Kermit Davis Jr., head coach at Ole Miss, knows a little about under-valued teams making runs in the NCAA Tournament. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Men’s college basketball moves to the Final Four this weekend. As has been the case all but one time in NCAA history, no Mississippi team is involved.

No surprise there, our teams just weren’t nearly good enough to get that far. In fact, none of our teams were involved in the NCAA Tournament, period. I’ll stop short of saying they just weren’t good enough for that because you could make a case that both Mississippi State and Ole Miss were both good enough to be in the 68-team tournament. That’s especially true when you look at the nine — count ‘em nine — Big Ten teams that did get in. In contrast, six SEC teams were selected and only one from Conference USA.

Rick Cleveland

My take: There long has been a Big Ten bias where NCAA Tournament selections are concerned that’s never been more evident than this year. Again, nine Big Ten teams were awarded bids and four of those were seeded No. 4 or higher, meaning that the selection committee judged four Big Ten teams to be among the best 16 teams in the country. To which I say:

Ha!

Look at the results. Eight of the nine were eliminated on the first weekend of the tournament. Only No. 1 seed Michigan made it to the round of 16 and UCLA, a No. 11 seed, knocked off the Wolverines in the Elite Eight. It wasn’t just that the Big 10 teams lost; it was how they lost. No. 11 seed Michigan State lost to 11-seed UCLA in a First Four game. No. 4 seed Purdue lost to No. 13 seed North Texas in a first-round game. No. 2 seed Ohio State lost to 15-seed Oral Roberts in a first round game. No. 2 seed Iowa was swamped by 15 points by 7-seed Oregon in the second round. No. 10 seed Maryland was crushed by 19 by 2-seed Alabama in the second round. No. 9 seed Wisconsin lost to 1-seed Baylor by 13. No. 1 seed Illinois lost by 13 to Loyola in the second round. In one of the Big 10’s better performances, No. 10 seed Rutgers lost to 2-seed Houston in the second round.

By anyone’s measure, it was a dismal performance by the league clearly judged best in the nation by the NCAA selection committee. Again, only one of nine Big Ten teams made it past the first weekend. In contrast, two (Alabama and Arkansas) of six SEC schools made it to the Sweet 16. And if you want to look at the league most under-valued, that would be the Pac 12. Four of five Pac 12 teams selected made it to the Sweet 16. The Pac 12 had a 13-5 record in NCAA Tournament games, by far the best of the power conferences. UCLA, which finished in fourth place in the Pac 12, is in the Final Four.

Of the Big Ten teams that made the 68-team field, both Maryland and Michigan State had losing conference records (both were 9-11). Meanwhile, Ole Miss (10-8 in the SEC) and Mississippi State (8-10) were both left out of the field. Was the Big Ten that much better than the SEC? Tournament results definitely say otherwise.

Again, the Pac 12 has an even bigger beef among the power conferences. So, probably, does the Big 12, which had a 9-6 record in the NCAA Tournament with seven teams selected. And, as always, many of the non-power conferences were sorely under-valued. Chief among those is probably the American Athletic Conference. AAC teams, thanks to Houston, achieved a 4-1 record in the NCAA Tournament, pretty swell for a league that had only two teams selected. And AAC member Memphis won the NIT, beating Mississippi State in the finals. Should Memphis have been in the NCAA Tournament? Clearly.

Conference USA was badly under-valued as well, which is nothing new. CUSA has become a one-bid league, which usually means somebody really good is left out. North Texas became the fourth CUSA team in the last five NCAA tournaments to win a first-round NCAA game. No other non-power conference league can say that. Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis knows all about that because his Middle Tennessee State teams were two of those CUSA teams that advanced. Davis’s MTSU teams beat No. 5 seed Minnesota in 2017 and No. 2 seed Michigan State in 2018. If they hadn’t won the CUSA Tournament, they would not have made the NCAA Tournament.

Both Louisiana Tech and Rick Stansbury’s Western Kentucky team were NCAA-worthy this year. Tech was 12-4 in the league. Western was 13-3. North Texas, which won the CUSA tourney and got the league’s only NCAA berth, finished 9-5 (tied for fifth) and then defeated Purdue in the first round.

We could go on and on about the bias against non-power conference teams. Oral Roberts, which finished fourth in the Summit League standings, knocked off Ohio State and Florida before losing by two to Arkansas in the Sweet 16. Oral Roberts finished behind South Dakota State, South Dakota, and North Dakota State in the Summit regular season and would not have made the NCAA field if not for a two-point win over South Dakota State and a there-point win over North Dakota State in the Summit League tourney. Bottom line: There are many terrific, non-televised college basketball teams we never hear about until they pull a huge upset in the NCAA Tournament. And there are many, many terrific teams we never hear about, period, because they don’t make the tournament.

The best NCAA team of all? My vote goes to Gonzaga of the all-powerful West Coast Conference. You can color me shocked if Gonzaga doesn’t win it all.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.