Success in the NCAA tournament is always a matter of perspective. For some schools, regardless of what is said otherwise, mere participation is the goal, and their programs are happy just to be included when the names of the chosen not-so-few are listed on Selection Sunday.
For a very select group of other schools, particularly those who willingly place themselves on the one-and-done treadmill of trading an uncertain tomorrow for a fixed game today, reaching the Final Four will be the difference between success and failure. Duke, with its three freshmen about to be taken in the first round of the NBA draft, is the best example this year.
For the rest, however, the point of the tournament has been reached when it has already been a success for the survivors. Getting to the Sweet 16 in the second week is the real dividing line for most tournament schools between a good year and a disappointing one.
The field has arrived at this juncture without six of its top 10 teams, as rated by the selection committee, including a pair of No. 1 seeds. So, the schools that made it know just how fortunate they are.
SITES — East: Boston, South: Atlanta, Midwest: Omaha, West: Los Angeles
Villanova is in that group, of course. The Wildcats have experienced enough first-weekend disappointment that even its national championship from two seasons ago doesn't alleviate the nervousness. Villanova coasted into the regional round this time, beating its first two opponents by a combined 49 points. (Duke is the only other survivor that had two wins by a margin of 20 points or more.) Returning to Boston, the site of the 2009 East Regional that advanced Jay Wright and the Wildcats to his first Final Four, Villanova wants to keep playing, naturally, but the overall tenor of the season has been assured. Every team in the Sweet 16 knows it will finish its NCAA tournament with a winning record. That's a pretty good measure of success.
When you consider the somewhat random nature of the tournament, the selection committee didn't do a bad job by having 10 of its top 20 seeds advance to the Sweet Sixteen. On the other hand, from the bracket-half-empty point of view, 10 of its top 20 seeds were roadkill in the opening weekend, including three of its top five.
Nine of the 10 disappointments came from the six so-called power conferences, with the exception being Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference. Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed, was towed to shore by the Chesapeake Bay Retrievers of UMBC, and that was the most historic dismissal last weekend, but Xavier and North Carolina suffering losses in the second round was also embarrassing. It was a reminder that sometimes rankings, conference RPI, reputations, and so-called power can create self-fulfilling prophecies.
For instance, Rhode Island was a really good team this season, the best in the Atlantic 10 despite a one-point loss in the conference championship game to Davidson. The committee looked at the Rams and their 25-7 record and all the analytics and made Rhode Island a seven-seed, two lines below Ohio State, 24-8, a team that was thin on the bench and poor defensively. Still, it was Ohio State and the Big Ten, so the Buckeyes were a five-seed.
Rhode Island won its opener against Oklahoma, but then its reward was a second-round game against Duke. Thanks for coming. Ohio State started with a win over South Dakota State before being beaten by Gonzaga because the Buckeyes defense allowed the Zags to score 90 points on 53 percent shooting.
Maybe neither team would have made the Sweet 16 regardless of seeding, but where the committee placed Rhode Island sealed its fate. That's an example of why "power" conferences remain powerful, and mid-major conferences keep their hyphen, and heaven help the one-bid leagues that aren't even allowed to earn respect. Loyola Chicago is no joke. Everyone knows that by now, but the team that went 28-5 and won its conference was seeded 46th in the field, not surprisingly behind 12 other conference champions, but also behind 33 at-large schools.
What the selection committee should do in the future is stop degrading conference champions, even when they happen to emerge from a conference that doesn't matter to to the committee. If nothing else, put them in the main field to start.
The recent trend has been to split the four play-in games at Dayton between a pair of 16-seed games and two games from the bottom of the at-large pool. This season, the at-large games were No. 11 seeds. That means, in this year's tournament, there were effectively six 16-seeds and six 11-seeds, and also meant that two of the lower-ranked teams never got to experience the feeling of being in the big bracket and having the chance to test themselves against a top seed.
N.C. Central won the Mid-Eastern Conference and LIU-Brooklyn won the Northeast Conference. They each cut down the nets and everything, but neither got to see anything of the tournament except southern Ohio. The teams that beat them, Texas Southern of the Southwestern Conference and Radford of the Big South Conference, got to play Xavier and Villanova, respectively. Who do you think went home with a better story to tell?
It is misplaced elitism to keep giving a fistful of bids in the main bracket to the Big 12, SEC, Big East, ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, while conference champions are sent to the auxiliary seating area. This would be a small change to a great event, but if I ran the selection committee, the play-in games would be contested among the eight lowest at-large teams, instead of the four lowest. If your conference is an NCAA member and you win the damn thing, then you get a date with Cinderella, not a stepsister substitute.