Before the airwaves stop turning bluer than the grass in the vicinity of Louisville, let me add another angle to the hypotenuse of why defending NCAA champion Louisville should have been invited to the NCAA basketball tournament: merely because they are the defending champs. This has been a pet peeve at least since the shindig went TV big time and the field was expanded to include more teams than Dicky Vitale can identify. Quick, oh Lord of the My's: Who has the better record, Fairfield or Idaho State? Gotcha. They tied at 15—all. Your serve.
Both tennis and golf have systems allowing famous champions to participate in major events. Why doesn't college basketball? "Wild cards" they are sometimes called, a term that seems to mock the NCAA's sorry decision not to select the Ville's erratic birds.
So Denny Crum's team finished 2-10 against opponents ranked in somebody's top 50, 18-14 overall, and suffered a humbling 23-point hometown loss to Memphis State in the Metro Conference final. So what? LSU lost 14 games as well, including a recent nail-biter to Auburn by 38 points, and got a bid. While Louisville was dauntlessly facing Indiana, DePaul, Syracuse and Purdue—four of the top 12 seeds—LSU was feeding Kibbles 'n Bits to Hardin-Simmons, West Virginia State, Illinois-Chicago and Dennison.
The Cards lost their glamour games, but they beat invitees Western Kentucky and Wyoming on the road and embarrassed ACC champion N.C. State. And I would bet selection committee chairman Dick Schultz several dishes of ètouffèe at the Bon Ton in New Orleans that if Louisville were to play the bottom 32 teams in the NCAA field right now, the Cardinals would finish 24-8 or better. But even if the team wasn't the Ville, the defending champion deserves a free pass.
Not to malign the committee as being less than honorable—Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan is a friend with a glorious sense of humor. But when I asked Corrigan if the Louisville snub could be considered punishment of the Metro for permitting Memphis State to compete in the league tournament while on probation, I could scarcely believe my ears when he answered in the negative. "A slap at our conference," said Crum, "which is what I said would happen. Unfortunately, we have to pay the price for a mistake our conference made."
Moreover, it was hardly a stunning coincidence that the other most deserving team not invited to the Final 64, Florida State, also plays in the, excuse me, Metro. The 18-10 Seminoles beat Alabama and Florida but were bypassed in favor of, among others, San Diego, whose best win was Utah in its opener; Houston (18-11), which lost seven games in a football conference; and Middle Tennessee State, whose famous victims included Cumberland, Kennesaw and Lincoln Memorial—the school not the statue.
As for the pairings, dismiss the grandstanding outrage of Billy Packer at Purdue's being dropped from a first to a third seed in the East. The NCAA wasn't about to move second seeds Syracuse and Alabama off their home courts in the East and Southeast, respectively, or keep Purdue in the Midwest with Indiana, or send the Boilermakers out West, where they might have to play someone at home (Arizona in Tucson) for the third time in the last four years. Purdue coach Gene Keady should be satisfied where he is, although I suspect this team will find it too difficult to recover from that 104-68 mauling from Michigan in time to beat dangerous Florida in the second round.
What's most disturbing about the draw is the NCAA's continued disregard for home-court advantage. Nobody begrudges North Carolina, Indiana, DePaul, Syracuse or Alabama opening the tournament in front of friendly crowds as a reward for fine seasons. But does Arizona, the 10th seed in the West, deserve to stay home and be favored over 7th-seeded UTEP? Or does Alabama-Birmingham, 11th in the Southeast, deserve to open against No. 6 Providence in Birmingham? Even more ridiculous is the possibility that Arizona and UAB might then play Iowa and Illinois, respectively, teams seeded eight spots above them, in full view of home folks in full cry.
"Hey, Navy had to play Syracuse at the Carrier Dome last year," says Corrigan. "What did the Orange lose by, 25?" The score was 97-85, and not everybody has a David Robinson.
My dark horse pick is tough, resourceful Mizzou, with the preening, caterwauling, Band-Aid-draped Derrick Chievous. This kid is a very special player, a Monster. More routinely, I'll go with Carolina, Georgetown, Temple (if the Owls shoot near 50%) and Iowa to reach the Final Four, with the Tar Heels to win.
But my wild card is still the wild Cards.