Big East 10? How about mid-majors?
According to various websites with "bubble'' technology that models the selection criteria, the Big East has a shot to get 10 bids -- one short of last season's record of 11 NCAA Tournament entrants -- provided Seton Hall can get past the security guards on the selection committee before they unveil the 68-team bracket Sunday night.
If that turns out to be true, it's a shame for college basketball. When the field expanded by three spots last year, it was supposed to help more deserving little guys. Instead, it could wind up rewarding middle-of-the-pack teams from major conferences that are permitted to play poorly numerous times while top mid-majors must reach a higher, far more consistent performance standard bordering on perfection.
Even Saturday night's Big East championship game at Madison Square Garden proved the big boys can play a brand of basketball that is just as tortured as teams from lesser leagues. One night after hitting eight of its first 10 shots from three-point range and upsetting No. 2 Syracuse, Cincinnati went 0-for-9 from three and managed a record-low 14 points in the first half of what became a 50-44 loss to Louisville.
It was the lowest-scoring final in Big East history by 13 points. The two benches produced exactly four points.
After the win over Syracuse, Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said he expected his team to "quietly'' contend for the national title. After the Louisville loss, Cronin turned around, called his team overconfident and said, "Complacency has been an issue.''
Cincinnati won't garner much support in the polls now, but the great thing about the NCAA Tournament is that it's decided on the court. It's not clear what the quality of play in the title game says about the strength of the Big East Conference, but it's certainly down from a year ago, when it dominated the national rankings.
From this vantage point, the NCAA would be perfectly justified if it limited the Big East to eight bids for the teams that made the quarterfinals -- Cincinnati, Louisville, No. 2 Syracuse, No. 9 Marquette, No. 13 Georgetown, No. 23 Notre Dame, UConn and South Florida. And considering South Florida's weak schedule, the 20-13 Bulls really should be no more than a bubble team despite a 12-6 conference record that included wins against only two teams with winning Big East records -- uh, Cincinnati and Louisville.
Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard can praise his team's "body of work'' based on its 15-2 start, but the fact is the Pirates (20-12) went 5-10 in their last 15 games, losing at DePaul by 28 points and at home to Rutgers while knowing an NCAA berth was at stake. West Virginia (20-13), which lost to Connecticut in the second round, is marginal.
In a season with more quality mid-majors than ever, it makes sense to add them and add excitement to a tournament that has seen Butler reach the championship game two years in a row and Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason come out of the Colonial Athletic Association to make the Final Four in recent years.
Asked what it takes to win the NCAA Tournament, the Bearcats' Cronin unintentionally made the case for the mid-majors, saying, "Most good teams can beat anybody, but we're capable of losing to anybody, too. There's not enough NBA players stacked on certain teams like in the '90s.
"You could replay the NCAA Tournament and have a totally different result. There's that much parity.''
In other words, there's not nearly the gap between majors and mid-majors that used to exist. So the little guys who have to play at a high level all season should be rewarded by the NCAA.