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March 14, 2011
Mid-Majors Prevail
Or Did They?

by John Gasaway

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In the zero-sum game of NCAA tournament bids, the fact that mid-majors like UAB and Virginia Commonwealth heard their names called last night meant that major-conference teams like Colorado and Virginia Tech did not. The instant consensus was that the exclusion of the Buffaloes was the night's biggest surprise, but if you've been reading along here this season you know that, even with a baffling 15-point loss at home to Boston College on their resume, it's the Hokies who now become the odds-on favorites to win the NIT.

So while it was a good night to be UAB or VCU, we shouldn't lose sight of the big picture. The six major conferences still received 30 of the 37 at-large bids. (Major conferences have bubble teams that got in too. Ask Georgia.) Put another way, seven at-large bids went to mid-majors, the same number as last year.

With the field now in place we can truthfully say that 68 teams received good news last night. Then again there's a difference between being named the No. 1 overall seed (congratulations, Ohio State) and being told you're going to play Kansas in Tulsa (sorry, Boston University). In between those two extremes there were some notable pieces of good and bad news....

Good news: Florida
This year during the SEC regular season Florida and Kentucky were virtually identical in per-possession terms. Then in the SEC tournament final the Wildcats seemed to settle the matter rather convincingly, beating the Gators 70-54. Nevertheless, Billy Donovan's team was given a 2-seed in the Southeast and will play close to home in Tampa. (For their troubles UK received a 4-seed in the East and got shipped to...Tampa! Maybe they can all stay at the same hotel.) Florida will play the winner of Michigan State-UCLA, meaning the Gators are sure to see a well-coached opponent with a rich history of NCAA tournament success. That being said, these are not the most fearsome editions of the Spartans or the Bruins that we've seen come down the pike. Considering they might be the second-best team in what might be the nation's seventh-best conference, Florida could have a pretty good weekend in store, courtesy of the committee.

Bad news: St. John's
The Red Storm is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, but Steve Lavin's team was done no favors by this bracket. During the regular season the Johnnies outscored the Big East by 0.02 points per possession, and in Denver as the 6-seed they'll take on Gonzaga, which outscored the WCC by 0.17 points per trip. The Big East provides much tougher competition than the West Coast, of course, but also keep in mind the last time people doubted a West Coast team with a gaudy scoring margin the doubters ended up watching Saint Mary's make it to the 2010 Sweet 16. Even healthy, St. John's would likely be reckoned a slight underdog against Mark Few's team. But without D.J. Kennedy, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Big East tournament, the Red Storm will face an even taller task in the Mile High City.

Good news: USC
In theory the Trojans were one of the last teams admitted to the field of 68: Kevin O'Neill's team will be playing in the First Four tomorrow night in Dayton. So how can it be that Southern Cal has such a friendly bracket? The Trojans will open against VCU, and while Shaka Smart's team did look impressive in eliminating George Mason from the CAA tournament, it's also true that the Rams lost their last four regular-season games -- and were fairly close to going 0-7. If USC can win there they'll face Georgetown. The Hoyas will be welcoming Chris Wright back to action after the senior missed three games with an injured hand. That is definitely good news for John Thompson III. But will Wright be his old self right from the opening tip? The Trojans will likely be in a position to find out. For that they should be grateful.

Bad news: Wisconsin
The Badgers will be forgiven if they're spooked by "mid-majors" and "March" occurring in the same sentence. Over the last four years Bo Ryan's team has been sent home by UNLV, Davidson, Xavier, and Cornell. Now 4-seed Wisconsin will face nominal 13-seed Belmont, the pride of the Atlantic Sun. I say "nominal" because Ken Pomeroy actually rates the Bruins as a tougher opponent than Cincinnati or Arizona would be. Rick Byrd's team is a fast-paced group that loves to force turnovers. They won't get the pace they want against the Badgers, of course, nor are they likely to record a lot of steals. But with Ryan's team having lost its last two games by allowing opponents to score first 93 (Ohio State) and then 36 (Penn State) points, no one knows what to expect from Wisconsin -- least of all Wisconsin. They were probably hoping for some middle-of-the-pack group of underachievers from a major conference. Instead they have Belmont messing with their minds.

Good news: Cincinnati
In a year where the committee has put together a really tough-looking group of 11-seeds (the winner of USC-VCU, Gonzaga, and Marquette, to name a few), the 6-seeds are probably wary -- or at least they should be. But there's an exception to this rule: 6-seed Cincinnati has drawn struggling Missouri as its first opponent. The Tigers lost their last three regular-season games simply because they couldn't score. Mike Anderson's team recorded just 194 points in 210 possessions during their 0-3 finish. Then in the Big 12 tournament Mizzou beat a Texas Tech team that was about to fire its coach by just four, before losing 86-71 to Texas A&M. If the Bearcats can make it past Missouri, Mick Cronin's team may see 3-seed Connecticut in the round of 32. The Huskies did amazing things in Madison Square Garden this past week, of course, but over the course of the Big East regular season Cincinnati was the superior team on a per-possession basis. Besides, it would be fun to see Cronin and Jim Calhoun coaching against each other after they've sniped at each other.

Bad news: North Carolina
Bad news? Aren't the Tar Heels playing in Charlotte? Indeed they are. In fact the committee did a commendable job of making sure that all the teams on the top two seed lines are playing close to home. And of those eight teams it's UNC that got the toughest draw. Keep in mind the Tar Heels have been to two consecutive national title games, it's just that last year's was the NIT. To extend that streak of appearances as a 2-seed in 2011, Roy Williams' team will have to hack its way through a brutal bracket. Assuming they can make their way past the Long Island Blackbirds in the round of 64, the Heels are assured of next facing an opponent who either has NBA-level talent (Georgia and Trey Thompkins) or one who stands alone as easily the toughest 7-seed in the field: Washington. Then if Carolina survives they'll journey to Newark and likely face Syracuse, a team that hasn't lost a game in regulation since February 12. And then probably Ohio State. Now I ask you: is that any way to welcome a team back to the NCAA tournament?

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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