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Mixed emotions for two elite mid-major conferences

There wasn't any doubt as to who had the cleanest yard in Virginia this weekend.

An hour before the NCAA brackets were announced, Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager was out raking leaves on his property. He had taken a mid-afternoon break for a relaxing boat ride on a crisp spring day, but he spent the bulk of the day catching up on his yard work. Anything to take his mind off basketball.

"I called him this morning and he was out on his mower with the grass-catcher," Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. "Bless his heart."

Elgin's and Yeager's respective conferences went into Selection Sunday with dreams of breakthrough numbers of at-large bids for their respective leagues. The CAA hadn't secured an extra bid in 20 years, but offered three 20-win runners-up for consideration; the MVC had never earned more than three bids, but had placed six in the RPI's top 40 in 2005-06. The teams had made their cases all winter; in a cloistered room in Indianapolis, the Selection Committee spent the weekend judging their respective merits.

As Yeager carefully manicured his property, he tried to avoid thoughts of George Mason guard Tony Skinn's below-the-belt punch in the Patriots' tourney semifinal loss to Hofstra. The hit earned Skinn a one-game suspension -- presumably a first-round NCAA Tournament contest. Yeager hoped against hope that the incident wouldn't overshadow GMU's 23-7 season in the eyes of the committee.

"They keep talking about a body of work, which I presume is the 30 games they've played," Yeager said. "Tony would miss the first game. The guy who's replacing him started 25 games over two years, plays 20 minutes a game, so it's not like this is some freshman-redshirt coming in. All five Mason starters average double figures. My thought is that it's a seeding question, not a selection question, if they're true to the 'body-of-work' theory."

But Yeager saved his most passionate defense for Hofstra, the team that had won 24 games against six losses, and ran all the way to the conference title game before falling to UNC-Wilmington, 78-67. And he had all the key numbers memorized.

"They're in the top 30 [actually 31] of the RPI," Yeager said of the Pride. "They played 12 games in the top 100, and had a winning record. The rip seems to be that their nonconference scheduling strength isn't that impressive. But let me tell you, there are a whole lot of teams in that top 50 that have worse nonconference schedule strength than they do. Marquette's [No. 30 in the RPI] was 175, and Hofstra's was 184. ... When does non-conference schedule strength stop being a discussion point for one and a major determining factor for another?

"The teams in the power leagues can play whomever they want to, virtually anywhere they want to. And they don't choose the middle-of-the-road teams, they choose a low-road approach. So you end up with a lot of power-league teams that have worse nonconference schedule strength than our guys. Who takes the bullet?"

A thousand miles inland, the MVC commissioner spent the day at his conference's women's championship game in Springfield, Mo., taking a lot of deep breaths.

"I really do feel calm," Elgin said. "I've studied this from lots of angles, and I really feel that in a normal year, we'd get six. Some prognosticators are saying there are only seven at-larges available after all the locks, and I think we have three locks. Well, I would hope we have three locks."

As the festivities of the 3 p.m. CST contest wouldn't be over until at least 5:30, he wouldn't get to watch the selection special. But notification would likely be quick in coming: the event was being held at the campus of RPI No. 21 Missouri State -- a low-RPI snub in 2000 and a team whose 2006 quarterfinal exit in the conference tournament placed it squarely on the bubble.

"The height of exhilaration is matched by the depths of despair in terms of intensity," Yeager said. "It's going to be emotional for a lot of people, but that's why it's so special. I like the fact that it's difficult to get in, that you have to play your way into this sucker. I love this day, but I dread it at the same time."

Back in Virginia, there was a lot more dread than love.

"It's going to be a distinct message that's sent out of these selections," Yeager said. "It'll be very interesting to see which way the message goes."

***

And then the brackets were announced.

To supplement Colonial champion No. 9 UNC-Wilmington, 11-seed George Mason became the first at-large selection from the league since Navy in 1986. But the commissioner was split between George Mason joy and Hofstra heartbreak.

"It's kind of like a tie game," Yeager sighed half an hour after the selections. "We've been chasing an at-large bid for 20 years, and that was accomplished. But in all honesty, I'd thought we had another team that was just as deserving, and they did not make the cut."

The Pride, a team that had won 12 of 14 to close out the season, was left on the outside.

"I'm more disappointed about [not getting] the three than I'm excited about the two," Yeager said. "I'll have to talk to the committee members to find out the exact reasons why Hofstra was left out, but I spent the last hour waiting for the fifth bracket to be announced. I really thought they were in."

Out in the Valley, a record four bids. In addition to Southern Illinois' inclusion as conference champs, a total of three at-large teams were let in: tourney runner-up Bradley as a 13, regular-season champion Wichita State at 7, and a 25-win Northern Iowa team as a 10-seed. But at Missouri State, the exclusion of the team that finished No. 20 in the RPI dimmed the joy from the Lady Bears' seven-over-one upset of Indiana State in the MVC women's championship game.

"I just stood in a room full of fans and cheerleaders who just heard the news," Elgin said. "There's a lot of grief here. I'm tremendously happy about our record four bids, but I do feel like Creighton and Missouri State were worthy. And my heart goes out to [Mo-State head coach] Barry Hinson. For this to happen to him twice in six years, that's brutal."

Elgin, a former Selection Committee member, acknowledges that the RPI always has been a single evaluation tool among many, and he didn't see Missouri State's snub as some type of punishment for hacking the system.

"It's not as if we've unlocked some secret RPI code," Elgin said. "We just don't play teams with bad records. If anything, what the committee's done tonight will force good power-conference teams to play more quality opponents, [and] stop padding their records with buy-games. And if they want to play us home-and-home, we're available."

But the MVC commissioner acknowledged the media backlash against his league's strong RPIs, and struggled to find reasons why his conference has been transfigured from a humble heartland story into a hotbed of statistical fraud over the course of three short months.

"It's probably because we had so many teams this year that flooded the RPI top 30," Elgin said. "But I don't fully understand why the national media has turned on us so viciously. And for Billy Packer to say that our conference hasn't performed in the tournament? Since 1999, our teams have beaten Texas Tech, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee. I'm not sure where he gets his research."

All any small-college squad wants is a chance to show what they can do against the traditional powers on the biggest stage there is: the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday fulfilled more of those mid-major dreams than ever before, as Northern Iowa, Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason were deemed to be worthy of the fight for the national title. And if these teams from the CAA and MVC can survive the early rounds and strike deep into the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, even Billy Packer might feel the need to make amends.

And he can start by raking Tom Yeager's yard.

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.