Monday, March 11, 2002

Sports

NCAA goofs have once again sown bad seeds
Lack of respect should come as no surprise to Gonzaga, John Blanchette writes.
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John Blanchette
The Spokesman-Review

Had he desired, Mark Few had a posse of maybe 1,000 steamed-up citizens at his disposal Sunday afternoon, antsy to hunt down the members of the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee and bring them back -- alive, naturally.

The alternative being too good for them.

Instead, he called for calm.

"It's all about playing," Gonzaga's head basketball coach proclaimed to the mob at the bracket bash at the WestCoast Grand Hotel.

Some irony. A week or so ago, you may recall
, Few said it was almost about not playing.

But that was that fight and this was this one. And it's not as if the NCAA wouldn't be able to find a volunteer stand-in if the Zags ever decided they'd been insulted enough.

"You don't think Butler would kill for a six seed?" is how GU's basketball operations sage, Jerry Krause, put it.

Butler might be ready to kill, period. Bowling Green, too. Dick Vitale, bless his heart, was scorching some committeecrat eardrums with the closest thing to sense he could summon up. Billy Packer even furrowed a brow, which is about as much support as Gonzaga could ever expect to reap from the Toad of Tobacco Road.

Voices across the land Sunday were in general harmony that the committee had pretty much Enronned the Bulldogs -- not only giving them a No. 6 seed instead of the 3 or 4 they were expecting but also:

•Overloading the West Region with six conference tournament winners among the top seven seeds;

•Matching them against 11th-seeded Wyoming, champions of the Mountain West Conference regular season, in mile-high Albuquerque, where the altitude-trained Cowboys play once a year anyway and where they've won two of their last three;

•Setting up a potential second-round matchup with Pac-10 tournament champ Arizona.

"We might as well have been the 11th seed," said Zags center Zach Gourde. "We didn't get any protection from the committee and so we'll just have to knock some people off like we have before.

"We've got a road map for this. I really don't see anything different from what we've been dealt before."

Which was Few's message, too.

"If it's one team that knows you have to throw the seeding out and just play the games, it's our guys," he said, referring to the damage the Bulldogs have done in the last three NCAAs while seeded 10th, 10th and 12th.

Except there's this: None of those previous teams was ranked sixth in the country in both polls.

Whatever you believe the polls to be worth, in the past they have at least been a reasonable indication of how the seeding process might play out. And, folks, Gonzaga just made history.

Never -- never -- has a Top 10 team been seeded this low in the tournament since formal seeding began in 1979.

Hey! Another first!

We're not including Kentucky '91 and UNLV '92, both on probation and thus ineligible. In 1998, eighth-ranked Princeton got a No. 5 seed -- the Tigers were 26-1 that year. Back in 1985, eighth-ranked Louisiana Tech, with a rawboned kid named Karl Malone, also was stuck with a five.

"I'm shocked," said Gourde. "I thought we'd finally started to be respected on a national level, but apparently not. You can't win many more than 29 games. Do they want us to win them all next year?

"We dropped from sixth in the rankings to about 24 in one day. How does that happen?"

According to Lee Fowler, athletic director at North Carolina State and chairboob of the Committee to Disenfranchise Mid-Majors, it happened because 12 of the Zags' wins came against teams slotted lower than 200 in the dreaded Ratings Percentage Index, the computer formula where actual on-court achievement goes to die.

"They're a tough team for us to seed," Fowler said.

Oh, hey, sorry the Zags couldn't make it any easier on you, Lee.

"We looked at their strength of schedule a little bit. They were out around the area where a lot of teams they lost to were behind them."

Huh? A lot?

They lost three times -- and only once since Nov. 24. Yes, two of those losses, to Marquette (23rd in the RPI) and Pepperdine (49) were to teams behind the Zags (21st).

I guess when you don't have even one clue, two does sound like a lot.

You can argue Top 50 victories until your tonsils blister, but the Gonzaga experience alone -- the 12th seed last year and this latest nonsense -- has made it clear that what the NCAA selectors are practicing is bit of bracket genocide.

The RPI was concocted to save the NCAA tyrannosaurs from the jaws of low-rent relatives who can't hope to compete in football but who, because of the nature of basketball, can put together five guys and make life hell for them on the court. With no means to force big schools to play the smaller ones anywhere but on the bigs' home courts -- if at all -- the strength-of-schedule factor in the RPI is the biggest hoop joke of our time, next to "Season on the Brink."

Throw in the new policy to lessen travel for the top seeds and those early upsets that made last year's tourney such a hoot -- and cut the bigs out of a few million dollars -- will soon dry up, along with the fun.

"When we got done with our non-league schedule, we were eighth in the RPI," said Few, who booked Illinois, St. John's, Texas, Marquette, Fresno State and St. Joseph's this year. "I don't know what else I can do, unless you want to play every game away from home and I won't do that. I had to beg Illinois to play on their home floor this year. They wanted to cancel."

And you can't redo the schedule in season. All those teams Few lined up are traditional Top 40 programs. That Texas, Fresno State and New Mexico all lost their best players for various periods after playing GU, and that St. John's phoned it in should not be held against a coach who's trying.

Surely there must be a silver lining in all of this, no?

"Well, if anything, it probably helps as far as getting our guys to play with a chip on their shoulders," Few said. "They like doing that."

One chip -- boulder-sized -- coming up.


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