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Majors' juice trumps the RPI NCAA selectors ignore two teams in top 30


That was a clear message sent Sunday night from the NCAA selection committee as the field of 65 for this week's NCAA Tournament was unveiled.

There was the usual supply of shock and surprise as the brackets were announced. But the longtime reliance on the controversial Ratings Percentage Index as the driving force behind the selections seems to be waning.

No team with an RPI better than 33 had ever been left out of the field until Sunday, when No. 21 Missouri State and No. 30 Hofstra were both snubbed. Both of them, of course, are mid-majors while four teams that got in with noticeably worse RPIs -- No. 51 North Carolina State, No. 52 California, No. 57 Alabama and No. 58 Seton Hall -- all reside in power conferences. Hmmm.

The Big East set an NCAA record by getting eight teams in the field, although Cincinnati (40 RPI) seemed to have a better case than Seton Hall. The Big Ten and SEC got six each.

The Missouri Valley Conference got a league-record four teams into the field (Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and Bradley) but many experts had it getting five or even six with the possible inclusions of Missouri State and Creighton.

"As it relates to the Missouri Valley, our selections really dispel the myth that this process is numbers- and RPI-driven," said committee chair Craig Littlepage. "We looked at these teams thoroughly and the resumes that they had."

Littlepage said a determining factor was Missouri State's 4-7 record against its five conference rivals that were also considered.

Valley Commissioner Doug Elgin was thrilled to get four teams in but was dismayed by what he termed Missouri State's "historic exclusion."

Missouri State (20-8) was a first-round loser in its conference tournament but had no losses to teams outside the top 50.

"It's pretty amazing and pretty disappointing," said Elgin, a former committee member. "We've heard the message previously that (the selection committee) would look beneath the RPI numbers, but I'm not at a point where I can understand the rationale for taking a team that was 58 in the RPI and not taking a team that was 21."

Elgin was also rankled by the rants of CBS commentators Billy Packer and Jim Nantz on the televised selection show. They were critical of the Valley and took shots at George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association for getting the conference's first at-large since 1986. The theory was that those conferences were undeserving because they had not won many games in prior tournaments.

The talking heads clearly should have known that past performance in the tournament is not a factor in selection.

"The attack on the Colonial and other mid-majors was totally uncalled for," said an irate Elgin. "The Princeton upset of UCLA (in 1996) and many, many upsets in the first round have made this tournament so compelling and a billion-dollar entity for CBS. The way they did it tonight was way over the top. I'm disappointed in both Jim Nantz and Billy Packer for their behavior."

As expected, the No. 1 seeds were Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis. It was mildly surprising to see Gonzaga get a No. 3 seed in the Oakland Regional while Tennessee jumped to a No. 2 seed in the Washington, D.C., Regional. George Washington, a 26-win team from the Atlantic 10, seemed to be the most underseeded as a No. 8 in the Atlanta Regional.

Syracuse, clearly on the outside looking in until Wednesday's win over Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament, leapfrogged into a No. 5 seed by winning the conference tournament. The Orange play Texas A&M on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Air Force and Bradley, both 13th seeds, led the group of last-in teams along with 12 seeds Utah State and Texas A&M. Joining Cincinnati as big names banished to the NIT were Michigan, Maryland and Florida State.

"We had two gallons of water and a one gallon tank," Littlepage said. "We just ran out of spots to be able to accommodate all the teams."

Air Force was a huge surprise because of its 50 RPI, seven wins against teams rated 287 or lower in the RPIs and its first-round loss to Wyoming in the Mountain West Tournament.

Hofstra, led by Buffalo native Loren Stokes, was 20 RPI spots ahead of Air Force. The Pride won 14 of its last 16 and beat George Mason twice, including in the Colonial semifinals.

"I need someone to explain this process to me," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "I thought we did enough to get our RPI to the right level. We reached the conference championship game. Obviously, how you finish the season is not that important."

"There's some teams that qualify for at-larges that look a whole lot like Missouri State and Hofstra and have weaker credentials," said Colonial Commissioner Tom Yeager. "I don't know the distinction as to what separated them."

Most experts have pointed to Hofstra's weak nonleague schedule as the reason the Pride was left out. And while Seton Hall had several good nonleague wins, many other at-large teams did not.

"It would be interesting to figure out when that becomes a 'poison bullet' for some and not for others," Yeager said.

Play begins Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the preliminary-round game between Hampton and Monmouth. The winner meets Villanova on Friday in Philadelphia.

The main draw opens Thursday at subregionals in Greensboro, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Salt Lake City and San Diego. Friday's games are in Auburn Hills, Mich., Dayton, Philadelphia and Dallas.

Mid-American Conference champion Kent State, which eliminated the University at Buffalo in Thursday's MAC quarterfinals, got a No. 12 seed and will meet No. 5 Pittsburgh on Friday in Auburn Hills.

Metro Atlantic champ Iona, a quarterfinal winner over Niagara, is a 13 seed and will play No. 4 LSU on Thursday in Jacksonville. Atlantic 10 champion Xavier got a 14 seed and plays Gonzaga on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

The regionals begin March 23 in Atlanta and Oakland, and March 24 in Washington and Minneapolis. The Final Four is April 1 and 3 in Indianapolis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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