You want outrage over seeding? Don't complain if you are Duke, or Notre Dame, or Kentucky. If you want to really complain, you need to go to MAAC champion, Niagara.
The opening round game which will be played on Tuesday is entering its seventh year of existence, ever since the old WAC conference split into the WAC and Mountain West and the committee moved to preserve the 34 at-large bids.
This year's game features Florida A&M, who upset the regular season winner in the MEAC conference, and the Purple Eagles of Niagara. Niagara's coach, Joe Mihalich, was not very happy with this decision, especially since the opening round game, or play-in game, is supposed to match the two worst teams in the tournament, usually rated by the RPI of the teams. Niagara's RPI was better than five other teams in the field, making their selection for the game an anomaly.
But apparently this was done on purpose.
On Monday, selection committee chairman Gary Walters basically admitted that the move was done to avoid claims of racism.
"First of all, I think we are, as you know, sensitive to the historically black colleges."
Racism? For real? This is the first I had ever heard of it. But apparently there have been claims that the play-in is a handicap for schools from historically black colleges and universities, most of whom play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mideastern Athletic Conference. (And apparently these claims have been wide enough that the Wikipedia entry on the play-in game doesn't require a citation for the statement.)
That was specifically the language addressed in Walters's statement to the press. The committee was "sensitive to the historically black colleges." This is basically admitting that Niagara was placed in the game, rather than the 2nd lowest RPI team, the SWAC's Jackson State, so that there was no appearance of a racial bias. The committee did do Niagara a favor though. Rather than the winner of the play-in game having to face the overall #1 seed Florida in their next game, as should be the case since Florida is slated to play in a Friday site, the winner will get the #4 overall top seed, Kansas. So much for little victories.
But is the claim of racism really the case? The regular season winners of the SWAC and MEAC are usually among the worst teams in the field of 65. There should be no reason to expect a better seeding by the committee solely because of the history of their universities. More interesting though is that teams from these two conferences have never met in the play-in game, and I have never heard an "apology" from the committee chair in the past.
In 2000-1, the first season of the play-in game, the two teams playing were Northwestern State and Winthrop. Northwestern State was 18-12 overall and won the Southland's bid in a major upset. Winthrop was one of the worst 4 teams in the field and really could not complain. The MEAC champion that year was actually a very good Hampton squad, who pulled one of the only four 2-15 upsets ever beating Iowa State in the first round. The SWAC champion Alabama State did get a #16 seed, although there was no danger of both teams receiving that fate.
In 2001-2, the game saw Siena of the MAAC and Alcorn State of the SWAC play. Siena was an upset winner of their conference and was among the bottom two teams overall. Curious was the omission of Montana from that game who finished the season 14-14 against D-1 teams after winning their conference tournament. The MEAC champion that season was again Hampton, who again received a #15 seed, but couldn't duplicate their miracle against Connecticut.
In 2002-3, the committee was saved this hard decision when 13-16 UNC-Asheville won the Big South tournament. Both the MEAC and SWAC champions were among the bottom 4 teams into the tournament.
In 2003-4, we may have seen the committee make a subtle move, placing Lehigh into the play-in game. Lehigh was among the four worst teams in the field that year, but the MEAC champ (14-16 Florida A&M) and SWAC champion (Alabama State) were the two worst. However, since Lehigh was an upset winner in the Patriot league, very weak that season, they didn't have much room to argue.
In 2004-5, the committee was again saved as the 11-18 Oakland won the MCC conference title. They played SWAC champion Alabama A&M, at 16-13, the second worst team in the field. MEAC champion Delaware State was among the bottom four teams.
And last, in 2005-6, Monmouth and Hampton, two teams which were barely above .500, played in the game. The SWAC champ, Southern was an obvious 3rd worst choice, but Monmouth's record kept them in the game.
So would there have been any reason to believe that racism in some way has played a part in these 6 previous games? In almost every game, there has been a major upset winner from another conference keeping the pairing from being the MEAC and SWAC. So, this year, when clearly the worst two teams were from those conferences, could anyone really have complained?
That truly makes it exceptional that Gary Walters felt the need to call attention to the fact that the committee was sensitive to the historically black colleges. He then continued the argument by saying that the committee looked at the schools in the bottom part of the bracket that didn't win both their regular season league title and the conference tournament to fill the pairing for the game. Niagara finished second in the regular season despite winning the conference tournament. Funny thing is so did both Jackson State and Florida A&M.
I guess the real question should be for Walters and the committee. Clearly, Niagara deserved a better fate, most likely as a #15 seed in the bracket. Shouldn't we be sensitive to those kids, who won a tougher league, even though they finished the season 2nd going into the conference tournament? Shouldn't they get the benefit of the doubt over two teams in the same situation and be allowed to play in a true first round game as opposed to a game on Tuesday that almost no one will watch?
I think the answer this year is clearly yes, and that there is enough evidence to show that racism would have played no part in the decision to match what were the two worst teams, Florida A&M and Jackson State.
tid bit on this decision near the bottom.