- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

Scroll down the list of principles the NCAA uses to select and seed the NCAA tournament field, and one rule stands out:

“The committee shall select the best 34 available teams to fill the at-large berths, regardless of conference affiliation.”

Seems simple enough, really. There’s not much room to debate that sentence’s meaning.

Yet about this time every year, coaches hem and haw about how their leagues should have a certain number of bids, even if reality suggests otherwise.

Go down another line and the next rule is “There is no limit on the number of teams the committee may select from one conference.”

Again, it is difficult to interpret the instruction in more than one way. If five of the best 34 at-large teams come from the Missouri Valley, so be it, though that possibility has left coaches and fans near hyperventilation in recent weeks.

It’s worth reviewing these basic principles before analyzing teams’ at-large prospects on a league-by-league basis, if only as a reminder that schools aren’t simply competing with other programs in their conferences for NCAA berths.

Both Florida State and Maryland could make the tournament. Same goes for Colorado and Texas A&M;, Southern Illinois and Bradley, UNC Wilmington and Hofstra. Or both teams in any of those pairs could be left out. They’re all competing for a limited number of spots, but not the exact same one; no at-large slot is bequeathed to a conference for perpetuity.

With that lecture complete, here’s a look at the 14 leagues that could send more than one team nine days from now (all RPIs courtesy of collegerpi.com):

• ACC (4-6 bids): Duke, North Carolina, Boston College and N.C. State are safe. Florida State (18-8, RPI 54) picked up a huge win Wednesday over Duke and probably needs one more victory. Maryland (17-11, 51) still could use at least two more victories.

• Atlantic 10 (1-2): George Washington (25-1, 31) will make it even if it loses in the A-10 tournament. That’s a prospect that would hurt bubble teams in power conferences.

• Big 12 (3-5): Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are sure things, but the rest of the league is underwhelming. Colorado (18-8, 52) has a home win over Oklahoma, while Texas A&M; (19-7, 48) just stunned Texas and has won six in a row.

• Big East (7-10): The colossal confederation assuredly will send Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Marquette and Georgetown. Syracuse (19-9, 28) looks safe, while Cincinnati (18-11, 32) and Seton Hall (17-10, 57) would be wise to win once more. Somehow, Louisville (18-10, 65) could still be a factor.

• Big Ten (7): In a down year, Indiana (16-10, 44) probably will be safe. The Hoosiers will join Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the tournament.

• CAA (1-3): A curious case, especially if George Mason (22-6, 24) wins the league tournament. UNC Wilmington (22-7, 38) shared the regular-season title and has a slightly better profile than Hofstra (22-5, 40).

• Conference USA (1-3): Memphis is in line for a No. 1 seed. UTEP (19-7, 63), UAB (20-5, 53) and Houston (19-7, 59) should be in line for NIT tickets. But UAB had no top-50 wins and a bunch of bad losses last year and still made it. The Blazers’ 2006 profile is similar, minus the bad losses.

• Missouri Valley (4-6): Wichita State and Northern Iowa (which beat Iowa and LSU) should make it, while Missouri State (20-7, 18), Creighton (19-8, 30), Southern Illinois (19-10, 43) and Bradley (18-9, 46) all will be in the mix for bids. A trip to the Valley final probably clinches a berth for any of these teams.

• Mountain West (1-2): San Diego State (20-8, 62) won the regular-season title, but Air Force (23-5, 41) has the best profile. Brigham Young (19-7, 56) is also alive.

• Pac-10 (3-4): UCLA, Washington and Arizona will be invited. California (17-8, 61) is a bit dicier, but the Bears finish with UCLA and Southern Cal at home before the Pac-10 tournament.

• Patriot (1-2): Bucknell (23-4, 42) is the class of the league and will play at home throughout the conference tournament. The Bison might receive an at-large nod if they somehow stumble.

• SEC (6-7): That Vanderbilt (16-10, 60) even has a chance at an at-large berth is an indication of how soft the bubble is. Bank on Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana State and Tennessee to make it.

• WAC (1-2): Nevada (22-5, 20) has 10 road wins and will be in the tournament even if it loses in the conference tournament. Neither Utah State (19-7, 49) nor Louisiana Tech (18-11, 70) is at-large material.

• West Coast (1-2): The Gonzaga (25-3, 9) and the Seven Dwarfs Show rolls into Spokane this weekend. The ‘Zags likely will win the WCC tournament and leave an at-large spot for someone else.

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