Tournament bubble popped

A 4 p.m. tip on ESPN would usually incite excitement by most fans of a mid-major college basketball team.

It provides East Coast primetime coverage that isn’t always afforded to a west coast program not in the Pac-12. But is it that exciting when it’s a postseason game in the second-tier Division I tournament? I’m not as stoked, but should I?

My alma mater Saint Mary’s College of California, beat Georgia on Sunday at home to earn a trip today to the wonderful city of Valparaiso, Indiana for a National Invitational Tournament quarterfinal game with Valparaiso University.

While it’s cool that the Gaels made it thus far – by beating Georgia they now have a school record 28 wins – and they’re playing a formidable opponent in the Crusaders. Still it’s a matchup that makes me wonder what could’ve been.

Both teams were on a crash-course toward the NCAA Tournament until both stumbled in their conference tournament. Saint Mary’s, on one hand lost to usual WCC power Gonzaga in the conference championship game after beating the Bulldogs twice in the regular season and claiming a co-conference title. Now the Zags – an 11-seed in the Midwest bracket – are in the sweet 16 and have a very good chance at winning another game with its matchup against 10th-seeded Syracuse (we’ll get back to them in a second). Gonzaga wouldn’t have gone to the postseason had they not beat Saint Mary’s in that game for the automatic berth. As for Valparaiso, the Crusaders would’ve been in the tournament had they not lost in the Horizon semifinals to Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The tough part about the NCAA Tournament is that a committee comes together to select 36 at-large teams, but how many of these at-large teams do they really know? I doubt they have an opportunity to watch every team in consideration in depth. Of course, win your conference tournament, and that takes care of everything.

Saint Mary’s ranked 38th in RPI, which takes into account win-loss record and strength of schedule, and it also ranked high up there in most proficient offenses and shooting percentage in the nation. With those type of numbers I think they would’ve held up well in the NCAA Tournament, the right matchup would net a nice little run to the Sweet 16 or even further.

There’s only 36 at-large spots after the 32 automatic spots earned from winning a conference tournament – with the exception of the Ivy League – so it’s not an exact science. Obviously if you finish in the top three from one of the major six conferences, you deserve to get into the tournament. For one thing, the tournament’s about making money, and the fans for those teams will travel and fill arenas. After that, look at mid-majors and which programs built a great profile through the season.

In that same regard, teams that finished with good overall records, but finished with a .500 or below record in power 6 conferences shouldn’t be invited to the tournament. Case in point, Syracuse and Pittsburgh in the ACC and Michigan in the Big Ten. The three squads finished eighth (Michigan) tied for ninth (Pittsburgh and Syracuse) in their respective and qualified to the Big Dance despite not even making their conference championships. Do we need seven or eight teams in the tournament? Probably not. Then again, the ‘Cuse have done alright for themselves advancing to the Sweet 16 and playing Gonzaga later this week. Of course, Syracuse received some lucky bracket placement – which I think you need in this tournament – when their likely second round opponent Michigan State was upset by a 15th seed.

The question always becomes, how would those teams do in a mid-major conference and vise versa? Unfortunately, we don’t know. We do know though that SMC’s RPI ranking of 38th was much higher than all three. Pittsburgh came in at the next highest at 53rd, Michigan next at 57th and Syracuse 72nd.

If we were to base the selection off that ranking system, SMC should get in hands down, but obviously what conference you play in factors here. For one, the ACC has proven pretty good so far in this tournament with six of the final 16 teams are from that conference. Plus, I don’t think the Gaels’ fans would travel as far as those other three teams.

Getting back to Saint Mary’s, it only has itself to blame. The Gaels lost twice to Pepperdine, which finished fourth in the WCC standings, but was just an average team. Losing to the Waves once at home is acceptable, but then dropping one to them in Moraga is no bueno. Had SMC won at least the home matchup, the Gaels are in. Their other losses, a three-point loss at eventual NCAA tourney bound Cal, and at NIT quarterfinalist BYU are understandable losses.

The committee seemed swayed by strength of schedule and how you handled. Not only this season, but for the past five seasons, I’ve felt Saint Mary’s has scheduled too many patsies in its non-conference schedule. Sure, the Gaels faced Cal and Stanford from the Pac-12, eventual dancing Cal-State Bakersfield, UC Irvine and 27-win Grand Canyon – which was ineligible for postseason. Outside of its game in Berkeley, the Gaels never left home during its non-conference season. This particular schedule may have been put together, because the Gaels may not have expected to compete. Their entire starting lineup graduated and there were several question marks.

I don’t know if it’s that teams don’t want anything to do with Saint Mary’s, being a good mid-major but not on the same level as Gonzaga or VCU – or the Gaels just don’t want to go on the road into tough environments, but it’s time for that to change. If the committee says the Gaels play too easy of a schedule, it’s time to take a Gonzaga mentality and take on any team, at any place and at any time.

With that said, it would be cool if my alma mater won the 2016 NIT Tournament. It’s just nothing to be jumping for joy or anything.

If anything, the postseason tournament will provide a good experience for a team that doesn’t have a senior on the roster. Next year, expect Saint Mary’s to be dancing on Selection Sunday and even winning a game or two, or more.