Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Southern region of the U.S: Conference USA, OVC, Southland, Sun Belt and SWAC. Previous installments include conferences from the Northeast region, Midwest region and Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region.
Louisiana Tech –2013-14 record: 29-8 (13-3) – Two straight seasons Louisiana Tech has won its conference (C-USA in 2014; WAC in 2013), and two straight seasons the Bulldogs have been upset in the conference tournament and missed out on the NCAA Tournament. Is the third time a charm? Louisiana Tech is undoubtedly the favorite to take the C-USA crown, but can it come through when the games matter most? After flirting with some other opportunities, head coach Michael White is back, as are guards Alex Hamilton (14.5 PPG), Raheem Appleby (11.2 PPG) and Kenneth “Speedy” Smith (7.8 PPG, 7.7 APG). The big question mark is in the frontcourt. If the Bulldogs can get some decent play there, they might be able to finally break through.
Louisiana Tech is the favorite in Conference USA. (David C. Bristow/AP)
UTEP –2013-14 record: 23-11 (12-4) – If there’s a team to challenge Louisiana Tech for the league title, it’s most likely UTEP. After a strong start with a win against Tennessee and a four-point loss to Kansas last season, the Miners stumbled down the stretch and were unable to win the league tournament on their home floor. There’s reason for optimism heading into 2014-15, though. Head coach Tim Floyd brings back a talented frontcourt duo of Julian Washburn (13.1 PPG) and Vincent Hunter (12.3 PPG), and talented recruit Omega Harris should help fill the void in the backcourt. Read the rest of this entry »
Tennessee did not take very long to move on from Michael White after he decided to stay at Louisiana Tech. Just a few hours after that news came out Tennessee reached an agreement with Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall to make him the next coach of the Volunteers. Tyndall is only six years older than White (43 vs 37) and has more experience in Tennessee and the SEC than White does so he is not a bad fallback option for the Volunteers. A formal announcement is expected by the school later today.
Tennessee school in the state with a new coach as Tennessee State named Dana Ford to be its next coach. Ford has never served as a head coach, but was an assistant at Tennessee State for two years under John Cooper before Cooper left to take over at Miami (OH) and Ford went to serve as an assistant at Wichita State then Illinois State (his alma mater). Ford takes over for Travis Williams, who led the Tigers to a 5-25 record last season so at least Ford does not have a high bar to reach to match last season’s performance.
Elfrid Payton might not be a household name even to college basketball fans, but you will be hearing his name a lot in the coming months as the junior out of Louisiana-Lafayette announced that he will be entering the NBA Draft. Payton averaged 19.2 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game last season while leading his team to a NCAA Tournament appearance, but perhaps more importantly for his draft stock he also started every game for the Under-19 team that won the gold medal at the World Championships. Payton is projected to be a late first round or early second round pick.
As crazy as it sounds out all of the early-entry decisions that we have been linking to in the Morning Five there are still several key decisions that we are waiting for. Jeff Eisenberg points out there are five schools that are particularly anxious as they await decisions. It goes without saying that Kentucky will be one of those schools almost every year, but Michigan, Connecticut, Colorado, and UNLV are also waiting on big decisions that will shape next season. So if you are following any of the way-too-early top 25s you should probably wait until after this deadline before taking any of them too seriously.
One of our bigger frustrations in college basketball is with administrators who try to limit local non-conference rivalries for political reasons. So we were very happy to see that Virginia and George Washington have agreed to a home-and-home series the next two years. Although this is not the biggest potential regional matchup it is still a fairly appealing one and Virginia only leads the series 25-23 with the last game being played in the 2004 NIT. Hopefully we will see more schools follow their lead and create some more interesting regional rivalries.
Adam Silver promised to make changes when he replaced David Stern and it appears that the first one will have a bigger impact on college basketball than the NBA. According to reports, Silver wants to raise the age limit to 20. This probably would not go into effect until the 2016 NBA Draft at earliest, but it would have a profound impact on college basketball it was passed. Players would essentially need to go to school for two years. That is unless the players decide to go overseas or play in the NBDL (as some owners suggested). There will obviously be push back from certain groups, but if the NFL can get away with making players wait three years we don’t see why the NBA cannot get away with two years.
One of the running themes of the Morning Five over the past few years has been the frequent use of family hardship waivers. It appears that the NCAA has noticed this too as the Division I Leadership Council recommended that players transferring for this reason be granted an extra year of eligibility, but would make the player sit out a year. While unpopular with some (much like the idea of raising the age limit) this would address two key issues: the abuse of the waiver and still allowing the player to get all of his or her years of eligibility. This won’t affect graduate student transfer waivers, but those are much more difficult to cheat with since the athlete should be leaving with an undergraduate diploma at that point.
Tennessee’s search to replace Cuonzo Martin as its men’s basketball coach appears to be focused on Louisiana Tech coach Michael White. When Martin left Knoxville to become the new head coach at California we figured it would be much tougher for them to land a coach than their fans would expect given the way that Martin had been treated. Although White has never made a NCAA Tournament appearance, he has been successful in his three seasons at Louisiana Tech compiling a 74-31 record including going 56-15 the past two seasons. White also has a reputation for being a top-notch recruiter and with his experience at Ole Miss as a recruiter is well-versed in SEC recruiting.
We have heard of short-lived commitments, but Kareem Canty might be in a class by himself. The Marshall transfer, who committed to Bruce Pearl and Auburn on Saturday night, backed out of that commitment less than 24 hours later and will visit South Florida as well. To be fair to Canty, he has not ruled out Auburn as he says he just wants to compare it to another school. Canty averaged 16.3 points and 5.5 assists per game last season and will be among the most highly sought-after recruits on the market. Normally we would not give South Florida much of a chance to land a player like this, but much like Bruce Pearl at Auburn, the presence of Orlando Antigua will make them competitive for recruits they previously would not have been in the running for.
St. John’s had a big addition over the weekend, which would not be particularly newsworthy, except that the addition is current/former player Chris Obekpa. Obekpa, who is one of the premier shotblockers in the country, had announced his intent to transfer before changing his mind. It appears that Steve Lavin has accepted him back with open arms although some of that may have to do with how shorthanded the Red Storm might be next year in the frontcourt with Jakarr Sampson already declaring for the NBA Draft.
Given the way Auburn AD Jay Jacobs fired Tony Barbee an hour after the team’s loss to South Carolina, the job got a lot of attention today among those covering the SEC Tournament. On the broadcast, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, who is handling sideline TV duties at the tournament, listed four candidates he has heard are on Jacobs’s list. They are former Tennessee coach and ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl, Duke assistant and former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall, and Louisiana Tech coach Michael White. Goodman joked that Pearl, who is his colleague at ESPN, would not give him any hints about whether he is interested in the job. While it’s certainly possible that Pearl will show interest, it doesn’t make sense to us. Auburn is a very difficult job, and it stands to reason that Pearl will have other options, either this year or next (his show cause expires in August). Of the four candidates Goodman named, we think Tyndall and White would make the most sense.
There has been much discussion about how mediocre the SEC has been this year, and the tournament does not present many opportunities for quality wins. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi thinks that Kentucky has very little to gain from the event. He points out that the Wildcats, who come into the tournament with only one win against a top 50 opponent – a December victory over Louisville – and the only opportunity for one that will help their seed this weekend will come against Florida on Sunday, should both teams get there. Otherwise, Lunardi thinks Kentucky is stuck in the 6-7 seed range, and could drop if it were to drop a game against a lesser opponent. The Wildcats take on LSU, which defeated Alabama Thursday night, in Friday’s quarterfinal round. The Tigers beat Kentucky in Baton Rouge and should have duplicated that feat in Lexington a few weeks ago, as they dropped an overtime decision to the Wildcats. If Kentucky can make it to Sunday’s championship game, it likely will not hurt its seeding, but it’s hard to see the Wildcats beating Florida to jump up a line or two, given how they’ve performed against the Gators so far this year.
Much has been made of Casey Prather‘s improvement for No. 1 Florida, and this piece from Franz Beard at GatorCountry.comchronicles the senior’s rise. Prather was recently named to the first team of the all-SEC squad, and he talked about how he persevered through difficult times early in his career. He even thought about transferring after his freshman season, but after talking every day with teammate and newly-minted SEC player of the yearScottie Wilbekin, Prather stuck it out in Gainesville. Now, as his career draws to a close, he has a chance to compete for the national championship on arguably the nation’s best team. It’s quite a turnaround for Prather, and his and the team’s testament to the bond the Gators’ senior class has formed.
Missouri got by Texas A&M in overtime on Thursday to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round, where the Tigers will take on Florida. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Bernie Miklasz talked about the future of the Missouri program, and didn’t pull any punches. Miklasz was less than complimentary of head coach Frank Haith and the way he has run the program, and he has serious questions about whether Haith is capable of turning things around. He suggests that Haith has one more year to do so, and if he can’t, it’s time to move on. Miklasz cited KenPom.com‘s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in the column to support his point that Missouri hasn’t been particularly stellar on either end of the floor since Haith arrived. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s likely plenty of Missouri fans agree with Miklasz’s points.
Most people expected Tennessee to play Arkansas in a Friday quarterfinal, in what many anticipated would be a de facto play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. However, after the Razorbacks almost certainly blew their chance for an NCAA bid with a loss to South Carolina, the Volunteers will now take on the lowly Gamecocks for a chance to most likely get another shot at Florida. Tennessee comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, but anyone who has followed the Volunteer program knows the SEC Tournament has been less than kind to them. Despite their recent failures in the event, this year’s team comes into the tournament playing well, and they are aiming to reverse the program’s trend. Tennessee is clearly a bubble team, and a win over RPI No. 150 South Carolina certainly won’t help its resume, but it would give it an opportunity for a third shot at Florida (assuming the Gators beat Missouri). Even with a loss there, the Volunteers would be in good shape to sneak into the Big Dance.
It may sound cliché, but the tournament is wide open.
Even though top seed Nevada ran away with the league, the second half of the conference schedule was not a cakewalk. The Wolf Pack won the first seven games by over 10 points per game, but won by just under four points per game in the second go-round (and took a loss against Idaho). There was much jostling in the final weekend of play with seeds two through six up for grabs heading into the final game this past Saturday.
The first round boasts three intriguing matchups with upset potential (seed-based) in all three. New Mexico State struggled to put away Fresno State in both regular season meetings, winning by four and then by five in overtime (overcoming a 19-point second half deficit in the process).
Idaho and Hawai’i split the regular season meetings with each winning on the other’s home floor.
Utah State swept the season series with Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs lost by just four points in the first meeting and has won five of their last six games.
With apologies to San Jose State, they don’t stand much of a chance against Nevada and this one should be a breeze although the Spartans did play tough in the game in San Jose losing by just six points.
Can Wendell McKinnes And New Mexico State Defend Their WAC Tourney Crown? Based On How NMSU Has Been Playing Lately, Don't Bet Against Them (AP)
Favorites: Nevada and New Mexico State. They’re the top two seeds and it would be a shame if the two didn’t meet in the championship game.
Dark Horses: Idaho and Utah State. Two schools with similar styles of play, well coached (Idaho’s head coach Don Verlin was Stew Morril’s understudy at Utah State) tons of sets in their offense, not likely to beat themselves. Utah State boasts the league’s best coach in Stew Morrill. Read the rest of this entry »
Hawai’i picked up the league’s best non-conference win of the season knocking off No. 14 Xavier (albeit a slightly shorthanded Musketeer squad) in the Diamond Head Classic en-route to a 2-1 finish in their home tournament. New Mexico State got thumped by in-state rival New Mexico at home and Utah State had a relatively easy time in its home tournament.
Zane Johnson Led Hawaii Over Xavier Before Falling To Auburn In The Diamond Head Classic. (AP/Marco Garcia)
Nevada (10-3): The Wolf Pack avoided a Cedarville trap game and has eight days off to rest before starting WAC play. The Wolf Pack have the best record in non-conference play and boast the best defense in the league allowing just 0.91 points per possession. Nevada continues to get it done with seemingly little help from the bench in terms of scoring production. That’s something that could hurt them down the road when the rigors of conference play and WAC travel start to take their toll. One thing in the Wolf Pack’s favor is the conference schedule. They’ll get the Idaho/Utah State and New Mexico State/Louisiana Tech road trips out of the way in the first half of the league schedule.
Hawai’i (7-5): The Warriors vault into the number two spot thanks in large part to a solid showing at the Diamond Head Classic where Hawai’i won two out of three: a 65-62 loss to Auburn, an 84-82 overtime victory over 14th ranked Xavier and finally a 75-68 win versus Clemson. In the latter contest, Zane Johnson regained his accuracy and finished with 27 points, bolstered by going 6-12 long distance shooting and center Vander Joaquim produced a 14/10 double-double. UH shot 49% overall and committed just 12 turnovers. It was forward Joston Thomas scoring 26 points and Joaquim scoring 20 in the win over Xavier. Last year’s strong performance in the DHC set the Warriors up for a better-than-expected conference season and their 2-1 record this year could be the catalyst for a strong run through the WAC again. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a relatively disappointing start to the season for WAC teams. Outside of New Mexico State‘s win over in-state rival New Mexico and Utah State‘s win over BYU, the league has fallen flat in the early going. The USU win over BYU was tempered by losses at Weber State and a horrendous loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Preseason favorite Nevada has also struggled with closer-than-expected wins over Prairie View A&M and Longwood. On the bright side, the league has protected home court with the eight teams combining for a 14-2 home record.
Christian Kabongo And The Aggies Are Looking Impressive In An Otherwise Middling WAC. (Credit: NMStateSports.com)
1. New Mexico State (5-1): The question mark surrounding the Aggies entering the season was two-fold. First, would they be able to find scoring after losing leading scorer Troy Gillenwater and second, would the team commit itself on the defensive end? They’ve answered both with a ‘Yes’. The Aggies have topped the 80-point mark three times this season but have also shown the ability to lock down a team on the defensive end holding in-state rival New Mexico to their worst offensive performance under head coach Steve Alford (53 points on just 28% shooting) and Central Michigan to just 49 points. The Aggies finished third in the Great Alaska Shootout by dismantling Central Michigan before losing to Southern Mississippi in the semifinals. The Aggies bounced back with a come-from-behind win over San Francisco. The Aggies have been getting to the free throw line at an alarming rate (at least for their opponents), a whopping 36% of their points are coming from the free throw line and the team shot an eye-popping 131 free throws in three days in Alaska.
2. Idaho (3-2): The Vandals find themselves at number two on the power rankings not as much for their wins but for their losses. Of the teams below them, they have the least egregious losses of the bunch. Their two losses on the season have both come on the road– one at Long Beach State (who beat then #4 Pitt on the road) and at Montana. The Vandals are hitting nearly 50% of their shots from the field this season but need to do a better job at the charity stripe where they’re hitting just 63.3% for the season.
3. Utah State (3-2): Utah State has faced a trio on in-state opponents, beating BYU and Southern Utah but losing at Weber State. Senior point Brockeith Pane leads the Aggies in scoring at 15.3 points a game followed by Morgan Grim at 11.7 and Preston Medlin with 11.0 per game. It’s obviously early and they are replacing four starters, but Utah State is at an uncharacteristic 29% from three-point range and a paltry 60% at the foul line. USU also has just 25 assists to date. Those numbers will rise as the newcomers blend in and roles are earned. The biggest concern in the immediate term is finding production in the absence of forward Brady Jardine, who is out 2-4 weeks with a foot injury. The Aggies clearly missed his presence in the close win over Southern Utah and a stunning loss on the road at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
4. Nevada (4-3): One thing has become clear after seven games: if the Wolf Pack starters aren’t scoring, the Wolf Pack won’t win. Nevada hasn’t had much help from its bench this season. The Wolf Pack starting five is accounting for nearly 80% of the team’s offensive production and if you can hold those five in check, chances are you’re coming out with a ‘W’. The Wolf Pack absolutely have to find some help for their starters or they run the risk of having a dead tired group of starters by the middle of conference play. A concern for Wolf Pack fans should be that two of their wins, Prairie View A&M and Longwood, have come by 13 and two points, respectively. Those are two teams who are usually scheduled for easy wins.
5. Hawaii (2-2): Hawaii handily beat Northridge, but reversed course by getting blown out by Gonzaga and was manhandled at home by Eastern Washington. Three Rainbow Warriors are averaging in double figures with Zane Johnson‘s 17.8 points per game at the expected head of the pack, freshman point Shaquille Stokes is second with 11.8 a contest, and sophomore Trevor Wiseman surprising checking in 11 points each time out. The biggest surprise? Sophomore point Bobby Miles has started three of four games, is averaging 28.5 minutes of action, and has compiled a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. Hawaii’s defensive effort is strong so far, holding opponents to 39% shooting overall and just 27.3% from long distance. One key-to-the-season-component, mercurial power forward Joston Thomas is averaging just 13.8 minutes a game. He could become a big help to Coach Gib Arnold or blow out, there appears to be no middle ground for him.
6. Fresno State (2-4): There’s not necessarily any rhyme and/or reason early in the season as the Bulldogs have handled Illinois State and SMU but fallen to Manhattan, Stanford, Texas San-Antonio, and North Dakota State. It’s been the Kevin Olaikabe show to date as the sophomore is averaging 21.3 points per game with Jonathan Wills as the only other teammate in double figures at 11.3 points per game. JC transfer Kevin Foster is the best big man that coach Rodney Terry has, but he has been and is putting up just 7.0 points (on 32% shooting) and 4.7 rebounds per game. Senior point Steve Shepp is usually among the best in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio but stands at 1.4 right now. However, some of that may be due to Fresno State shooting just 38.6% as a team.
7. Louisiana Tech (2-3): It’s been a bit of a rough start for first year head coach Michael White as his team has a couple of wins early in the season against less than stellar competition. Despite running an up-tempo offense, the Bulldogs haven’t been able to score many points averaging just 66.4 points per game and they are a terrible free throw shooting team hitting just 57.1% on the season, 342nd out of 344 teams. One positive for the Bulldogs has been their perimeter defense which is allowing just 15.9% from behind the arc, tops in the country. They’re also forcing 19 turnovers per game, ranking 21st in the country in that category. The Bulldogs need to score a few more points to help out their efforts on the defensive end.
8. San Jose State (2-3): The Spartans have been involved in close games and blowouts so far with a 27-point loss to Cal Poly, a one-point win versus Irvine, a two-point loss to USF, and a 26-point defeat to crosstown rival Santa Clara. Sophomore guard Keith Shamburger tops the team with 15.0 points per game followed by JC newcomer Jay Kinney‘s 12.6 points per game average. Will Carter has been steady averaging 10.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. However, outside of Carter, rebounding has been an issue as the Spartans own a -9.6 rebounding differential.
There are a few marquee matchups on the slate for the WAC. New Mexico State plays host to Arizona and then ventures on the road to take on Southern Mississippi in a rematch of their semifinal game at the Great Alaska Shootout that was won by the Eagles. Nevada also hosts Washington later in the week. The WAC desperately needs more quality wins and 3-0 or 2-1 against this trio would qualify as a good week.
Utah State Looks To Maintain Dynasty: Will someone finally break Utah State’s stranglehold on the league? The northern Aggies have won at least a share of the regular season conference title four straight seasons but return only two key players from last year’s championship squad, point guard Brockeith Pane (the only starter) and forward Brady Jardine. Nevada, New Mexico State and Hawai’i all have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Aggies. Will one of them finally step up and do it?
Can Stew Morrill's Aggies Keep Their Grip on the WAC Another Season?
It’s The End of the WAC As We Know It: Boise State has already transitioned to the Mountain West, and Fresno State and Nevada will join the MWC as well next season. On top of that, Hawai’i is headed for the more travel-friendly confines of the Big West. The WAC will welcome Denver, Seattle, UT-San Antonio, UT-Arlington and Texas State in the 2012-13 season, not exactly an equal trade in terms of prestige and history. Can the WAC make some noise nationally before it slinks into relative obscurity next season? It’s up to New Mexico State, Utah State, Nevada and Hawai’i to make it happen.
New Faces: Once again, the WAC welcomes some new coaches to the league. By all accounts, Fresno State and Louisiana Tech landed themselves a pair of good ones when they hired Rodney Terry and Michael White, respectively. Like the past hires at Idaho, New Mexico State, Nevada and Hawai’i, neither of them have any previous head coaching experience, but the hires were praised on a national level. Terry spent the past several seasons as an assistant coach at Texas while White, the son of Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, spent the past seven seasons as an assistant on the Ole Miss coaching staff. White is a youngster at just 34 years of age but finding that new hot coach seems to be the trend these days (Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart at VCU being the two prominent examples).
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our newest update comes courtesy of our WAC correspondents, Sam Wasson of Bleed Crimsonand Kevin McCarthy of Parsing The WAC.
Revolving Door. The revolving door in the WAC consists of schools, coaches and players. Last summer, it was the defection of four schools to the Mountain West and the addition of three schools (Denver, TexasState and UT-San Antonio). This summer, there are no more defections (thankfully) but there have been additions. SeattleUniversity will join the WAC for basketball starting in the 2012-13 season and the latest development has UT-Arlington joining their old Southland Conference brethren, Texas State and UT-San Antonio, in the WAC for the 2012-13 season. While it’s still one full season away, the signs are pointing to an eventual East/West split of the WAC. A pair of hopefuls in Utah Valley and Cal State-Bakersfield could bring the basketball league to 12 teams, but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen.
Early Entries. On the personnel front, the WAC once again saw several underclassmen declare for the NBA Draft, but unlike last season, which saw four get drafted, none of the 2011 early entries were selected. New Mexico State scoring leader Troy Gillenwater was one of those who opted to enter early but he withdrew his name from the draft. However, he will not be returning to New Mexico State after hiring an agent and will likely seek out options in either the NBDL or overseas. Greg Smith from FresnoState opted to leave the Bulldogs after just two seasons but the 6’9″, 250-pound center did not hear his name called. One other big name is no longer with his team and that is Louisiana Tech‘s OluAshaolu who has transferred to the University of Oregon. Ashaolu averaged 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season for the injury and suspension-depleted Bulldogs and was one of the conference’s top talents. Ashaolu will be eligible immediately for the Ducks as he earned his undergraduate degree from LA Tech and because Oregon offers a graduate program not available there.
Coaching Carousel. For coaching changes, it was a busy offseason for a few teams as Fresno State and Louisiana Tech both opted for a fresh start, hiring new head coaches. Both schools drew high praise for their hires. The Fresno State Bulldogs lured Texas assistant RodneyTerry to Fresno while their namesake counterparts in Louisiana, the LA Tech Bulldogs, hired Ole Miss assistant Michael White. At just 34 years old, White is one of the youngest head coaches in the country joining familiar names Josh Pastner (Memphis) and Brad Stevens (Butler) at that age. New Mexico State also saw some major turnover in their staff as the Aggies lost a pair of assistants in MickDurham, who took the head men’s basketball position at Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, and assistant GeraldLewis, who returned to his alma mater, SMU, as the Director of Basketball Operations. The Aggies filled one of the two assistant positions by hiring former Kentucky standout Tony Delk who spent the past two seasons at his alma mater alongside John Calipari and staff in a non-coaching role. Delk figures to have an immediate impact on recruiting, having played in the NBA and also owning a national championship ring while with the Wildcats.
The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum will have to rock even harder than usual in 2011-12 after Utah State lost several contributors from its sterling campaign last season.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences and an occasional contributor.
The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee met this week in Chicago, and the biggest item on their agenda was to decide on the format of the new 68-team tournament. In deciding to expand from the 65-team tournament, which has been the rule for the last ten years, to 68 teams in time for the 2011 tournament, the NCAA has committed itself to four opening round games. The questions of who will play in those games, however, and where those games will take place, among other logistical issues, are still to be decided. While it doesn’t look like a decision will be announced this week, outgoing committee chairperson and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has spelled out three possible options for who will compete in the opening round games:
The teams that would be the 16th and 17th seeds in a bracket, or those teams seeded at spots 61 through 68 in the overall field — likely teams from the historically one-bid conferences,
The last eight non-automatic qualifiers or the teams generally referred to as bubble teams — generally teams from a mixture of BCS leagues and mid-major conferences, or
Some combination of the first two options, with the most talked-about scenario being the last four bubble teams playing in a couple of games and the lowest seeded automatic qualifiers (seeds 65-68) playing in the other two.
While it is still within the realm of reason that additional options could arise (maybe the lowest seeded automatic qualifiers each match up against one of the bubble teams), the answer will likely be one of the three options above. And, frankly, option three is a bit of a copout, so the decision between options one and two comes down to something of a battle between the big power conferences and the less influential conferences that nonetheless make up the bulk of Division I. And neither side wants to play in those games.
Should a conference champ be sent to an opening-rounder and have a better chance to make more money, or should their performance be rewarded with a spot in the main draw?
“I think that if you are an automatic qualifier, you should not be in a play-in game,” said Winthrop head coach Randy Peele when we talked with him earlier this week, and he’s had experience with the opening round game as the coach at a school that has now appeared in two opening round tournament games, including last season’s loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Peele’s sentiment was echoed by Michael White, the Associate Athletic Director for Communications at East Tennessee State University. “For teams like ours that come out of a league with one tournament bid, and to have to earn it by winning our conference tournament, we don’t want to have to be sent to a play-in game.”
Even the term “play-in game,” used in reference to the single opening round game played in Dayton for the last ten years, is a divisive one. The NCAA has gone to great lengths to make sure that game was referred to as the “opening round game,” despite it commonly being referred to by fans and media as the play-in game. “The way the NCAA markets the first day is critical,” said ETSU’s head coach Murry Bartow. “They shouldn’t be marketed as play-in games, where you’re not even in the tournament until you win that game.”