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Momentum is overrated in NCAA seedings

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By Chris Dufresne
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES -- Here's to the big-time basketball teams that geared up for runs to this year's NCAA championship by spitting up bits but not seeds.
Congratulations to Final Four favorites Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse for bowing out with final-weekend defeats for the greater good of bluegrass, rock-chalk, tobacco-road and lake-effect snow.
Thank goodness the NCAA selection committee, at least in the cases of Kentucky and Syracuse, had already made up its collective mind.
Kentucky coach John Calipari couldn't have been more pleased with his team's odorous Sunday performance against Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament finals.
Calipari happily handed Vanderbilt its first SEC title since 1951 and shed not one tear over his team losing its first game since Dec. 10.
Kentucky, despite failing to score a basket in the final eight minutes of the SEC finals, still earned the top overall NCAA seeding.
There has to be something wrong with this, right?
Not in college basketball, actually, where the regular season is also known as the long, pregnant pause.
Calipari thought too much winning was starting to push his team over swagger's edge to valley floor of arrogance.
Washington wasted its precious time winning the regular-season Pac-12 title and not making the NCAA tournament, while Western Kentucky lost all year in the Sun Belt but secured the league's automatic bid in the conference tournament.
Long Beach State went out and played, arguably, the toughest nonconference schedule in the history of college basketball, yet probably had to win the same Big West tournament UC Irvine (12-20) came two victories from winning.
You almost had to wonder what Michigan State was thinking as it closed out Ohio State on Sunday to win the Big Ten Conference tournament.
What NCAA team wants to go into the tournament with momentum?
Tom Izzo's Spartans must have got all gooey and sentimental reminiscing about 2000, the year they rode a Big Ten tournament win all the way to the NCAA championship.
OK, actually, Michigan State and Ohio State were probably playing for the last top seeding.
"We debated it all the way through the game," Jeff Hathaway, the chair of this year's NCAA selection committee, told CBS.
Sunday's bracket release was an annual reminder that the NCAA tournament is the most fabulous three-week love-fest in sports but should never be confused with a playoff.
The tournament should come with a disclaimer: "Much more fun than it is fair."
In a single-elimination format, the best teams don't always win the title, which makes UCLA's 38 straight tournament victories in John Wooden's heyday the most remarkable statistic in NCAA history.
The tournament is romantic and hair-raising and popular, but it does not come close to featuring the nation's top 68 schools.
St. Bonaventure's upset over Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Conference actually stole a bid from a more deserving school that didn't make the cut: Drexel, Miami or Mississippi State.
Western Kentucky is safely in with a record of 15-18 and RPI of 189 -- while Marshall is out at 20-13 and RPI of 43.
And that's OK, just as long as you accept the premise.
Kentucky's loss to Vanderbilt did not diminish, by one iota, the Wildcats' chances of winning their eighth national championship. Defeat, in fact, might put Kentucky in the proper pre-tournament mind-set.
This year's Fab Four in NCAA seeding distribution were Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State.
Any one (or all) of those schools could end up in the Final Four ... or not.
It's a strange year when UCLA and USC fail to make the tournament but the state of New Mexico qualifies two teams.
East Coast bias?
Long Beach State emerged as Southern California's lone representative, but its No. 12 seeding in the West doesn't seem to mesh with the season the 49ers offered for consideration. Seven of Long Beach's eight losses this year came to schools that made the NCAA field.
St. Mary's won the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament but earned only a No. 7 slot in the Midwest and a plane ticket to Columbus to play North Carolina State.
Gonzaga, also of the WCC, is No.7 in the East and must travel cross-country to play No. 10 West Virginia, a bus ride from sub-regional host Pittsburgh.
The Big East led all conferences with nine bids, while the Big Ten and Big 12 each garnered six bids.
The Pac-12 ended up with two crummy bread crumbs -- tournament champion Colorado and at-large pick California.
Cal, what's more, was sentenced to one of the four midweek "first four" games in Dayton, against South Florida, with the winner earning the No. 12 seeding.
Washington made history by not making the NCAA despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title.
Why Cal over Washington?
Cal had the superior RPI, 38 vs. 70.
NCAA spokesman Greg Shaheen also said Washington's early Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon State was a factor.
Sunday was a day to celebrate at Harvard, which claimed its first NCAA trip since 1946. The Crimson earned the East region's No. 12 seeding but has to face SEC champion Vanderbilt on Thursday in Albuquerque.
Then there's poor, poor Northwestern (18-13), which appeared on the cusp of its first NCAA tournament before a first-round Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota took the Wildcats off the board.
Northwestern didn't help its cause by going 1-10 against the RPI top 50 and lives at least another year as the team that hosted the first NCAA tournament but has yet to play in it.
And while the NCAA insists it never has fun with the brackets, it should be noted Kentucky and Duke, both in the South Regional, could meet in the Elite Eight in Atlanta 20 years after their 1992 overtime epic decided by Christian Laettner's shot at the regional final in Philadelphia.
And what if your alma mater didn't make this year's field?
First, check the NIT bracket. If you come up dry there, check back next year.
Story tags » College Basketball

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