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SportsMonday: Cinderella Spoilers

They almost pulled it off.

The NCAA almost rigged the tournament well enough to completely shut out teams from non-power conferences from the Sweet 16. That way they keep the teams from the prime money-making major conferences front and center in the national sports fan consciousness for another year.

The fat cat bureaucrats at the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the selection committee who dictate how the tournament will be structured pretend to value the underdogs. They give lip service to the Cinderellas. Then they set it up so under-seeded mid-majors run into under-rated power conference teams time after time. Or they simply screw mid-major teams like Murray State, which won 20 games in a row during the regular season and has an impressive record of tournament success during the past decade.

Citing an RPI in the 60s, tournament organizers left Murray State out of the bracket entirely after the team was upset in the final of its conference tournament. The big problem with this is that Murray State can't jack up its RPI because teams from the conferences that would help them do that won't play them during the non-conference portions of the regular season.

One team overcame. A Wichita State squad (from the Missouri Valley Conference) which knows all about power teams refusing to even step on the court, scored the ultimate victory (78-65 over Kansas) on Sunday This was the Shockers team that was rated in the Top 10 for much of last season, had another great campaign this time around and yet still somehow didn't warrant better than a 7th-seed in the Midwest Region.

Wichita State knocked off the chickenshit Jayhawks program that has desperately tried to maintain dominance in the schools' home state in part by refusing to play the team from the smaller school.

It had been since 1993 that the in-state rivals had faced off in any game. Kansas has done the math that tells them anything they might gain from a win over Wichita State in a given year is more than outweighed by even the chance that the Shockers might win. In so doing, the Shockers would make it clear there is another big-time program in the state besides Kansas and Kansas State. And if they deprive their fans of an exciting regional rivalry match-up year after year? As if that even begins to matter.

It was Wichita State that got totally hosed in last year's tournament. Despite going undefeated in its regular season and conference tournament, the NCAA stuck them in a quarter of a regional that also included powerhouse Kentucky. The Wildcats, who featured a half-dozen legit pro prospects, knocked off the Shockers in the round of 32 on their way to the national final (where they lost to UConn).

This sort of thing happens year after year. Unfortunately, so much of the coverage of the tournament is dominated by shills for the NCAA such as CBS, the Turner Networks and ESPN. So there is very little scrutiny paid to the tournament set-up shenanigans that somehow always seem to result in powerhouses like Kentucky being in position to sweep away potential pests like Wichita State.

One other clever little NCAA maneuver is to match up potential Cinderellas against each other in the first round. One example of that this year was No. 5 (Eastern Region) Northern Iowa versus the brutally under-seeded (No. 12) Wyoming Cowboys. No matter what happens in games like that (and in this case, Northern Iowa pulled out the win), one potential Cinderella is eliminated. And then in the round of 16, perennial power Louisville was waiting and sure enough, the Cardinals knocked off UNI 66-53.

Another potential mid-major achiever eliminated! High fives all around the selection committee!

There is one exception to all of this. At this point, it is hard to remember that Gonzaga (West Coast Conference) is not a power conference stalwart. The Zags have been so good for so long that there was no way the NCAA could seed them below the No. 2 spot they got in the South Region. Still, the NCAA was able to arrange it so a strong Iowa team coming off a disappointing conference tournament showing (such teams are always especially dangerous) would probably meet the Zags in the second round (they did but got thumped 87-68) and then one of everyone's favorites, Iowa State, would be waiting in the round of 16.

But Iowa State, in the tournament's biggest upset so far, went down to Alabama-Birmingham in the first round. UAB, now that would have been a fine Cinderella. And it was facing another double-digit seed in the second round. But that team, UCLA, can never qualify as a true tournament underdog. And sure enough, UCLA knocked out UAB yesterday, eliminating one more glass-slipper wearer.

And the selection committee is potentially foiled as a clearly inferior UCLA team (to Iowa State that is) advances to take on Gonzaga for a spot in the Elite Eight next weekend. If the Zags advance, No. 1 seed Duke will probably await. And that is as it should be. A team should have to knock off a top seed (or be a top seed) to make a Final Four.

So the NCAA went 14-for-16 this year (it wasn't long ago that Xavier was a mid-major but it moved into the Big East recently and no longer qualifies) in terms of power conference players in the Sweet 16. My guess is they are satisfied but already starting to plot how they'll stick it to the mid-majors in different ways next year.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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