Cal State-Northridge couldn’t pull it off, neither could Northern Iowa, but at least they got the chance to have One Shining Moment in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s more than St. Mary’s or San Diego State or Creighton can say. All they wanted was an invitation, instead they’re the wallflowers of the Big Dance, watching from the sidelines while their more attractive power conference counterparts take their place.
Leave it to a journalist to find fault in the near-perfect, but that’s what we’re going to do here, because it seems to be getting harder and harder for the beloved "mid-majors" to find their way into the tournament.
And it’s those underdogs that put the Madness in March.
Ask any fan their favorite tournament memory not involving a team they grew up cheering for and you won’t hear about Arizona or Wisconsin winning as a No. 12 seed in the first round.
You’ll hear George Mason, Valparaiso and Princeton.
We love the little guys.
But this year, only four teams from non-power conferences found a place among the 34 at-large bids. That’s the lowest point in a downward trend for these smaller schools since earning 12 at-large bids in 2004.
After the brackets were announced, Mike Slive, the chairman of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, defended this year’s selections saying the committee considers a team’s complete body of work and willingness to play good competition, anytime, anywhere.
"This tournament is about the best teams," he said earlier this week in a conference call with reporters. "It’s not designed to social engineer college basketball."
This column isn’t meant as a screed against Slive and the selection committee, a la Billy Packer. They have a tough job to do, and they do it well.
And many might say if a team can’t prove itself in a 30-game schedule or win its conference tournament, that the problem is with the team, not the committee.
True enough, but dangerous mid-major teams are at a natural disadvantage. By definition, they’re facing weaker competition in conference play — nothing they can do about that part of the schedule.
While Arizona and Wisconsin — two teams that snuck into this year’s field — had the opportunity to prove their worth against UCLA and Michigan State, St. Mary’s was toiling away in home-and-home series with Portland and Santa Clara.
And in out-of-conference action, where a team has some say over who it plays, taking on a team like St. Mary’s is a lose-lose proposition for bigger schools. They get no credit for beating a mid major — that’s what they’re supposed to do. But lose and that’s an ugly smudge on your resume that’s sure to count against you come Selection Sunday.
So the little guys are sent scrambling for competition.
St. Mary’s finished the regular season 26-6 and played 10 of its 12 out-of-conference game away from its home floor. But their best non-conference win came against Providence, a Big East bubble team also left on the outside of the tournament looking in.
Some teams — Gonzaga, Memphis — have been able to overcome their mid-major status. They’re respected enough that the big dogs don’t feel bad about scheduling them. Both are consistently in the Tournament, and a loss to them doesn’t reflect badly on the loser.
But Gonzaga and Memphis were only able elevate their rank by getting in the Tournament year in and year out and winning games once they got there.
So it’s a Catch-22 scenario for the St. Mary’s of the world. Kind of like a recent college graduate needing experience to get a job, but needing a job to get experience.
It seems the only recourse for those teams is to win their conference tournament then start bulking up their resume in the NCAAs.
Either that, or hope some big schools find it in their heart to show the little guys some love — like the rest of us do every year — and put them on the schedule.