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MAC’s image hurts ranking of UT, WMU

03/17/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
MAC’s image hurts UT, WMU rankings

There are actually more at-large berths than automatic spots in the NCAA tournament field.

Not that it ever helps the Mid-American Conference.

When Western Michigan, which got the automatic berth by virtue of beating Toledo for the MAC tournament title, went on the board early Sunday evening as a low 14th seed for the NCAA, it quickly became obvious that our local/​regional loop would be a one-bid league for the 15th consecutive year.

The Broncos found out rather quickly they would be a presumed sacrificial lamb in the Buffalo-based South regional bracket that includes Syracuse and Ohio State.

Toledo, meanwhile, had to wait a couple hours before learning it would get an NIT bid to play against Southern Miss. The game will be played Wednesday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The Rockets and Southern Miss’ Golden Eagles own identical 27-6 records and join the list of winningest teams to be shunned by the NCAA. Only 13 times, including these two, have teams with 25-plus wins been left out of the national championship tournament.

That record was the selling point UT coach Tod Kowalczyk cited after the 98-77 loss to WMU, but he was saying what he had to say. Only he knows how much of his heart was in it.

As it turned out, the Rockets received just a sixth seed in the NIT, meaning that some 20 teams in the 32-team event were more highly regarded by the NIT selectors. That would pretty much assure that the Rockets were not even on the NCAA committee’s radar.

Kowalczyk suggested Saturday night that the MAC and its marketing approach for basketball should shoulder some blame.

He may not know the full history, but he is correct to a large degree.

There was a stretch from 1985-99 when the talent-packed MAC received multiple NCAA berths five times.

It was during that same time span that MAC football hit rock bottom and its status in Division I-A, as the FBS was then called, was in some jeopardy.

Conference and school administrators shifted their focus and much of the resources away from basketball, which they thought was healthy and sustainable, to improve football budgets, TV exposure, and bowl game opportunities.

Basketball, truthfully, has never recovered across the board. If anything, its national recognition, respect, and recruiting punch has dipped significantly. Fifteen straight years of being a one-bid league while others that were once comparable — the Atlantic 10, for example, has six teams in the NCAA this year — have leapfrogged so far ahead says a mouthful about MAC basketball.

Toledo finished with one of the top 40 RPI figures in the nation and it was built mostly by the number of wins. The Rockets played only one top-25 RPI team, Kansas, and lost despite an above-average effort.

An NIT spokesman said last night that the committee often used the “eye-ball approach” more so than RPI numbers to select and seed its field. That means that the Rockets’ strength of schedule, particularly in conference play, hurt them more than the RPI might have helped.

At least the NIT is deep in mid-major opportunities while some power conference teams that might have been considered locks — Indiana and Maryland among the most obvious — didn’t receive berths.

The NIT provided a fallback for top seeds SMU, Minnesota, St. John’s, and Florida State, all of which saw their NCAA bubbles pop.

After Michigan fell in the Big Ten championship game Sunday, the four No. 1 NCAA seeds — Florida, Arizona, unbeaten Wichita State, and Virginia — fell into place without much controversy. Michigan was placed as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest regional.

But there was still a lot of conjecture, mostly in regard to Louisville, the defending national champion, as a No. 4 seed. Michigan State, the Big Ten tournament champion which is healthy and suddenly playing its best ball of the past two months, was placed on the same line. With UCLA and San Diego State also 4 seeds that might be the most dangerous “lower” line on any board.

Ohio State, meanwhile, was handed a No. 6 seed, which didn’t seem out of line. If the Buckeyes can get past Dayton in the opener, no sure thing considering how high the Flyers will be jacked for that meeting, they could have real problems generating much offense against Syracuse’s zone in the next round.

It would be a shocker if the Buckeyes find a way to extend their string of Sweet 16 appearances.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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