BLAIR KERKHOFF: How the NCAA Tournament field was done

By Blair Kerkhoff/Kansas City Star (MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You’ve got your vidalias, baby pearls, Hokies, Rams and many others.

Onions, that is. All to be peeled, and the least odorous reached this year’s NCAA Tournament bracket.

That was the message from Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director and NCAA selection committee chairman, whose group had the usual difficult task of untying a knot of teams to fill the bracket’s final at-large spots.

The task may have been a little trickier this year with the abundance of average-looking candidates.

The committee didn’t have much to work with at the bottom of the at-large pool. Fence sitters such as Virginia Tech, Rhode Island, Mississippi and Seton Hall all carried some resume flaw that prompted the committee to move into the kitchen and, as Guerrero put it, begin “peeling back the onion.”

Check out the Hokies, who fashioned a handsome 10-6 ACC record. But the peeling process revealed a schedule strength of No. 133 that stinks, and the committee would have sent the wrong message with their inclusion.

Rhode Island beat Oklahoma State and nobody else with a top-50 RPI.

Instead, it appears the committee handed two of its final bids to Texas-El Paso and Utah State, and for that it should be applauded.

The Miners and Aggies were upset losers in conferences that would have received only a single bid had they won their tournaments. Both losers have solid RPIs in the 30s, and although the only decent nonconference victory between them was Utah State’s over Wichita State, neither get many opportunities to play power-conference programs on a home-and-home basis.

You could almost see Guerrero pointing his onion-juiced finger at Tech. Mere residence in a power conference isn’t permission to neglect the nonleague portion of the schedule.

“You don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Guerrero said. “Just because a team plays in a (high-)quality conference … doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get in.”

As for the entire process, Guerrero said the heavy lifting was completed by Saturday night, which answers a few questions without Guerrero directly answering the questions. Or at least we can take a few stabs.

Had Mississippi State hung on to beat Kentucky in the SEC final on Sunday, the Bulldogs would have been the No. 10 seed in the West and Florida would have been NIT-bound.

Purdue hurt itself and Illinois. The Boilermakers’ lopsided loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinals dropped fourth-seeded Purdue from a potential second or third seed. It also got the Golden Gophers in and bumped Illinois out.

Kansas was the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed before the sun rose Sunday. The only two in the conversation were the Jayhawks and Kentucky, and Kansas’ resume was clearly superior.

We won’t know any of this with certainty, unless a committee member sings, and really, it doesn’t matter. The issues are the same every March with inevitable questions about seeding and bubble teams.

Robbie Hummel’s injury hurt Purdue. Notre Dame played into its No. 6 seed. The committee was assured that Syracuse’s injured Arinze Onuaku would be ready to go.

But there is something different about this year. No North Carolina, the defending champion. No Arizona, which had the longest run of consecutive tournament appearances. No Connecticut, a tournament regular.

“I believe it’s reflective of the culture of college basketball this year,” Guerrero said. “It gives someone else an opportunity to possibly make some magic. That’s why this tournament is so fantastic.”

The list of omitted schools also includes Guerrero’s, UCLA. You wonder if he had a pained look on his face when he said this. As if he were peeling an onion.