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March Madness brackets: Surprises, controversy and strength of schedule

Sunday night's announcement of the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament field established the selection committee's preference for power conference schools with the greatest strength of schedule. 

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Colorado State walks down the court after a timeout during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State in the semifinal round of the Mountain West Conference tournament Friday, March 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. San Diego State defeated Colorado State 56-43.

Isaac Brekken/AP

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During Sunday night’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection show televised on CBS, it became apparent early on that the power conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, and Pacific 12) were going to be getting the nod over smaller programs.

Two decisions by the committee stuck out immediately, with the inclusion of Texas and UCLA. Texas got schooled by Iowa State (this year’s Big 12 tournament champion) in the second half of their conference quarterfinal game last week, and during the season the Longhorns were 3-12 against the top 50 ranked teams in the country. However, they were ranked 16th in overall strength of schedule (SOS) during the season, one of the highest in the nation.

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As for UCLA, they finished a lackluster 5-10 against the 100 teams with the best Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in Division 1. But the Bruins' SOS was in the top 30 in the country.

This trend did not go unnoticed by college basketball analysts. Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports, himself a former standout guard at Oklahoma State University, commented, “I’m frankly disappointed that the committee gave such a benefit of the doubt to power conference teams that have harder schedules built in.”

For his part, Utah State Athletic Director and NCAA men's basketball selection committee chairman Scott Barnes called the UCLA pick “one of the tougher decisions we had to make.”

The “Snubs”

Two omissions from the 2015 tournament bracket immediately gained analysts’ and partisans’ attention: The Colorado State Rams out of the Mountain West, and the Murray State Racers of the Ohio Valley Conference.

As to his team, Rams’ head coach Larry Eustachy commented, “They’re devastated, and they should be, because they’re certainly an NCAA tournament team.” Colorado State went undefeated in non-conference play and had a 13-5 record in conference; but with an SOS of 111, the committee was not suitably impressed.

The Murray State Racers, on the other hand, won two dozen games in a row. Dick Vitale, ESPN’s veteran analyst, was passionate in his advocacy of the Racers: “The kids won 25 games in a row, and they didn’t lose a game for over three months!” But big strikes against them apparently included an SOS of 233, the fact that they lost to a lackluster University of Houston squad, and were blown out by both Valparaiso and Xavier (losing by 35 to the latter).

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The Temple Owls, arguably the strongest of the bubble teams not to be included, were effectively ousted when Wyoming upset San Diego State to win the Mountain West tournament on Saturday. Had the Aztecs won, Wyoming would not have been included, freeing up the slot for Temple, coming out of the recently constituted American Athletic Conference. Temple’s SOS was a respectable 54, but apparently wasn’t lofty enough to compete with the likes of the Indiana Hoosiers (SOS of 23) and the UCLA Bruins (SOS 26). In these cases, SOS was the power conferences' "life preserver." 

This issue of strength of schedule is a thorny one with the so-called “mid-major” teams. Often times, their athletic departments try to schedule games with the “power 5” conferences, only to be refused.

Take the case of Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference, seeded seventh in the Midwest bracket, who have a potential second round game against second-seeded Kansas. Quoting the Associated Press’ Dave Skretta, “[Wichita State coach Gregg] Marshall has been trying for years to schedule a game against Kansas, the basketball powerhouse just a couple hours’ drive from the Shockers’ campus. The Jayhawks have balked, insisting they have nothing to gain from a series against the Missouri Valley school.”

And according to Andy Hutchins of SB Nation, “… institutional advantages help blue-bloods rule RPI year-in and year-out. Kentucky and Kansas (and teams like them) are able to entice (or pay) good teams to come to Rupp and The Phog, and can afford to schedule neutral-site games worth more in RPI than home ones, without worrying about trying to fill an athletic department’s till.”  Interestingly, this year, the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats are a 1-seed at the top half of the Midwest bracket and Kansas is seeded second atop the lower half – with a possible meeting at the regional final in Indianapolis in the offing.

So until mid-major teams, and especially “power” mid-majors can schedule games with the power conferences more easily – appealing to the committee’s apparent preference for squads with “top 30” SOS credentials – they will continue to endure “snubs” like those just suffered on Selection Sunday. “March Madness” indeed.