Big 12, Big East each eyeing nine bids for NCAA Tournament

If Three Dog Night were correct and one is the loneliest number, then nine must be a party. And college basketball's biggest shindig could be set to invite a pair of nines.

The Big 12 and Big East have been so deep this season that it's now becoming hard to ignore that each could have nine teams worthy of inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. The spots appear to be there for the taking, and these megaleagues are setting the stage to pluck as many invitations as they can.

We've already established that the Big Ten is not as strong as in past seasons and that the Pac-10 -- despite the presence of three good teams in Cal, Stanford and Arizona State -- is plagued by a paucity of depth. That creates the opportunity for bids to come from somewhere else, and some might jump to the conclusion that this could be the rare season when some mid-major conferences slip more than one team through the tournament door.

However, as Monday's bracket projection illustrates, that isn't happening. The Big Ten and Pac-10 have helped throw the door wide open, but the only takers willing to walk through appear to be those fellow BCS big kids, who are looking for possible record-setting seasons.

The Big 12 (Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Iowa State, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M and Colorado) and Big East (Connecticut, Rutgers, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, DePaul, Seton Hall and Louisville) each put nine teams in the latest projection. If this holds up for either league, it would be unprecedented. The Big East sent eight last season and in 2004, and the SEC did the same in 2002. But no league has ever got to nine -- yet it could happen twice this season.

Not a single team in either league is below .500 at this point, and in the Big 12 only Missouri can't at least be considered a possibility for the NCAA Tournament. Now that league play has begun, logic says that attrition should knock someone out of contention. But the rest of the nation has to step up and supply more tournament-worthy teams.

The Mountain West doesn't appear to be able to go more than two-deep. The Atlantic 10 looks to be much of the same, with George Washington the only lock for an at-large. Xavier should be in the conversation until March, but will Dayton? The Colonial was a stronger conference at the top last season. It will not repeat the three-bid surprise from last March.

This latest projection even has a maxing out in the Big Ten and an unlikely scenario in the America East. More than four bids seem unlikely for a Big Ten that did little to stand out in the nonconference season. Now the contenders have only themselves to beat. Meanwhile, Hartford is in as an at-large right now because it has some solid nonconference wins. However, last season proved that if the Hawks trip up in the conference tournament -- much like they did against Boston U. nine days ago -- the America East will be sending an inferior representative. Hartford is of at-large caliber today, but history says Hartford likely won't be in the eyes of the selection committee in two months.

History-making aside, nine teams from any league is a logistical nightmare for the committee and your resident bracketologist. The obligation of the members in that room on Selection Monday is to get the 33 best at-large teams and place them most fairly in the bracket. Conference affiliation is not a factor. No team is included or left out based on its place on the NCAA map. But it does make the job of placing teams more difficult. An eight-team situation is tough enough; having to put two clubs in each region and keep them far away from each other in the bracket is a chore, but possible. However, nine teams means there will be one region that has three from the same league; in that region, it is inevitable that there will be the possibility of two league teams meeting before the regional final.

In the current projection, for instance, Seton Hall, Notre Dame and Louisville are all in the Spokane Regional, and the Irish and Pirates could meet in the regional semifinals. Predictably, that probably wouldn't come to pass given the hurdles in the way for each, but if the scenario played out in that manner, that would be the worst of it. Not bad, really. The sun will still come up the next day. And nine teams from one league isn't so bad if each team has really earned it.

The committee gives itself the option of moving schools one seed line (to accommodate the bracketing principles) because of this type of season. In order to separate league foes enough so the above situation is the worst that could happen, some tweaking has to happen. I took advantage of that opening just as the committee does.

This week, Arizona State and Nebraska were switched a seed line from their S-curve positions. The Sun Devils were 24th and the Cornhuskers 25th in the ranking, but Nebraska became a sixth seed and ASU a seventh seed to balance the bracket. The same could be said for Seton Hall-Xavier and Louisville-Illinois State. This happens each year, and the nine-team-from-one-league situation allows us all to see the principle at work -- and that it still means a fair bracket.

Each season seems to have its quirks, its own personality. And 2008 is shaping up with the theme of the Big 12 and Big East hoping for history. This could all change in a week or a month. Teams enter the mix and others play themselves out. But with 33 at-large spots up for grabs, right now two leagues have their hands on nearly half of them.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.