CAA hanging with the big conferences

Updated: March 19, 2011, 7:06 PM ET
Associated Press

Way back on Selection Sunday, nine conferences heard at least three members called as part of the NCAA tournament's field of 68.

There weren't many college basketball fans who didn't know the Big East had shattered the record for teams in one tournament with 11 schools selected.

The other BCS conferences all had good hauls, from the Big Ten's seven teams to the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference getting five each.

When you hear numbers like those, it's tough to imagine three being very impressive.

But George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth were to the Colonial Athletic Association.

The CAA had never had that many teams picked for the field. There had been two chosen in 1986, 2006 and 2007, but three was uncharted water.

Even if Virginia Commonwealth's inclusion as one of the final at-large teams drew criticism and outright indignation from some media experts, the CAA was ready to make a strong showing and it has.

"I definitely can say the league was tough. I've been here a while, this is my fourth year, senior year, and, I mean, I can actually say that the level of play, the competition level, has been a lot higher than it has been in the past years," George Mason's Cam Long said.

Two of the power conferences have found that out.

Virginia Commonwealth won its first-round game over Southern California of the Pac-10. With a No. 11 seed secured, the Rams went on to beat Georgetown, one of the Big East's record bunch, handily.

George Mason, the conference's most successful NCAA tournament school with a run to the Final Four in 2006, won its first game as a No. 8 seed, dispatching Villanova, another of the Big East selections.

The conference tournament champion, ninth-seeded Old Dominion, lost its opener, falling to fellow mid-major Butler of the Horizon League on a tip-in at the buzzer.

Mid-major is a term several schools who fit the description refuse to use. Not George Mason.

"I guess all you can do is accept whatever they call it," Patriots senior guard Isaiah Tate said Saturday, a day before his team faces No. 1 overall seed Ohio State. "I'm pretty sure a lot of BCS teams got knocked out yesterday, the last couple of days. So in the tournament, I really don't think you can classify teams as this or that, because we're all in the same tournament playing for the same team. On any given day a team can take out another team, regardless of what their ranking is."

The Big East matched its own record with nine teams in one Top 25, and it happened twice this season. No CAA team cracked the poll even once in 2010-11.

CAA commissioner Tom Yeager calls his conference a "tweener group," meaning it's no longer a league looking to just have its champion in the field but neither is it one that is considered a lock to have multiple bids.

"A lot of it is about branding," Yeager said last month. "We probably don't stand up very well in brand recognition next to some of those (major conference teams). ... Hopefully we'll fall on the good side."

The wins over Big East teams should help change the mind of anybody still sitting on the fence.

George Mason had to pull out its win over Villanova, having trailed by six points with 2 minutes to play.

As soon as the win was in the books, there was talk about the 2006 run to the Final Four -- which included wins over former national champions Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut -- that ended with a loss to eventual champion Florida in the semifinals.

"Every single interview. And anything we do, we're compared," said Luke Hancock, whose 3-pointer with 21 seconds left capped the comeback. "But we're trying to make our own name. Trying to do our own thing. We'd like people talking about us instead of the '06 team."

Virginia Commonwealth had five wins in nine NCAA tournament appearances coming into this year. The wins over USC and Georgetown drew a lot more attention than usual because of the uproar that followed the revealing of the Rams' selection.

"We love ESPN. We love being on ESPN. We love the guys at ESPN," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "But let's face it, those guys questioned us a little bit and our credibility as an NCAA team, and I thought the way that our guys responded to it, it was something that we could use as a motivating factor."

The 74-56 win over Georgetown was the Hoyas' worst NCAA tournament loss since a 24-point defeat to Massachusetts in a 1996 regional final.

This is the first time the Rams have won more than one game in an NCAA tournament -- the first-round win over Duke in 2007 is still at the top of the list -- and they will face another team from a power conference, Purdue of the Big Ten.

"I think that stuff's kind of fading now. We've proven over the last two games that we belong here, we more than belong here," Smart said. "Sunday's going to be more about us and Purdue and who's the better team."

Smart said what it all comes down to is that the winner of Sunday's game is in the regional semifinals.

"I told our guys against USC, and I told them again against Georgetown, these teams aren't going to hand you the game," he said. "You've got to play it for them. And our players have done a great job of adopting that mindset, being extremely aggressive, and really taking the fight to our opponent."

Purdue coach Matt Painter said he wasn't even aware that Virginia Commonwealth was such a controversial topic last weekend.

"There's always going to be a couple teams that they scrutinize. I think it's great for VCU. They took it. They probably had a chip on their shoulder anyway," he said. "They got a great win versus USC, and they got a great win versus Georgetown. They're a good basketball team. They've proven they belong."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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