King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NCAA Tournament news, as always, is who'll miss out: Too many smaller-conference teams. Plus: Amaechi's endorsement.


Salon Staff
March 12, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Forget Selection Sunday. We ought to start calling it Snub Sunday.

Every year 65 teams are named to the NCAA Tournament field and all anybody wants to talk about is who got snubbed. I don't know whether that says something about human nature or the collective American personality, but if you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.

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Syracuse is the big snub this year, with lots of little snubs adding up to the selection committee giving a big middle finger to the mid-size conferences. Drexel, Air Force, Missouri State and Bradley lead the field of the so-called mid-majors who were left out as only six teams outside the major conferences got at-large bids, down from eight a year ago, nine in 2005 and 12 in 2004.

Detect a trend there? Me neither, but I'd thought things were getting better for the non-majors, not worse. The medium-conference snub is even more surprising given the 2006 Tournament, when Colonial Athletic team George Mason electrified the nation by going to the Final Four and two teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, Bradley and Wichita State, made it to the Sweet 16.

That run, which helped make last year's Tourney one of the best ever, was enough to turn CBS chatterers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer into veritable boosters of the smaller conferences this year.

Packer usually contents himself on Snub Sunday with apoplectic defenses of ACC teams that didn't get a fair shake despite finishing in a 58th-place tie in the conference with a brutal road schedule, but last year he went ballistic when he saw that four teams from the Missouri Valley Conference had made the field and major-conference mediocrities like Cincinnati hadn't.

"You've got to be kidding," he sputtered. The preternaturally bland Nantz even showed some spit and joined in.

A week later, after Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason had advanced, Packer admitted he'd been proved wrong. And boy, there's no zealot like the convert. Sunday Packer, with Nantz nodding alongside, grilled selection committee chairman Gary Walters: Why so few mid-majors this year?

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Walters said the committee is interested only in teams, not conferences.

"Our job is to recognize that once conference play is over, every team becomes an independent," he said. "So our job is to compare and contrast all the teams regardless of conference affiliation. We adhere to that principle." He said committee members didn't even count up the number of major and non-major schools in the field until its task was completed. It just works out some years that there are more non-major-conference teams than other years, he said.

I believe Walters and I admire the committee's rigor. And I think the approach is all wrong.

The committee should do its best work, set the field, then look the whole thing over. And if there aren't enough teams from conferences whose leaders aren't playing in the marquee game on CBS every weekend from November through February, it should shake things up until there are.

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It warms my Western cockles to see Big East titan Syracuse whining by the side of the road while a none-too-deserving left-coast team cruises in, even if that team is Stanford. But the NCAA Tournament does not need Stanford any more than it needs Syracuse or fellow snubbee Kansas State. It doesn't need Purdue or Illinois.

Villanova, Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas, Texas Tech, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Arizona. Every one of these schools can and did mount an argument for inclusion. But we don't need them. These are the teams, the big-conference also-rans, that clog up the Tournament, that every year give the 8-vs.-9 opening-round games their distinctive whiff of Alpo.

The NCAA Tournament has become this country's greatest sporting event in large part because of the free-for-all of the first two rounds, the thrilling upsets and near upsets, when talent-laden teams from powerhouse leagues get taken out, or at least scared to within a 3-pointer of their lives, by scrappy upstarts.

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You want to know a little something about the American personality, check out how we got lit up by Cleveland State in 1986, by Valparaiso in 1998, Hampton in 2001, George Mason last year.

I'm sorry, but if No. 12 Arkansas beats No. 5 USC in the South, that's just not going to have the same kind of electricity. Arkansas and USC swim in the same ocean. One might be better than the other -- Arkansas actually has the higher RPI -- in a given year, but Razorbacks fans, and more importantly, the rest of us, aren't going to be treasuring a first-round win over the Trojans for years to come.

Drexel over USC, though. That would be more like it.

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In some ways, things have improved for non-major teams, even as their number of at-large bids has shrunk. The old seeding bias seems to be a thing of the past. Five years ago Southern Illinois went 24-6 and was seeded 11th. Butler went 25-5 and didn't make the Tournament. This year both teams are 27-6. Southern Illinois is a 4-seed, Butler a 5. That's a big change.

But it's not enough. The selection committee needs to add a little bias. The major conferences supply almost all of the teams that will contend for the championship on the third weekend of the Tournament. But it's the non-majors that make those first two weekends special. If the committee is going to err -- and by its very nature it's going to err -- it should err on the side of those underdogs.

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Gay former NBA player lands endorsement [PERMALINK]

John Amaechi, who last month became the first former NBA player to come out of the closet as gay, has a new endorsement deal with HeadBlade, which makes head-shaving razors.

The company announced the deal in a press release Monday that called Amaechi "the first male athlete to secure a corporate endorsement deal after coming out of the closet." That's not true. Former NFL player Esera Tuaolo did a Chili's commercial after he came out. But it's close.

Amaechi's multiyear deal with HeadBlade is one more piece of evidence on the side of the argument that the first gay male athlete active in a major sport to come out will be setting himself up to get very rich. Nobody was thinking about offering John Amaechi, retired NBA journeyman center, an endorsement contract last year at this time.

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And with all those straight, bald NBA stars out there, Amaechi is, according to a spokesman, the only NBA player, past or present, who has an endorsement deal with the company.

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