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Top of the Arc - January 22, 2009

Jan. 22, 12:50 p.m.: Can George Mason earn an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament?

The question has become more pertinent in recent weeks, as the Patriots have been piling up victories while beating no one of consequence. Because the CAA looks like a three-team race, there is a realistic possibility that George Mason could finish the regular season with a strong record, only to get knocked off by VCU or Northeastern in the conference tournament.

If the Patriots lose in the conference tournament, their two biggest problems will be strength of schedule and the absence of victories over top 50 teams, two factors that the NCAA tournament selection committee takes into account.

One blemish on George Mason’s tournament resume is a loss at Hampton, the 223rd-ranked team in the RPI. But a more significant issue is that the Patriots have only played one top 50 team (Dayton), losing 66-62 on Dec. 30. And unless the Patriots play a particularly strong team in next month’s Bracket Buster event, they may not play another top 50 team all season.

Is that a tournament deal-breaker for the Patriots? Well, over the last three seasons, only one team (2006 Air Force) earned an at-large berth with no victories over a top 50 team. And that at-large selection stands as the most controversial and mystifying in recent history.

When George Mason earned an at-large berth in 2006, after losing to Hofstra in the CAA tournament, the Patriots had two top 50 wins under their belts, both coming in conference play. It also had an RPI of 26.

This season, if the Patriots beat all the teams that rank worse than they do in the RPI the rest of the regular season, they will have an RPI of 39, according to analyst Jerry Palm’s projections. The problem would be their strength of schedule, which ranks 159th now and may not get much higher than 117, according to Palm’s Web site.

Over the past two seasons, a few teams have earned at-large berths with poor strength of schedule ratings. Last season, Purdue had an SOS of 114, and St. Mary’s had an SOS of 138. But the Gaels had beaten Gonzaga and Drake, two top 30 teams. In 2007, Nevada earned an at-large berth with an RPI of 119. The Wolf Pack had a top 50 win over Utah State, and it had avoided a bad loss all season.

This season, only three teams in the RPI’s top 60 (George Mason, Illinois State and St. Mary’s) have played fewer than two top 50 teams so far. Illinois State compiled a gaudy non-conference record but likely needs to win the MVC tournament to reach the NCAAs. St. Mary’s does not have a large margin for error, but the Gaels will have at least two opportunities in conference to play elite competition when they play Gonzaga.

The combination of a soft non-conference schedule and the absence of top 50 competition, let alone victories, will make it very difficult for George Mason to earn an at-large berth. The Patriots can’t afford more than one more loss in the regular season if they have hope of earning an at-large berth. George Mason fans better hope their team can outlast VCU and Northeastern and win the CAA tournament crown.

By Eric Prisbell  |  January 22, 2009; 12:50 PM ET
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