Selection Sunday, we've found a few worthy teams ... at least in January.
Assuming they take care of business in their respective conference seasons, Utah State and Western Michigan should feel like they're on their way toward earning invites to the NCAAs if they fail to win their conference tournaments. The early numbers support each team's case. And as long as the committee doesn't reward teams without quality wins or with average conference records (hello, Oregon, Missouri and Michigan State), the Aggies and Broncos could break new ground.
Utah State is off to a 12-1 start through Friday, with an RPI of 35. One of those wins (Fort Lewis College) won't count toward its NCAA résumé, and its overall strength of schedule won't help its cause (No. 182). But the Aggies' run through the Big West and a win over BYU will help.
Stew Morrill should become Utah State's all-time career leader in wins this season.
Western Michigan (11-1), meanwhile, is in better standing with the selection committee. With an RPI of 29, the Broncos have beaten three teams in the top 100, and despite another lackluster SOS (No. 175), Western has gone on the road to beat Arizona State, beat UAB on a neutral court, and crushed USC at home to open the season.
But there's a catch -- isn't there always when it comes to the mid-majors? History hasn't been kind to those who play in the Big West and MAC.
The Big West hasn't had two teams in the NCAA Tournament since 1993 when New Mexico State and Long Beach State earned berths. The MAC, meanwhile, has gone four straight seasons with only one team earning a berth. The last time was in 1999 when Miami (Ohio) and Kent State got into the Dance.
The word "earn" should be underscored -- because, for all the good they have done so far, these two teams still must earn their way into the Dance. If they falter, the NCAA selection committee could easily go back to the major conferences and take the average team over a mid-major with a sensational record, but doesn't win its conference tournament.
"This is the first time that I became aware of (their problems)," a coy first-year Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said of the Pac-10 and Big Ten struggles, which have resulted in possibly only three teams making the NCAA Tournament from each league.
"If we build a good résumé, regardless of our conference tournament, the committee should notice us on our own merit. It has been pointed out that some of the major conferences aren't doing as well, and that there may be more bids for the smaller conferences. But we have to earn them. That part hasn't changed. If it's close, they're probably going the other way. It's like boxing, when there is a split decision or a draw, it goes to the defending champ. We have to be decisive to knock off the champs."
Utah State coach Stew Morrill has reason to be skeptical. He has been here before, as recently as 2002 when his Aggies tied for first in the regular season, but lost the conference title game. What did its 23 wins in the regular season get the Aggies? A home game in the NIT.
Back in 2000, Utah State ran through the Big West with a 16-0 record, and had 27 wins heading into the Big West conference tournament final.
"Before playing the championship game, I asked our commissioner if we were in no matter what happened in the game," Morrill said. "We had an RPI of 26 (they finished with a 33). He said we're in, no matter what.
"I was trying to take the pressure off of our team after we had won 18 straight Big West games. I told our guys to go out and have fun with the championship game because we were in the NCAAs. We went out and won, but I was assuming we would get an 8 or a 9 seed."
He was wrong, and so too, apparently was Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell. Utah State was a 12th seed in 2000, "which meant that whoever won that Big West title game was penciled in to be a 12," Morrill said. "We weren't in, and had we lost that game, we probably wouldn't have gotten a bid."
It's for these reasons Morrill doesn't believe the RPI helps schools "like his," and is still not optimistic about any at-large bid at this point. He knows the Aggies have a long way to go to get in position to secure a bid. The Big West is once again very competitive with UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Pacific and Cal Poly all with a chance of knocking the Aggies from their perch atop the league.
"I understand the other leagues are better, but could they occasionally get five instead of six teams?" Morrill asked. "Our league has good road wins at Pac-10 schools like UCLA (UC Santa Barbara), Cal (Cal Poly) and USC (Cal Poly)."
Western Michigan also knocked off a pair of Pac-10 schools in doing as much as it could to put itself in a position to think about an at-large bid. The Broncos went on the road and also won in a Conference USA gym (UAB) and crushed the best team to come into its gym (USC). WMU's only loss was at Detroit.
But expecting Western Michigan to go through the MAC unblemished is just not fair. Remember, this is a conference that just beats itself up every season. In the past decade, only the Kent State team that reached the 2002 Elite Eight and Miami in '94-95 have managed to win the conference's title with fewer than four losses. And the MAC hasn't received an at-large bid since 1999.
So, the question becomes how many MAC losses are too many this season? Four sounds like the magic number. Central Michigan won its first-round NCAA matchup with Creighton last year, but only after getting through the MAC postseason tournament. The Chippewas went 14-4 during the regular season, wound up with 24 wins, but as their 12th seed would indicate, there was no guarantee that they would have received an at-large berth.
Certainly, mid-majors like Creighton (33 RPI) and Southern Illinois (RPI of 45) are both viable. But the Missouri Valley Conference has had multiple bids four straight seasons. The WAC may also have a good chance if at least two or three teams can start to create distance. The problem is that these conferences tend to beat each other up. Still, Nevada (56), Fresno State (65), UTEP (37), Rice (58), Hawaii (43) and SMU (120) have had all moments where they have looked like NCAA Tournament teams.
"We should get three in there," UTEP coach Billy Gillispie said of the WAC.
But the conference that could benefit the most from the Pac-10 and Big Ten's struggles isn't a mid-major, but rather Conference USA.
Cincinnati and Louisville are locks, while Marquette (63) would have to play its way out -- even with a poor RPI. But Memphis (60), Charlotte (34), UAB (31) and even Saint Louis (97) should be in the discussion as the days tick down to Selection Sunday.
"Six of us, and Saint Louis, could all make a run at it," Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said. "There's definitely a possibility for five teams. I don't spend time looking at it, but I look at our league."
Charlotte has wins at Syracuse and Southern Illinois. Memphis won on the road at Villanova and Ole Miss. Even Saint Louis has a decent win at Dayton.
"Our league has good road wins," Lutz said. "Our league is better. That's why we'll earn it. Some of those leagues are down, but our league is better than it has been. We should get more teams than ever."
Conference USA produced four NCAA teams in four of its first five seasons. That total dipped to just two in 2001, rose to three in 2002 and was back to four last season. That right, it has never had five teams in the Dance.
Memphis hasn't done itself any favors by starting C-USA 0-2, losing at Southern Miss and DePaul. But the Tigers do have good wins outside of conference play, including a home win over Missouri that could still mean something by season's end, and plenty additional chances in C-USA to come.
"The problem in our league is that if you lose a road game at Southern Miss, it's not bad, but it could be looked at like that," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "Lose at Rutgers in the Big East and that's OK. Hey, Rutgers had to go to overtime with Monmouth at home. But lose at Southern Miss and that's a bad loss?
"That's what bothers me. We've won good games, won on the road and if we get to 10 league wins, we'll be fine."
Yes, Memphis, Charlotte, Western Michigan and even Utah State all should be fine if they continue to earn (there's that word again) their way into the Dance. And that's all they can control.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.