ANAHEIM Remember when the NCAA Tournament was mostly made of teams people recognized? When the "Cinderella" prospects were easy to spot? When truly obscure teams were few and far between?
Boy, are those days gone.
Now you can't scratch your head without bumping into another small-fry with dreams. Hello, Siena. Howdy-do, Belmont. Maryland-Baltimore County, come on down!
The national playoff launches this week, featuring a fair assortment of big shots like North Carolina and Duke, Kansas and UCLA, as well as the not-so-big-shots like, well, BYU and UNLV. But last year's finalists, Ohio State and Florida, never even made the cut. Maybe that's because the field is crowded with automatic qualifiers from conferences nobody knows. For instance, Oral Roberts earned a bid by winning the Summit League tournament, formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference. Doesn't ring a bell? No surprise there. Other teams in that league include IUPUI, IPFW, UMKC those are schools, not labor unions Southern Utah and Oakland (Michigan, not California).
Four teams are in the tournament for the first time: Portland State, the aforementioned UMBC, Texas-Arlington and American.
That's right. There's a college so bold it named itself after a country.
Drake is back for the first time since 1971. It got there by winning the Missouri Valley Conference. Now that's a league people know. Or not. At least it's a region people have heard of. Or not.
Meanwhile, Corelle, er, Cornell is in for only the third time, and by the way, don't you love its cookware?
Then there's Siena, winner of the MAAC, which is not to be confused with the MAC, which is not to be confused with the MEAC, which is not to be confused with Big East in any way, shape or form. And there's Mount St. Mary's, which is not to be confused with that other St. Mary's in the tournament. Just add a "Mount" to the front, sort of like Mt. North Carolina or Mt. Wisconsin.
Anyway, Mount St. Mary's was in Tuesday night's play-in game against Coppin State, the first 20-loss team to reach the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a first-place finish in the MEAC tournament.
Not to mention other little-guy darlings, named after people, not places, such as Winthrop, Austin Peay and George Mason. Or is it George Washington? Or George Clooney?
Whatever it's called, it did make the Final Four in 2006, becoming, of course, the nation's favorite team no one had heard of.
The reason for the preponderance of nobodies is, of course, automatic bids. Of the 65 teams in the field (counting the play-in game), 30 got in by winning their conference tournament. Hence, Maryland-Baltimore County is in the mix, thanks to that big win over Hartford in the America East tournament. So is Texas-Arlington, due to a win over Northwestern State.
The northwestern part of what is anyone's guess.
And, of course, there is San Diego, third cousin of San Diego State, which seldom makes the tournament itself.
Syracuse didn't make the cut this year, but there's room on the dance floor for Boise State and Cal-State Fullerton.
Which is exactly as it should be.
How come football can't figure this out?
Welcome to the best idea in history: giving (almost) everyone a chance. Line them up, big and small, and turn them loose. Unlike football, there was no begging or campaigning required for Boise State. It won the WAC tournament, so it was in. It now has a chance to win the national championship. Same with Western Kentucky, winner of the Sun Belt.
They didn't even have to squire around bowl reps in loud sport coats to get invited.
This, then, is the anti-BCS and it works.
As football continues to grind along, playing favorites and working politics, basketball trusts itself to let the teams decide. So the next time some low-budget college basketball team starts bragging about how good it is, and that it doesn't get the respect it deserves, all anyone has to say is this: Go ahead and prove it.In this game, the field is wide open.
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