- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2012

At-large selection to the NCAA tournament is never quite the same each year. It’s understandable, since the group picking the 37 teams to complement the 31 automatic qualifiers is never the same, either.

The selection committee adds members every year while others depart, and so the collective philosophy is sure to change a little. One tendency, though, has held up consistently in recent years.

Playing a soft nonconference schedule will not be rewarded.

Ask Colorado, which was omitted from last year’s field despite a 21-13 season and a proven ability to beat Kansas State anywhere. The Buffaloes were done in by a nonconference schedule strength that, according to CollegeRPI.com, ranked 325th of 345 teams.

Virginia Tech found out in 2010 when its No. 339 nonconference schedule nudged it into the NIT. Same goes for 2009 Penn State (No. 307) and 2008 Arizona State (No. 294). And it influences seeding as well; George Washington was 26-2 on Selection Sunday in 2006, and its No. 8 seed was a byproduct of its No. 323 nonconference schedule.

All of which brings up the team with the potential to be among the most polarizing when the field is unveiled in a little less than seven weeks.

Cincinnati is 15-5 and lurking near the top of the Big East standings with a 5-2 league mark. It owns victories at Connecticut and Georgetown, and nearly toppled West Virginia on the road. The Bearcats also had a chance to burnish their resume further in Monday night’s late game against Syracuse.

One problem: The Bearcats’ nonconference schedule strength ranks 325th in the country, with eight of their 13 nonconference games against opponents currently outside the top 200 of the RPI. They even lost one of those games, an early date with Presbyterian.

Cincinnati didn’t blow anyone away with its nonconference schedule last year (ranked 285th), but it still impressed in league play and reached the NCAA round of 32. The Bearcats might be following the same script. But if they’re a borderline NCAA candidate and get left out, it’ll be easy to identify the reason.

Cincinnati, though, is one of a handful of teams who might be held to a higher standard come Selection Sunday because of soft nonconference schedules. Five others:

Notre Dame (nonconference schedule ranked No. 219): For anyone wondering just what the Fighting Irish’s upset of Syracuse does for them, hold off for a moment. Notre Dame has the double-whammy of losing to everyone of consequence on its nonleague slate (best out of conference win: Mississippi Valley State) and a 1-7 mark outside South Bend.

New Mexico (231): The Lobos’ early Mountain West tests did not go well, as they lost to San Diego State and UNLV last week. That hurts more than it should because New Mexico (15-4) owns no top-50 wins (though Saint Louis comes close) and eight victories against teams either outside the top 200 or not in Division I.

Virginia (238): The Cavaliers’ crime is not a lack of quality opponents, but facing too many weak teams along the way. Virginia beat six teams in the bottom 100 of the RPI, generally easy victories that don’t do the Cavaliers any good with regard to schedule strength. Virginia’s defense should ensure it makes the tournament, but this might knock the Hoos down a seed line.

Stanford (243): Only two of the 10 teams the Cardinal upended in the pre-conference portion of their schedule possess winning records: Colorado State and N.C. State. Of course, given Stanford’s penchant for losing Pac-12 road games - now 1-3 after a sweep by the Washington schools last week - nonconference schedule strength might be far from the Cardinal’s biggest problem.

George Mason (269): The Patriots were 15-5 entering Monday’s late game against UNC Wilmington, and it doesn’t seem entirely implausible that they could match last year’s 16-2 mark in CAA play. However, it won’t vault them into at-large contention. Mason doesn’t have the same nonconference resume, though next month’s Bracket Buster could help a little.

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