Feinstein: Mid-Majors Deserve Benefit Of The Doubt

John Feinstein explained why the selection committee needs to give more mid-majors a chance in March

John Feinstein
March 12, 2019 - 8:27 pm

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Many years ago, I was talking to Gary Williams, then the coach at Maryland, about Jeff Jones, then the coach at American. Maryland and American were about to play their annual game AT Maryland. Williams was talking about how much he respected Jones and was fondly remembering the days when he coached at American.
        
“They gave me my first chance to be a head coach,” he said. “If I don’t get the job there back in 1978, who knows if I’d have ever been a head coach.”
         
I asked if, given that and his friendship with Jones, he might consider playing a game AT American. When Williams coached there, home games had been played across the Potomac River at Ft. Myer. Now, AU played on-campus at Bender Arena. I envisioned a packed gym and a great basketball atmosphere.
         
So did Williams.
         
“No way,” he said, shaking his head. “We could lose that game.”
         
Every year, about now, I think about that conversation, if only because Williams’ thinking was exactly the same as almost every single big-time coach alive: you don’t play a good mid-major on the road. Sometimes, you don’t even play them at home.
         
Steve Lappas, who now works for CBS, tells a story about being hired as the coach at Manhattan in 1988.
         
“First day I was on the job, I had—no exaggeration—at least 100 phone messages from coaches wanting us to come and play them,” he said. “We’d gone 1-27 the year before; that’s why the school had a new coach. Everyone wanted to play us.
         
“Three years later, while we were in the process of going 25-9, I couldn’t get anyone to return my call to schedule a game for the next season. NO ONE wanted to play us.”
         
Lappas was able to use that 25-win season to springboard himself to Villanova. Seven years later, in the summer of 1999, he called Mike Brey, who had built a very good program at Delaware.
         
“I’m not going to lie to you or give you some weak excuse about scheduling issues,” he told Brey. “I know we have a contract to play this year, but I’m not playing you. You’re too good. If we beat you, I get no credit for the win. If you beat us, my alumni will be all over me.”
         
Brey understood.
         
A year later, he left for Notre Dame. Years later, he DID bring his team to play at Delaware. One of his former players, Martin Ingelsby, had been named the coach and Brey agreed to give his program a boost by bringing the Irish to Newark, Delaware.
         
“I did it, but I was scared to death,” Brey said. “And I told Martin, ‘This is a one-shot deal.’”
         
Brey’s gesture was a rare one, and gestures like his almost always involve friendships. Mike Krzyzewski agreed to take Duke to play at Army when one of HIS former players, Pat Harris, became the coach. Of course, in both those cases, the ex-players were taking over struggling teams and the big-time coach probably could have left all five starters home and still won the game.
         
The notable exception to this rule is Roy Williams, who opened his season this past November at Wofford because the school was opening a new arena. North Carolina won 78-67 against a team that is now 29-4 and whose other three losses are at Oklahoma, at Kansas, and at Mississippi State. A trip to Stanford was cancelled by weather.
         
That is the kind of schedule the NCAA basketball committee demands mid-majors play if they want to even be considered for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The problem is that--Williams aside--you have to beg, borrow and scrape to get big-time teams to play you—even on their home court.
         
Sometimes, as Brey found out, you can have a deal to play a big-time team and the game might never happen because you’ve made the mistake of getting too good.
         
Three years ago, Monmouth did everything the committee asks. It won at UCLA, at Georgetown and beat Notre Dame (which went to the Elite Eight) in a tournament in Orlando. The Hawks finished 28-8, but lost their conference tournament title game to a very good Iona team.
         
Having done everything asked by the committee and having more quality non-conference wins than most big-time teams, Monmouth was rewarded with—an NIT bid. The committee chairman went on about how Monmouth had a wonderful team, but not quite good enough to beat out Vanderbilt—just one example—which went 11-7 (19-14 overall) in a down SEC.

In the first two seasons after the NCAA expanded the tournament to 68 teams, a total of 13 teams from mid-major conferences (six in 2011 and seven in 2012) got into the tournament. The committee seems to understand that if it was going to justify expansion, it had to give some consideration to mid-majors, especially those who had gone on the road and beaten schools from power conferences.
         
In the last three years, a total of three schools not from the "Power Eight" (I include the American, the Atlantic-10 and Big East with the football Power Five) have gotten at-large bids: Wichita State (then in the Missouri Valley) in 2016; St. Mary’s (28-4) in the 2017, and Nevada last year. That’s the list.
         
This season, the number of teams from the so-called (by me) Power Eight that clearly deserve at-large bids are fewer than perhaps ever. The Pac-12 is WAY down. Only Washington should be a lock; Arizona State a likely. No other school deserves to get in if it doesn’t win the Pac-12 tournament.
         
The Atlantic-10, which traditionally has gotten at least three bids in recent years, has just one team that should be an absolute: VCU. Maybe Davidson. Maybe.
          
The Big East isn’t a heck of a lot better. Villanova and Marquette—which has lost four straight—have done enough to deserve a bid, and Seton Hall is probably a lock. After that? Georgetown, St. John’s, Creighton? Their best wins are within the conference—which isn’t that impressive. Georgetown people will scream, ‘We beat Villanova and Marquette!’ They won’t want to bring up the 101-69 loss to DePaul. Best non-conference win? Illinois—which didn’t finish in the top ten—of the Big Ten.
         
Speaking of which, the apologists for that league are insisting it deserves eight or nine bids? Seriously? Five would be plenty.
         
The ACC, the deepest league in the country, wants nine. Seven would suffice. The Big 12? Three would be enough, though Baylor and Iowa State would scream about that. The genius bracketologists have TCU—7-11 in the conference with non-conference highlight wins over—wait for it—USC and Bucknell and a home loss to Lipscomb—likely in the field.
         
Lipscomb, which lost its conference championship game? No chance.
         
I could go on. Wofford would have gotten in as an at-large if it had lost in the Southern Conference final because it’s resume is too overwhelming not to. But UNC-Greensboro, 28-6 with three of the losses to Wofford? Maybe—at best. Furman, also in the SoCon, a team that won at Villanova in November? No chance.
         
On Monday I tweeted that Belmont, which lost the Ohio Valley title game to a Murray State team that NO ONE wants to play, should get a bid – and if that meant one less for the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, that was fine.
         
Out came the power apologists. Belmont, they insisted, couldn’t possibly compete in the Big Ten! Or the Big East! Careful there, fellas, my guess is they would have finished sixth in the Big Ten or about fourth in the Big East.
         
But that isn’t the point. The point is about budgets and facilities and the power of TV and scheduling.
         
Ask Rick Byrd, Belmont’s superb coach, about how many call-backs he gets from power schools when he tries to schedule them. This year, UCLA and Purdue allowed Belmont to come to their home courts to play. UCLA lost. Purdue, co-champion of the Big Ten won—by 11 in a game closer than that.
         
My point is this: the committee SHOULD give the benefit of the doubt when it’s a close call to the mid-major because if the power school can’t do better than, say 16-14 (Indiana) or 18-13 (Ohio State, without a conference win over a team with a winning conference record), it should not get in. Of course the committee, at least in recent years, has gone the other way.
         
Right now, I count 33 teams from the major conferences that should be absolute locks for the tournament. Conservatively, six of those will get automatic bids for winning conference tournaments. That leaves 27 who absolutely would deserve at-larges. Which leaves the committee with NINE spots to fill. I know some will go to major conference bubble teams, but some should go to mid-majors: Belmont; UNC-Greensboro, Furman and Lipscomb among them. If Buffalo or Nevada don’t win their conference tournaments, they WILL get bids. But what about Old Dominion—which won AT Syracuse—earlier this year—in Conference-USA? Or St. Mary’s?
         
Won’t happen. All I ask is when you listen to the committee’s excuses about mid-majors' strength of schedule, you remember Gary Williams. And Steve Lappas. The list goes on…and on.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction, “The Prodigy,” is about a 17-year-old with a chance to win The Masters who finds himself fending off agents, equipment reps and his father to avoid being turned into a human ATM machine. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” a New York Times bestseller. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com