Friday, February 26, 2010

An open letter to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee!

Ladies and gentlemen (at least I hope you include both):

Have you noticed the Northwestern Wildcats? If you haven’t, you should.

Recently, TV sports hoses have made much of the fact that dem Wildcats lost a couple of key games which then meant that they have no hope of postseason play in the NCAA, or even probably in the NIT. Of course, hope springs eternal; they already have more season wins than in school history. They’re 18-10, folks, which is not shabby at all. But it’s not elite in NCAA tournament terms, especially when you factor in a 7-9 record in their conference, and the best you’ll be able to muster there is 9-9. Looking at raw numbers, it may be a no-brainer: of course the selection committee can probably find 10 schools better “deserving” of an at-large bid than Northwestern.

Or can they? I submit not, because raw numbers don’t tell the story here.

Raw numbers don’t talk about how this team lost their #1 scorer at the beginning of the season…and yet are among the leaders, if not the #1 shooting team, in the Big Ten.

Raw numbers don’t talk about how two “role” players have stepped up to carry a team on their backs. Yes, this happens all the time…at schools who go out and recruit “horses” who are virtually interchangeable. But at Northwestern, where scoring, rebounds, and assists are considered only after your GPA, SAT and ACT scores…not so much.

Above all, though, raw numbers don’t talk about two key items that need to be weighed here: first, the sheer strength of the conference in which the Wildcats play…and just how much fun they are to watch.

Suffice to say that any perusal of the Big Ten this year should, once and for all, wipe out the tired old refrain about “weaker conferences.” The Big Ten has habitually had at least two to three teams in the top 25 since the beginning of the season, and sometimes multiple teams in the top 10. That’s not in the Midwest…that’s in the nation. They can hardly be called less than an elite conference anymore, even in comparison with the “big guys” out East.

With that in mind, I would suggest that a strong case can be made that a 7-9 record in the Big Ten—one that could easily be 9-9 at the end of the season—is comparable, this season, to a much better record in other places. Some 14-4 or 15-3 or even 11-7 teams in other conferences would be lucky to win 9 games in the Big Ten this year. So based on the mythical “strength of schedule”? .500 in the Big Ten, this year, oughta get anybody in.

Secondly, there are other numbers the NCAA committee also ought to be taking into consideration here—rating numbers. Which will skyrocket with a team like the Wildcats on the court.

How can I say this? Simple. Which one of us doesn’t watch the NCAA for the “Cinderella” team as much as anything else? Anyone remember how fun it was to watch George Mason a few years ago…or Bradley two years ago…or teams like Gonzaga before they became household names? Who can forget Xavier (and the way they were robbed against Ohio State)a couple years back?

Well, if anyone’s primed to be a Cinderella in this year’s tournament, it’s the team in purple and white. It’s one thing to watch a program get to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 40 years, or watch a program finally make the Final Four after a long, dry spell. But watching a team go to the Big Dance for the first time in school history?

This is a great story, just waiting to happen. It deserves to happen. It’ll be great for college basketball if it happens. But it’ll only happen if the NCAA committee can bring itself to ignore lobbying by so-called “stronger” conferences, look past the numbers, and consider just what drama might lie ahead in the tournament brackets if someone like the Wildcats is given the nod.

Heck, let ‘em be in the “play-in” game, if nothing else. If it can be done for a team out East…it can certainly be done for a team that’s figuratively hopped on one foot all year and still managed to win more than anyone thought possible, in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

Do it, ladies and gentlemen. Make the “dark horse” selection one we’ll talk about for years. Pull the trigger, and send the Purple an invite to the Big Dance.

You will not regret it.

In great hopes,

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