Drexel Got Screwed by the NCAA

The Dragons belong in the tournament. Plus: Which teams you should be cheering for this year.

If this were the Phoenix Post, there is no way you would be ingesting my outrage over Drexel’s exclusion from this year’s 2012 NCAA tournament. To the rest of the country, the Dragons are an afterthought–if they even get that much attention. But in Philadelphia, Drexel’s great ’11-’12 season attracted big attention, and the Selection Committee’s decision to snub it–Iona? Iona?!!–is offensive.

Forget the numbers. Everybody knows the Dragons played a suspect non-conference schedule. Drexel is the regular-season champion of the Colonial Athletic Association, which has produced Final Four teams twice in the past six years. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s one more than the Big 12 has produced, and just one fewer than the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 have each managed. In contrast, Iona hails from the mighty Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which boasts a total of six NCAA tournament victories in its history. Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason alone won eight during their Final Four runs.

But this isn’t about Iona. It’s about the fact that the NCAA Selection Committee doesn’t care about four months of hard work and achievement. Instead, it focuses on four days in March, when smaller leagues sell their souls to gain two hours of TV time on ESPN. It places a disproportionate amount of importance on a tournament often staged in the hometown of one of the conference teams. (In the case of the CAA, this year’s site was Richmond, home of eventual champ VCU.) Because Drexel dropped a decision to Virginia Commonwealth in front of 11,500 fans, all but about 500 of whom were screaming themselves sick for the Rams, its 19 straight wins and first-place finish spelled N-I-T.

In a way, Drexel and the CAA are as responsible for the snub as the Selection Committee. If they embraced the Ivy path, and sent their regular-season champ to the NCAA tournament, the Dragons would be rewarded properly for proving they were the best of the conference bunch. But because they insisted on worshipping at the altar of the four-letter network and allowing themselves to be folded into the “Championship Week” brand, they ended up with VCU in the NCAA tournament and may well have lost a school. Since Temple is moving on to the Big East for basketball in 2013, the Atlantic 10 is going to need a new member. VCU’s continued success and growing commitment to the sport makes it a prime candidate for inclusion.

You have to feel for coach Bruiser Flint and his team. They spend a couple months rampaging through everybody the conference threw at them but always knew that even if they went 100-0 before March, it could all crash down around them with an off night in Richmond. Sure enough, the Dragons tripped, and they paid a big price. Instead of getting a chance to play on the big stage, they’ll work off-Broadway and wonder what would have happened if they had played a better first 20 minutes against the Rams–or if St. Bonaventure hadn’t channeled the spirit of Bob Lanier and his size-22s and claimed the A-10 tourney crown.

The folks in Portland and Minneapolis and Birmingham don’t care about Drexel, but Philly basketball fans do. The Dragons belong in the NCAA tournament, and it flat-out stinks that they aren’t there.

Which Teams to Cheer for in the 2012 NCAA Tournament

Drexel’s depressed, but 68 other schools have hopes of standing alone in New Orleans April 2. Here are some of the more compelling storylines of the 2012 tourney.

Second Chance

When we last saw Temple, the Owls were gacking it up in the A-10 tourney quarters against UMass. But the implosion wasn’t crippling, since TU has earned a five seed. The good news? Temple will play the winner of a Wednesday game between Pac-12 underachiever Cal and South Florida, which plays the ugliest ball since John Thompson’s Georgetown teams were staging nightly streetfights on the hardwood. That means the survivor will be less rested than the Owls.

The bad news? While the Golden Bears failed to live up to their pre-season promise, they have a good backcourt and enough size to give the Owls trouble. And if Temple survives against Cal/USF, it will likely face Michigan, which tries to saturation-bomb its rivals into submission with a bunch of long-range launchers who treat the paint like it was filled with scorpions. Temple could reach the tourney’s second weekend, but it had better snap out of its late-season torpor and play some defense first.

Land of Advancement

If you’re looking for some teams off the menu to win a couple games, look no further than the Land of Enchantment. Both New Mexico and New Mexico State have the talent to win a couple games–and perhaps more. The Lobos are fresh off a win in the Mountain West Conference tourney, and the Aggies have an experienced team capable of knocking off first-round opponent Indiana, which might adopt a “just happy to be here” attitude, unless Bob Knight shows up and starts tossing chairs and strangling people.

Beware of ‘Dogs

With so much parity amongst teams seeded 5th through 14th, there should be plenty of upsets. The trick is picking the right ones. Here are a few prime candidates to disappoint fans of highly-regarded teams.

  • Belmont: The Bruins almost beat Duke two years ago. They’re experienced, dangerous and capable of smacking third-seeded Georgetown.
  • Long Beach State: Yes, New Mexico is tough, but the road-tested 49ers could tap into the spirit of Jerry Tarkanian and Ed Ratleff to dump the Lobos.
  • Xavier: The Musketeers are seeded 10th, but their low standing is due more to regular-season malaise than a lack of talent. Besides, Notre Dame always struggles in the tourney.
  • Later round surprises: Florida State to the Elite Eight, San Diego State and UNLV to the Sweet 16.

Fan Favorites

How can you root against these teams?

  • South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits play fun ball and have a star you’ll love in Nate Wolters.
  • Harvard: Okay, so the Johnnies finished ahead of Penn. But any team that goes 62 years between NCAA berths is worthy of a cheer or two.
  • Lehigh: A pseudo-local team with a big-time scorer, C.J. McCollum. Plus, the Mountain Hawks are playing Duke. What other reason do you need to root for them?
  • Detroit: The father-son/coach-star tandem of Ray McCallum Sr. and Ray McCallum Jr. is a great story.