As the final seconds Saturday's Mid-American Conference championship wound down, Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins raised his arms, looked toward the Gund Arena rafters and exhaled.
Hawkins' gesture wasn't in celebration of a brilliant 26-4 season, but rather a display of relief. In locking up an automatic NCAA tournament bid with a hard-fought 77-66 victory over Kent State, Hawkins and the Broncos spared themselves a sullen Sunday of wondering, waiting and wishing.
Had Western lost, even at 25-5 it'd be precariously on the edge of an NCAA tournament invitation – maybe in, maybe out. Four months of hard work subject to the whims of a 10-member selection committee, which just might favor a middle-of-the-pack major conference team over a mid-major that had just put together one of the greatest seasons in school history.
"I can't tell you how big of a relief (it was)," Hawkins said. "There are two bubbles out there. There is the mid-major bubble where people can hardly wait to knock you off. And there is the high-major bubble for teams that are mediocre and everyone says if they can just win two games in a row they can play their way onto the bubble."
The NCAA selection battle between second-tier major conference teams and stellar mid-majors isn't a new one, but this season it seems even more pronounced.
It played out across the country on Saturday – from the WAC in Reno, Nev. to the Mountain West in Denver to the industrial heartland, where the MAC annually produces a powerful champion (seven of its last nine NCAA entrants have won at least one tournament game) but rarely gets multiple bids to the tourney.
Consider Kent State, which just two years ago was in the Elite Eight but, despite a 22-8 record, has no hope of an at-large bid this season.
That is the reality of life at this level. The result is extreme pressure to avoid the slightest bobble.
"Every game becomes an NCAA tournament game," Hawkins said. "When you lose it's the end of the world. It's a rollercoaster. It's tiring."
It shouldn't be. Every trend in college basketball speaks to a narrowing of the gap between power conference teams and mid-majors, only the NCAA selection system hasn't recognized it.
Early defections to the NBA and high-schoolers skipping college altogether have stripped elite teams of talent and experience, but hardly affected the mid-majors who never got those guys anyway. Meanwhile, scholarship limitations have prevented the stockpiling of talent by high majors and pushed better players down the food chain.
While perception says teams from major football-playing conferences should be better, that is no longer the reality. Having an 80,000-seat stadium on campus doesn't help the basketball team. Just ask the Big Ten, which will get a paltry three bids Sunday.
The challenge for the committee is comparing teams with little in common. Is a Florida State team that defeated UNC, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Maryland, but went just 6-11 in league games better than a 25-3 Utah State team that has just one victory over a top-50 opponent but put together a brilliant season?
Adding to the controversy is the NCAA's terribly flawed and dated statistical formula, the Ratings Percentage Index, which is supposed to help sort this problem out.
The RPI is derived as such: 25 percent your record, 50 percent your opponent's record and 25 percent your opponent's opponents' record. That's it. No margin of victory, no extra points for winning on the road.
It is three times more important who you play than whether you actually win the game. It also significantly punishes games against bad teams, which all mid-major conferences have.
As ridiculous as it sounds, you are exponentially better off losing by 50 at home to Duke than beating, say, Arkansas-Pine Bluff by 50 on the road.
Which is why high-major conferences have an advantage in the RPI. They get to play teams like Duke and can avoid the Pine Bluffs.
Which is why a guy like Hawkins couldn't relax until the automatic bid was in hand. And why coaches throughout the country stayed up to 2 a.m. Sunday morning to cheer Pacific to victory over Cal State Northridge in the Big West final, keeping Pacific (24-7) from becoming competition for an at-large bid.
No matter which side of the debate you are on – flawed teams from fine conferences or fine teams from flawed conferences – this is a nerve-wracking day, the most maddening of March.
At 6 p.m. ET we find out whether the committee will again favor the big boys (listed below as BCS conferences) or make a statement about the shifting tides of reality and give the nod to the non-BCS league teams.
Below is a look at borderline candidates from both sides.
BCS LEAGUES (RPI as of Saturday)
Florida State (18-13, RPI: 52) – The Seminoles own four victories over top 25 teams, but they all were in Tallahassee. They went just 6-11 in ACC games, 0-9 away from campus and finished on a five-game losing streak, which is no way to impress.
Seton Hall (20-9, RPI: 28) – Great RPI number, solid season, good league. The Pirates look fine.
Missouri (16-13, RPI: 47) – If the Tigers really wanted to play in the tournament they probably should have done better than to lose by 25 to Kansas in the Big 12 tourney. Hello NIT.
Colorado (18-10, RPI: 54) – The Buffs won 10 conference games but suffered nine loses to top 100 teams. Could be the bellwether for reading the committee's thinking.
Louisiana State (18-10, RPI: 38) – A couple weeks ago the Tigers were rolling. But star Jaime Lloreda is done for the season and LSU has lost five of six, including a listless 21-point drubbing in the SEC quarterfinals. It's difficult to make the case this is one of the best teams in the country right now.
Georgia (16-13, RPI: 48) – The Bulldogs are what Hawkins was talking about: dreadful some nights, terrific on others (two wins over Kentucky). This will depend on the committee's mood.
NON BCS LEAGUES
Richmond (20-12, RPI: 46) – Wins over Kansas and Colorado but eight losses against top 50 teams. Can the Atlantic 10 get four bids?
Utah State (25-3, RPI: 44) – Yes, the Aggies have just one top 50 victory (BYU). But they are ranked, and went 24-3 for crying out loud. What does it take – perfection?
Air Force (22-6, RPI: 70) – The Falcons won the Mountain West regular-season title by two full games, but stumbled in the tourney. Now it may watch BYU and its superior RPI (30) get an at-large bid instead of them. Patriotism may play a part – you keep Air Force out during wartime? Would certainly be the favorite in the Middle East Regional.
Brigham Young (21-8, RPI: 30) – Nice computer number, 9-1 in last 10 games and the Cougars own a victory over Oklahoma State. But they would have to either leapfrog MWC regular-season champ Air Force or become the league's third bid.
UTEP (24-7, RPI: 45) – Co-champs of the WAC lost Saturday in the league title game. Stunning turnaround in Billy Gillespie's second season, the Miners won just six games last year. Terrific team that is very capable of advancing, but can they get in?