Phil Sheridan | Mid-majors that roar are winnowed out

Posted: March 20, 2007

This may seem more like kremlinology than bracketology. Nevertheless, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament seemed awfully tidy to these suspicious eyes.

The obligatory media angle of the moment seems to be this: The 2007 edition of March Madness has no Cinderella story, no gutty little mid-major David slaying a powerful Goliath, no . . . well, fill in the tournament cliché of your choice here.

Evidently, it took just one weekend - just 48 games played in eight arenas - for everyone's memory of Selection Sunday to be wiped clean. The reality is that the tournament selection committee carefully set up this year's bracket to minimize the possibility of an overachieving mid-major.

This tournament was George Mason-proofed before the first tip-off.

When you look at the 16 remaining schools, what do you see? All four No. 1 seeds, three of the No. 2 seeds, three of the No. 3 seeds, a No. 4, and three No. 5 seeds.

The presence of sixth seed Vanderbilt and seventh seed UNLV hardly constitutes the inspirational, anything-can-happen element that makes the tournament special. It just means a couple of good teams were underrated, or two other good teams (Washington State and Wisconsin, in these instances) either were overrated or simply laid eggs.

Maybe the smartest thing anyone said in Chicago all weekend came from the mouth of Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. The former La Salle assistant felt compelled to defend the presence of his scrappy little team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, even though no apology was necessary.

"You could have a tournament with only teams from the power conferences," Mihalich said. "You could take the top teams from the Big Ten, the Big East, and the other big conferences. You would be sure to have the best teams and the best players, but it would be boring."

Leave it to a Philly guy to speak the truth. What Mihalich didn't go on to say, but might have, is that the NCAA did its best this year to achieve that boringness without taking the extreme step of dumping the smaller programs from the lesser conferences. That step would be a huge mistake, of course, but at least it would be more honest than what happened here.

Time for that kremlinology.

Last week, the selection committee left some worthy mid-major teams out of the tournament. That ground was well covered. There was less noise made about the first-round matchups that pitted all the at-large mid-majors against each other, instead of against the so-called power conferences.

Creighton played Nevada. BYU played Xavier. Southern Illinois played Holy Cross. Butler played Old Dominion. By doing that, the committee cut in half the number of possibilities for smaller programs to do what 11th seed George Mason did last year - reach the Final Four.

Lo and behold, you get an opening weekend with very few real upsets. UNLV's win over No. 2 seed Wisconsin was about the most dramatic. More important, you get a Sweet Sixteen field with the kind of big-time, brand-name programs that draw good television ratings.

The highlight of the weekend, from this perspective, was Xavier's near upset of Ohio State on Saturday. For a few minutes, the suits at CBS must have felt a little tight under the collar.

Just to be clear: It's good TV when an underdog wins. But it's good TV programming when two huge programs with big followings are scheduled to play each other. The network, and therefore the NCAA, wants to draw the most viewers possible. Entertaining them once they're watching is secondary.

Listen to Billy Packer sometime. The man CBS pays to talk about college basketball is constantly talking up the network's interests - power conferences all the way - over competitive interests.

So it's good for CBS that Kansas and Ohio State, Florida and North Carolina, UCLA and Southern Cal are all still alive. College basketball fans want to see the best teams. Casual fans, especially NBA fans curious about Ohio State's Greg Oden and Florida's lottery picks, want to see the best players.

Maybe this is a result of seeing them twice in person, but the Kansas Jayhawks look like the team to beat right now. Florida and Ohio State played the first weekend as if they needed wake-up calls from Purdue and Xavier. Memphis wasn't really challenged. UCLA will have its hands full with Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

Kansas is peaking at the right time, just as Florida did last March. Bill Self's team is embarrassingly talented, quick, and seems to have something to prove.

You can bet the network is rooting for a Final Four that includes Florida, Ohio State, North Carolina, and either UCLA or Kansas.

You can't rig the tournament to guarantee ratings-friendly games, but it turns out you can come pretty close.


Post a question or comment for Phil Sheridan at http://go.philly.com/asksheridan. Or by email: psheridan@phillynews.com.

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