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A View Of An NCAA Snub Outside Illinois

Posted by sportsmaven on March 14, 2007

With the swirl of controversy surrounding the inclusion of the University of Illinois into the 2007 NCAA College Basketball Tournament, I thought I would provide a point of view of a fan whose team may have been displaced by the Illini receiving what many believe is one of the last at-large bids. This post is courtesy of my friend and Syracuse University alumnus, Rick Monihan. Rick is one of the most passionate sports fans I know and as a bonus, a very good writer as well. Here is Rick’s view of Syracuse’s exclusion from the NCAA Tournament:

As a student at Syracuse during the football-lean years of the early 80’s, one quickly realized the only source of high quality sports entertainment in the region was SU basketball. It was great basketball, well coached, achieving high levels of athletic prowess, and very engaging. SU vs. Georgetown was the marquee matchup of the day for many years. The game, basketball, was THE game. You lived it, soaked it all in, died with their losses and reveled in their successes. It followed you after you left school, and you fought to believe the team would eventually achieve greatness. 1987 and 1996 were just teasers for 2003, the year we all knew would come, the year Boeheim “proved” he was a good coach (we all knew it well beforehand).

Syracuse Just Misses NCAA Bid
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

For the last few days, though, SU fans have been glum. The snub by the NCAA committee was nothing short of blasphemy to the initiated. We wuz robbed! Or were we? As a fan, I’m disappointed and upset, and SU DID deserve to be in the dance. But let’s take a look from a few different viewpoints, and then come to some real conclusions about the relative value of SU’s claims to an appearance.

To begin, any team on the bubble has a problem. They aren’t winning. Or they aren’t winning the RIGHT games. I think SU suffered from the latter. 22 wins is usually enough to guarantee an appearance. More importantly, a 10-6 record, 5th place finish in a conference as tough as the Big East is enough, particularly when 6 of that conference’s teams are dancing. The argument is that an “unbalanced” schedule allowed SU to finish 5th (they didn’t play a tough in conference schedule). This argument may make sense, except that the only teams SU didn’t play were West Virginia and Seton Hall. Not exactly the class of the league. They played St. John’s, Villanova, and Connecticut twice. None of these were great teams this year, and SU split each series. SU went 2-3 against the other 5 best teams in the conference. So the schedule wasn’t really unbalanced, and SU fared adequately against in conference competition.

Out of conference, SU played not one road game, save 2 neutral site games. They had losses to Oklahoma St., Wichita St., and Drexel. Considering Oklahoma St. and Wichita St. both finished out of NCAA consideration, this looks bad. Or does it? Streakiness is important when it comes to NCAA committee decisions. Finishing “hot” means a lot. SU’s 7-3 finish, with a win over Georgetown, was enough to convince many they were in. It was enough to get NC State in back in 1983, when a team destined for the NIT went on a tear that took it to a National Championship. In perspective, a lot of teams get hot early in the season, and you see unlikely upsets. This year, all 3 of SU’s losses came against teams that were hot early. Drexel had beat Villanova, Wichita St. was 4-0 and ranked, winding up 8-0 before going into their tailspin, and Oklahoma St was 9-0, ranked and had beaten Missouri St. Early season success came for all 3 of these hapless teams, and all but Drexel faded. Were these losses so terrible? Considering they came on home or neutral courts, yes. Considering it was early, no. How many times do we watch Kansas swoon early in the season, only to show up strong in February and March and make it? SU was hot down the wire, with quality wins.

Weak RPI shows poor quality of opposition. This is probably the BEST argument on why SU shouldn’t be in. It’s the only one I can see making sense. With 17 teams having automatic bids and a worse RPI, only the 48 “best” RPI teams should be in the tournament. At 50, SU is just out. Ah, if only that were true. Somehow, the RPI formula that the committee uses got bastardized. Stanford, at 65 with 18 wins…is in! Yikes. Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, and Virginia, all with worse records and worse RPIs, are in! Drexel, Air Force, Missouri State and Bradley should be screaming bloody murder before SU even gets a hearing.

This, of course, is if you really like the RPI. I don’t. It’s a useful tool (even the committee says this), but it’s terribly flawed. A team that is 25-7, with all 7 losses coming on the road against top 50 teams that are 29-3, will have a very good RPI. Even if the 25 wins are against teams that have losing records and are in the 100-200 range. The committee seems to know this, having left Akron out. Akron didn’t play 7 top tier teams on the road and lose, but at a 67 RPI, with 1 loss against a top 50 team (the only game they played against good competition), 26 wins just wasn’t enough (not even for the NIT, it seems, which is owned by the NCAA!!). The committee recognizes the problems of the RPI tool…and they use value judgments to make up the difference.

A week ago, after SU had lost a close fought game to Notre Dame (decided by SU’s suddenly poor free throw shooting), I told my friends Oklahoma St., USC, and Arkansas all needed to lose for SU to have a good enough RPI to assure entry. Otherwise, it would be close. Close, indeed. Arkansas and USC did well enough to bounce SU. So, we know streakiness counts. But not records. Neither Arkansas nor USC had a better record than SU, but apparently they had a better “Strength of Schedule” (another mysterious concept, since the Big East was much tougher than either the Pac 10 or SEC). What really got both Arkansas and USC in were good tournament showings…which, by their very nature, should improve SOS. Neither won their tournament. Last year, SU got in because they won the Big East tournament. Had they lost to Pitt in the final, they’d have been an at large team and gotten in because of wins over #1 UConn and #25 Georgetown in the tournament. But Arkansas and USC didn’t beat anyone of note or worth in their tournament runs. They got in because they had tournament runs…back to streakiness.

So the question, for me, becomes, did SU DESERVE a spot in the NCAAs this year? The answer, when all is said and done is NO, obviously, because if they did, they’d be in. And it’s NO, because they should have won early in the season. Had one of their “bad” losses been a victory, the point would be moot, SU would likely be in because their RPI would improve from 50 to about 45….well, maybe two of those losses needed to be wins, given who was left out. So, from the perspective of tough losses, SU was a loser, both figuratively and literally.

Losses don’t tell the whole story, though. Wins count for more, particularly good wins. First, tough conferences get the nod. The Big East was one of the toughest, and SU placed fifth. Second, streakiness gets the nod. SU was 7-3 down the stretch. Third, big wins count for a lot. SU had wins over 3 top 20 RPI teams, and 6 Tournament teams, a better count than Louisville, Xavier, Texas and Nevada, all tournament at-large teams.

It’s very hard to be a bubble team and not cry when you don’t make it. That’s the nature of a bubble team. But, particularly after a year like George Mason’s, being a bubble team and making it means A LOT. It means you have a chance. And having that chance means the NCAA committee needs to develop some clear guidelines to justify putting in a Stanford and not an Air Force, or a Georgia Tech and not a Drexel. Bubble teams exist because they weren’t good enough. But sometimes they WERE good enough and they get snubbed.

Ultimately, SU deserved a bid, once all factors were considered. 4 worse teams got in, and 4 teams with worse records against good competition got in. After accounting for the automatic bids, these 8 were less deserving, which means SU (and a few others, given how the mid-majors were terribly dismissed) would have been justly rewarded for well fought seasons.

It’s not to be. I get to savor the extended season of NIT play, not a bad thing in itself. After all, the finals are in New York, so I can attend if SU makes it. Plus I don’t HAVE to pick SU in my pool, which creates improved odds of winning some cash. It doesn’t make up for the lost opportunity, though. The chance that, maybe, JUST MAYBE, SU will pull a George Mason and go all the way and let me cash in that 60-1 ticket I purchased in Vegas last October. Nope. That ticket is in the trash now, and I’m writing this, waiting for next year. After all, SU won it all in 2003 – the year after their last appearance in the NIT!

4 Responses to “A View Of An NCAA Snub Outside Illinois”

  1. OrangeRay said

    Rick,

    Excellent article on Syracuse and the pro’s / con’s of their exclusion from the NCAA. I had been writing myself that had to finish the regular season 6-0 in order to ensure an NCAA bid, because of a lack of a ‘wow’ factor in their resume (though I would strongly argue that its not the Orange’s fault that Wichita State and Oklahoma State tanked after they beat the Orange, and that UConn, ranked as high as #12 in early January, fell off the face of the planet and Syracuse had to play them three times).

    Common sense tells me that SU, Drexel and Air Force should have all three been in the tournament. Though in a strange way, a far better story is now coming out of Syracuse (regarding fan sport, and love for the team) as a result of the snub, and in many ways, that will be far more memorable and meaningful than a short run in the NCAA tournament.

    I’m going to put a link to your article on my blog.

  2. Rick said

    Since I’m normally less than enamored of the Irish, I don’t mind the Irish loss to Winthrop. But this does suck for the Big East…and doesn’t look particularly good for SU, either (2 losses to ND).

    HOWEVER…I think Winthrop is better than an 11 seed. Their RPI was 70, which “justifies” it. BUT….they were 24-4, with all 4 losses to TOP 20 TEAMS on the road or neutral courts. One would say this flies in the face of what Boeheim says, or even what I wrote in the article. But here’s the rub:
    19 of Winthrop’s wins came against 200+ RPI competition. In my article, I said a good RPI would come by going undefeated against anyone in the top 200…..so Winthrop clearly didn’t pay attention (LOL).

    Here’s another point about why RPI sucks…AKRON IS RATED HIGHER THAN WINTHROP! And they didn’t make the NIT!

    Winthrop, on the basis of wins, performed nearly as well as SU in the top 50 department – 2 wins as opposed to SU’s 3. So, they are clearly a top 50 team, since they never lost to anyone worse than 17, and on the road.
    They played Wisconsin to a 3 point loss, UNC to a 7 point loss.

    Why were they an 11 seed? Why is Virginia a 4 and USC a 5? USC and Virginia aren’t top 20 teams.

    The NCAA committee was clearly dreaming of the Bahamas when they did their picks and seeds this year.

  3. Rick said

    As I review the results so far, it seems my commentary is dead on. Stanford, the LEAST of those allowed into the tourney at-large, got drubbed by Louisville, and Texas Tech lost to mediocre BC.

    I think it’s pathetic that Arkansas and USC play each other. USC didn’t beat anyone of note in their Pac 10 run…unless you consider Stanford and Washington St. to be “big guns” (hardly). As it stands, one of these lesser teams gets a guaranteed win. But I doubt either goes past that.

    Georgia Tech plays today with UNLV – a tough draw, but Virginia may find Albany to be a pesky matchup (remember that fine play last year against UConn?).

  4. stu said

    I yearn for the days of the old school east. Splitting the SEC into two works, because the conference is regionally based and has lots of two-sport teams. Nothing like the old days when we got Nova, Pitt, Providence, GTown, BC, Johnnies, Hall, Friars twice.

    While it stinks that SU didn’t get in, we didn’t beat anybody great all season, outisde of G-Town and didn’t sweep any of the teams we played twice. We gotta add in a game or two against a top team from a major, like when we had played Michigan St two years ago.

    Let’s see if the Gator dynasty continues.

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