Small schools come up big in NCAA tourney field
Boise State coach Leon Rice was hoping for the best and secretly dreading the worst when he gathered his team to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.
The Broncos went 21-10 in the regular season, but lost in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament. For a team that doesn’t play in one of the so-called power conferences, that usually means curtains on any NCAA tournament hopes.
“You almost feel like a parent,” Rice said in a phone interview on Sunday night. “You don’t want the kids to get their hearts broken. When our name popped up, it was just the greatest feeling.”
Boise State earned its first at-large bid in school history on Sunday and will play fellow at-large small fry La Salle in the first round on Wednesday.
After years of getting pushed aside by the higher profile schools in the six conferences that make up the core of football’s BCS, the little guys are starting to get some big respect in the NCAA tournament. For the second straight year, the selection committee chose 11 teams from outside the big six conferences, the highest number since 12 were chosen in 2004.
Some worried when the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011 that it would just mean a few more mediocre teams from the power leagues would get chosen over smaller schools that did not win their conference tournaments.
Those fears have been unfounded the last two years.
“It’s a reflection on how the landscape of college basketball has changed so much,” Rice said. “We’re breaking down the old stereotypes that you have to be in a BCS league to have a great basketball program. That’s just not the case.”
The budding trend was most noticeable with the last four teams chosen for the field on Sunday. The committee chose La Salle, Boise State, St. Mary’s and Middle Tennessee State over the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Iowa, all 20-win teams from bigger conferences.
“For us to have our commitment at La Salle rewarded and to be in this tournament is a big deal,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “Think about some of the names that are not in this tournament and it shows just how hard it is to get there.”
Let’s face it, they’ve earned it. Butler, which is a No. 6 seed in the East this year, played in two straight championship games. VCU and George Mason have made the Final Four and Gonzaga has been anything but a mid-major come tournament time with 15 straight tourney appearances and five Sweet 16s since 1999.
The respect was also shown in the seeding of teams big and small. Virginia Commonwealth lost in the Atlantic-10 tournament championship to St. Louis, but still earned a No. 5 seed, probably thanks in large part to its performance in the tournament in recent years under Shaka Smart.
Middle Tennessee will play St. Mary’s in the first round on Tuesday, with the winner being seeded 11th in the Midwest region.
“Having that much respect to get an 11 seed at-large, it kind of shows where our program has gotten to,” Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said.
St. Louis parlayed that win over VCU into a No. 4 seed in the Midwest, while bigger schools from bigger conferences saw their seeding plummet. Oregon won the Pac-12 tournament, yet only received a No. 12 seed in the Midwest. Mississippi ran the table to win the SEC tournament but is seeded 12th in the West and Miami settled for a No. 2 seed, making the Hurricanes the first ACC team to miss out on a top seed after winning the regular season and tournament titles.
Finally a little guy — albeit the biggest of them — got the top slot. Miami was denied because Gonzaga got the ultimate sign of respect — a No. 1 seed in the West region.
“You’ve got to savor this being a No. 1 seed, being No. 1 in the nation,” Zags forward Mike Hart said. “You have to realize how special that is. To do it here at Gonzaga, a storied program that has done a lot of things, but those are two things it hasn’t done, you definitely savor it and cherish it but at the same time you have to have that forward mentality looking forward to that next game and understand that you’re only in this position because of how you’ve played in games.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle and freelancer Dave Zeitlin in Philadelphia contributed to this report.