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Smaller conferences prove they can play with big boys

by Dave Wiggins

“Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola . . .

She sits there so refined and drinks herself half-blind”

— Lyrics from “Copacabana”

Hearing Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s pre-NCAA tourney whine and then seeing his Blue Devils, a third seed, ousted by unheralded No. 14 seed Mercer in the very first round, MAS couldn’t help but think of the old Barry Manilow hit.

It struck MAS that Coach K — much like the song’s showgirl femme fatale — just can’t deal with the painful present and deludes himself by conjuring up images of past glories.

And he’s joined in that department by a lot of other coaches at big-name schools.

Before March Madness began, Krzyzewski questioned the inclusion of so many Atlantic 10 Conference teams (4) at the expense of several schools from his own Atlantic Coast Conference, which landed “only” six tourney sports.

After all, the A-10 had formerly been a conference that most often saw its tournament champ as its lone representative in the 68-squad field.

Only occasionally would they have a second rep shoehorned in at the bottom of the seedings.

Meanwhile, the ACC would see almost every one of its members that logged a .500 or better conference record included in the field — as many as seven or eight.

But not this year.

Things are different in 2014 college hoops — just as they are on the American nightlife scene.

Slowly but surely, the NCAA tourney selection committee is finally realizing that the so-called “power conferences” no longer are the only places where excellent basketball is played and their picks now reflect this enlightenment.

That’s why they decided to select “bubble team” Dayton as the fourth Atlantic 10 entry instead of adding a seventh ACC squad.

And, lo and behold, Dayton proceeded to oust Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse Syracuse — a No. 3 tourney seed and No. 1 in the country for much of the regular season — in the second round.

Oh, the irony.

This came after the Flyers had also shown the door to The Big Ten’s Ohio State — another NCAA high-seed staple — in the opening round.

Of the six ACC reps, only Virginia made it out of of the first week alive to join upstart Dayton in the Sweet 16.

It marked the first time in 30 years that Dayton had reached the second week of play.

The Flyers then advanced to the Elite Eight.

Virginia, ACC regular season AND tournament champ, did NOT.

One can only wonder how many other Daytons were out there that could have created more March Madness but were denied access because of big conference bias.

Oh well, better late than never says MAS

Hopefully, the number of relative unknowns in the tourney will increase even more in the future, greatly enhancing the mathematical chances of one of them walking off with the national crown.

Truth be told, the big-name conferences are no longer deserving of six and seven tourney spots. Just four, MAYBE five.

Let’s take one or two spots from them all and give those slots instead to outstanding “mid-major” teams that win regular-season titles over the course of two months but fail to win their end-of-season tourneys and are thus denied big bash entrance.

Were this the case last year, Mercer would also have been deserving of a 2013 NCAA spot.

The Bears, from Macon, Georgia, won the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season crown in ’13, but lost its tourney title tilt to Florida Gulf Coast, which then proceeded to play NCAA Cinderella with their high-flying “Dunk City” attack.

Only recently have a few of the poorly labeled mid-majors like Gonzaga, Butler and Wichita State been able to crack the ranks of perennial at-large teams — thanks to a slew of impressive tourney wins.

But while selection domos are finally seeing there are more outstanding ball clubs where those Johnny-come-lately’s came from, there is still room for improvement in seeding these underrated outfits.

In the first round this year, there were a whopping SEVEN double-digit seeds that knocked off single digit seeds.

Placements were so obviously out-of-whack that many pundits actually predicted low seeds dumping high seeds.

Example: everyone called No. 12 seed Harvard’s “upset” of No. 5 Cincinnati, a household name since the days of Oscar “The Big O” Robertson.

Also, many guessperts correctly predicted North Dakota State, a 12th seed and just recently promoted to Division One, would knock off big-time Oklahoma (a No. 5).

In fact, Duke’s loss to Mercer wasn’t really a huge shock. Just two years ago, Duke, then-seeded No. 2, was booted by No. 15 Lehigh in the opening round.

Now, don’t get MAS wrong; he has tremendous respect for Coach K and the Duke brand.

And this holds true for name teams in other glam conferences as well.

It’s just that the other lesser-known conferences are getting deeper in terms of number of top-level squads.

MAS thinks it’s a sign of the times when an espn.com tournament headline blares: “Kentucky UPSETS Wichita State”.

Yet, Coach K, for all his coaching greatness, still stubbornly resists facing facts.

Three times in the last eight years, blue blood Duke has been eliminated in the very first round of the NCAA tourney by a low seed.

Yet there Mike Krzyzewski sits — much like Lola — faded feathers in his hair, err, cap; Armani suit cut down to there; drunk on the past.

MORE than half-blind to the reality of today’s Big Dance.

Contact Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com