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March 14, 2003

by Bill Hogan


The 2003 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament starts next week and Wagner College will be there. As a probable 15 or 16 seed, they will have to play one of the top eight teams in the country in the first round.

Since the NCAA started seeding teams in 1979, a 16 has never won a tournament game. But Wagner is going to "the big dance" for the first time - ever. What happens from this point forward is icing on the cake.


Also participating in the Madness for the first time are the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (try putting that on the front of a basketball jersey).

The three small, unheralded programs surprisingly won their respective conference tournaments. Each of the 31 Division I-A conference champions receive a tournament bid automatically. The other 34 teams will be selected by committee.

With "Selection Sunday" rapidly approaching, there are many anxious basketball teams still "on the bubble". A jittery group of middle-of-the-pack, major-conference teams are vying for a dwindling number of treasured spots in the field of 65.

Traditional basketball powers like Indiana, N.C. State and UNLV are sweating it out while Wagner prepares for a first round tournament game and dreams of upsetting a nationally ranked opponent.

IUPUI and the U. of W-Milwaukee will also be double-digit seeds with little or no chance at making it to the Final Four. But they've earned the right to give it the old college try.

Come Sunday, when they announce who is in and who is out, there will be a lot of second guessing and a lot of grumbling. Coaches, players and analysts will all chime in with an opinion about who "got lucky" and who was "unduly snubbed".

And the Bubble Boys left on the outside looking in will again wonder aloud why teams from the Horizon League and the Northeast Conference get a free ticket to the show. They will argue that they can beat Wagner in their sleep and they'd be right; that IUPUI couldn't compete in the ACC or the Big 10 and, again, they would be correct.

But for my money, I love seeing the small schools competing in this tournament. And as long as the America East, the Atlantic Sun and the Ohio Valley are part of the NCAA, they have every right to be there.

And by the way, sometimes they win. 239 times since 1979 the lower seed prevailed over the odds-on favorite. Twelve times a double-digit seed came out on top in last year's tournament. That's why they play the games.

Four times a 15 has beaten a two in the first round. And in 1981, 16th seeded Princeton came within a single point of beating number one Georgetown in the first round of the East Regional. Don't tell me Princeton didn't belong in that tournament.

I can guarantee you that a team seeded 12 or higher will win next week. (Now if I could only tell you exactly who that will be, we could all retire).

It's the Wagner's and the IUPUI's that put all the fun into watching the tournament in the first place. Kids who are just happy to be there playing in front of a national television audience.

Even if they lose in the first round, the U. of W-Milwaukee players will take away a lot more from this experience than Arizona or Kentucky will if they don't win it all. The tournament is a great reminder to Duke and Kansas and Syracuse and the like that winning isn't everything. Or at least the notion that it shouldn't be everything.

When a coach's job is on the line if his team doesn't make it to the second weekend and when a team is vilified by students and alumni for again falling short of a national championship, it makes me think we need more Mountain West and Big Sky conferences and fewer SEC's and Pac 10's.

Oh, I forgot, CBS isn't going to pony up the big bucks to televise the annual Weber State – Montana match up.

Last week, a Kentucky player was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This past Wednesday, Wagner College beat St. Francis College in front of 2,000 cozy fans in a gymnasium better suited for the campus production of Guys and Dolls.

Next week, they will both have the same shot at winning the national championship; they are both right where they belong.


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