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Ncaa Picks Invariably Leave Room To Argue

Tue., March 14, 1995

Look, a basketball tournament that makes celebrities out of John Rillie and the Gonzagas of the world can’t be all bad.

Nitpicking NCAA selections is, at best, a cliche. At worst, it’s like complaining about the traffic you encountered en route to collecting your lottery winnings.

We’re talking about the best and most accessible show in big-time sports. Could it be better? Sure. But they’re never going to put you or me in charge of the guest list, no matter how close we inch our barstools to the big screen.

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for regrets. And while everyone feels good for Gonzaga, take a moment to feel bad for somebody else.


Not this team, but last year’s - the one that sought solace and atonement in the NIT with virtually the same record West Coast Conference rival Santa Clara carries into this week’s NCAA.

And Washington State.

Not last year’s Cougars, but this year’s - the team that has five wins over Top 25 clubs. Did anyone else with as many not make the bracket of 64?

“You know it, but you have to be reminded every year,” said Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald. “It’s not the 64 best teams that get into the tournament.”

Obviously. There is a computer NCAA selectors rely on heavily - the one that spits out the Ratings Percentage Index - that says the Zags are only the 89th best in Division I basketball. Luckily for the Bulldogs, their other RPI Rillie Performing Incredibly - shot them to No. 1 in their league for three days last week.

This was at the same time Santa Clara was slipping off the scale in reverse and why the Broncos’ selection - and their 12th seed - was such a shock, to coach Dick Davey as much as anyone.

Not that anyone out West is complaining about someone from the neighborhood getting in, but the Broncos lost their last regular-season game to seventh-place Pepperdine and their WCC tourney opener to last-place Loyola Marymount.

“If they lost in the (WCC) final, I thought they were going to go,” Fitzgerald said. “Lose in the semis and they’re a serious bubble team. Lose in in the first round, well, I know Dick was surprised and I was elated for them.”

The elation is genuine, but so is the reality that Santa Clara’s invitation means another $3 million to this league. First- round games are worth roughly $600,000 - not just for one year but spread out over six, according to Fitzgerald. The WCC now has two shares of CBS’ largess for that duration.

“It takes a while to spend the networks’ $1.7 billion,” he joked.

Still, Fitzgerald isn’t blind to the fact that while the Broncos won 21 games and the WCC round-robin by two games, his 1994 Bulldogs won 21 and took the roundrobin by four games.

“Yes, there are injustices,” he said, “but the worst injustice was the NIT having us print tickets (in 1981) and then not taking us.”

OK, maybe you don’t compare 1994 apples to 1995 oranges. So let’s mix the Cougars into the salad.

The Cougars wound up 76th - to Santa Clara’s 46th - in the final RPI. The difference wasn’t the Broncos’ five additional victories, but mostly the typically Kelvinesque schedule coach Kevin Eastman inherited from his predecessor.

Santa Clara was a good deal bolder. The Broncos lost at Kansas - narrowly - and just off campus to BYU, both NCAA selections. They also lost to Oregon State, but upset Oregon.

Of course, the Cougs swept both Oregons, and beat UTEP on its home floor.

“The power rating is funny,” said Fitzgerald. “We were the second team in our league in the RPI ahead of the three teams we beat in the tournament - because of a strong preseason record. But it’s hard to change your power rating once you’re in your league schedule. Our rating could have gone down in winning the league tournament because we didn’t play a team above us.”

Strength of schedule. It’s why the Pac-10 is toying with lopping non-Division I opponents off next year’s schedules.

But it’s all about history, too. There’s a reason the Big Ten - seventh in the RPI among Division I leagues - gets six NCAA bids, to a precedentsetting five for the No. 3 Pac-10.

“I trust them (the selectors) more now because I’m better informed,” said Fitzgerald. “They came to our (coaches’) meetings last year and put on a mock selection and it really opened some eyes.

“They’re only picking about eight teams, really. You have the 30 automatics and there’s 20 or 25 more any yahoo with a pencil can see should be in. That gives you eight or nine to pick and those decisions can look impossible.”

And leave a lot of room for regrets.

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

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