If Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and the legion of other NCAA basketball “experts” we regularly see on television were in charge of selecting the NCAA Tournament field, the VCU Rams might be on their way to New York for the NIT Finals or getting back in the swing of classes after the end of basketball season. But fortunately, those “experts” are not in charge and instead the Rams are preparing for a trip to Houston for the first Final Four appearance in school history.
Given how bleak the experts believed the chances were for the Rams to make the field two weeks ago, the team didn’t even bother watching the selection show together. But within hours of the announcement they were on their way to Dayton and have been on an amazing trip ever since.
Following their dominating 71-61 victory over top seeded Kansas, the Rams are now the first team in NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Final Four after winning five tournament games. They did so by defeating teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 and winning four of those games by double digits.
Coupled with the Elite Eight victory by Butler, we are now guaranteed a team from a non “power” conference reaching the NCAA Championship Game for the third time in four years.
Both Butler a year ago and Memphis in 2008 fell just short, but given the lack of dominance by big conference schools in recent years you have to believe that 2011 could bring the first NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Champion from a non-power conference to cut down the nets since UNLV in 1990.
Who Will Win the NCAA Men's Basketball Title?
- VCU Rams (52%, 15 Votes)
- Butler Bulldogs (21%, 6 Votes)
- Connecticut Huskies (21%, 6 Votes)
- Kentucky Wildcats (6%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 29
That VCU is still playing is vindication for the selection committee choosing to give the Rams a spot in the 68 team field instead of adding another team from one of the “major” conferences. Many believed Virginia Tech and Colorado deserved to be included in the new First Four format, but instead the committee chose to give the spots to mid-major programs VCU and Alabama-Birmingham.
While UAB looked awful in their opening game against Clemson, the Rams have proven what people who follow mid-major programs have known all along: that top teams from mid-major conferences are as or more deserving of getting a shot in the NCAA Tournament as middle of the pack teams from the power leagues.
It was interesting on Selection Sunday that Bilas, Vitale and all the rest were unmerciful on VCU, yet had no problem with Penn State, Tennessee, Michigan State or the four other schools from power conferences with 13 or 14 losses that received at-large bids.
Considering that five teams from non-power conferences advanced to the Sweet 16 and two will be playing in the Final Four, hopefully the selection committee and television commentators will stop putting so much stock in the power conferences and start increasing the opportunities for mid-major teams to receive at-large bids.
This year only seven of the 37 at-large bids went to non-power conference programs. Of those seven, four won at least one game in the tournament and BYU and VCU advanced to the Sweet 16. The Big East, widely considered the best conference in the country, received 10 at-large bids alone with only one of those schools (ironically a Marquette team with 14 losses) reaching the Sweet 16.
For whatever reason (or reasons) the landscape in college basketball has dramatically changed over the last five years. The major conferences still dominate the conversation among the commentators and experts, but they are no longer dominating on the court. Yet smaller conference schools still have few opportunities to play these programs in games that aren’t either at neutral sites or at the power conference school.
Maybe continued success by schools like Butler and VCU, as well as a continued commitment to give mid-majors a shot by the selection committee, will eventually reduce the inequity and force the power conference schools to start playing games on the road against mid-majors.
Until then, the Butler’s and VCU’s of the world will just keep making their mark on the NCAA’s grandest stage.