Whereas most years deserving mid-majors are spurned in favor of middling power-conference programs the day the NCAA tournament brackets are revealed, this year's selection committee opted to take the opposite approach.
Saint Mary's received one of the final four at-large bids, a reward for having beaten Creighton and lost to nobody besides Gonzaga since Christmas. Middle Tennessee also snuck into the field, a controversial selection since the Blue Raiders dominated the Sun Belt Conference but didn't accomplish much in non-league play. And, in a sign of respect for the Mountain West and Atlantic 10, Boise State and La Salle nabbed two of the last at-large bids as well despite finishing fifth in their respective leagues.
Fans of those schools surely let out sighs of relief when their teams appeared on the TV screen Sunday evening, but some bigger-name NCAA tournament hopefuls were not as fortunate. Here's a look at the best teams omitted from this year's field:
1. Tennessee (20-12, 11-7, RPI 59): The absence of Kentucky will get all the headlines, but Tennessee may be the best SEC team left out of the field. The Vols won eight of their final 10 games and had four quality wins against RPI Top 50 opponents, including a rout of the Wildcats in Knoxville last month. When assessing why Tennessee missed the field, there are two reasons that come to mind: The Vols lost seven league games in a mediocre SEC this season and all four of their marquee wins came at home. Add in a quarterfinal loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament on Friday, and that was enough to keep Tennessee out of the field of 68.
2. Kentucky (21-11, 12-6, RPI: 57): For the third time in six years, the defending national champion will not be part of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky joins 2008 Florida and 2010 North Carolina in ignominy as a result of a disappointing season that started with the Wildcats in the top five of most polls and will end with them deciding whether to accept an NIT invitation. Kentucky did boast quality wins over Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss, but that wasn't enough to make up for its flaws. The Wildcats beat nobody of consequence in non-league play and they lost too many games to middling competition. Three losses against non-NCAA tournament teams in their last four games typified that problem, the most egregious a 64-48 SEC tournament meltdown against Vanderbilt.
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3. Virginia (21-11, 11-7, RPI: 76): The most confounding profile of any bubble team wasn't good enough to get Virginia into the field of 68. On one hand, the Cavaliers beat Duke, Wisconsin, North Carolina, N.C. State and Tennessee, a list of marquee wins that rivals many top 25 teams. On the other hand, Virginia also suffered seven sub-100 RPI losses, falling against three CAA schools and four of the worst five teams in the ACC. What probably killed Virginia was the way it finished its season after upsetting Duke on Feb. 28. The Cavaliers dropped three of their final four games, including a 75-56 ACC quarterfinal loss to NC State.
4. Southern Mississippi (25-9, 12-4, RPI: 31): The highest rated RPI team left out of the field of 68 was a Southern Mississippi team that was hoping to return to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. The Golden Eagles amassed a gaudy record and piled up plenty of victories in Conference USA, but quite frankly their profile wasn't all that impressive after a closer look. Not only did they lose all three times they faced Memphis, including in double overtime in Saturday's conference tournament title game, the best teams they beat all season were Denver, UTEP and Central Florida. That makes it fairly easy to understand why the committee overlooked them.
5. Maryland (22-12, 8-10, RPI: 71): Two victories over Duke and a win against N.C. State vaulted Maryland into the bubble discussion despite a sub-.500 ACC record, but the Terps accomplished little else in their remaining 31 games. Their non-league schedule was extremely weak. They dropped games to ACC bottom feeders Boston College and Georgia Tech. And they were swept by Florida State and fellow bubble team Virginia. Unless the NCAA tournament features only Tobacco Road schools, Maryland has the look of a classic NIT team.
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