5 Automatic Bids Decided In NCAA Tournament

The 65-team NCAA men's basketball tournament field won't be officially announced until this coming Sunday, but the first five invitations to the Big Dance were sent out over the weekend as conference tournament play began.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The NCAA men's basketball tournament field will not be officially announced until this Sunday, but the first five invitations were sent out over the weekend as conference tournament play began. As always, some of the intriguing stories involve smaller schools dreaming big. Commentator John Feinstein joins us now to discuss some of them.

Hi, John.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So let's start with a conference champion that did not have to win a conference tournament to qualify as so many of them do. That team comes from Cornell.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. The Ivy League is the only one of the 31 conferences that does not have a conference tournament. The Ivy League is unique that way. And Cornell won the conference title for the third straight year, which is remarkable, Steve, when you think about the fact that Princeton and Penn have so dominated the Ivy League since it was formed back in the 1950s.

But Cornell has only four losses this year. Two of them are to Syracuse and Kansas, who are currently ranked one and three in the country. That's how good they've been. And they're going to go into the tournament as I think something like a number nine or a number ten seed and one of those small schools that no big name school is going to want to face in the first round.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and with a real chance to win at least one game, it would seem.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And, again, because they've played such good teams this year, they're not going to be intimidated by anybody they play. They have five seniors who start, eight seniors on the team. By the way, they all live together in the same house. So they're the definition of a close team. And they'll walk on the court a week from Thursday or Friday, absolutely convinced that they're going to win that game.

INSKEEP: Why is it, by the way, John, that the Ivy League doesn't have a conference tournament?

FEINSTEIN: Partly because the Ivy League just likes to be different. It's why they don't let their football champion play in post-season play. And also because they say the players will miss too much class, which frankly is ridiculous. If you played a three-day tournament on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it would be the same as any normal Ivy League weekend, except the two finalists would play on Sunday, instead of just on Friday and Saturday.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, as you say, they are the Ivy League.

FEINSTEIN: The IVY LEAGUE - all caps.

INSKEEP: What about the other four teams that have qualified here?

FEINSTEIN: Well, there are a bunch of interesting stories. Northern Iowa is another team with a lot of seniors that is in the tournament for the third straight year. They won their conference over the weekend to Missouri Valley. Missouri Valley, you might remember a few years ago, Steve, had two teams reach the Sweet 16. So they're going to be a threat.

Winthrop, little school in Rock Hill, South Carolina. This is the ninth time in 12 years they've been in the NCAA tournament. They upset the top seed Coastal Carolina. And they're a team that beat Notre Dame a couple years ago. So those are certainly teams you want to look at when you start making your brackets out a week from today.

INSKEEP: Now, one of the reasons that we're talking to you on this Monday morning, John Feinstein, is of course because we're going to learn more and more about the NCAA Tournament field over the next several days as the conference tournaments unfold.

Who are you looking at?

FEINSTEIN: Well, again, we are starting to see the big conference tournaments tomorrow. The Big East with their five day extravaganza in New York, because they have 16 teams, Steve. Think about it. Half the teams in the league, because they have to start play on Tuesday, would have to win five games to win the Big East. It takes six to win the National Championship. That's not a conference. That's a confederacy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I would hate to be one of those lower seeded teams in the Big East. That's a lot of basketball to have to play.

One other team worth watching, I think, is a team that's been important in the past but not recently - Temple. Where Fran Dunphy came from the Ivy League, Pennsylvania, four years ago, has completely rebuilt the program. They won the Atlantic 10 regular season. And I think they'll be a three or four seed in the tournament going in. A great story, because Philly's such a great basketball city.

INSKEEP: And in a few seconds, would you name one team that you think might go a lot farther than expected?

FEINSTEIN: I'll pick Siena again, because they won first round games in the last two years, and they dominated their conference once again this year. Very good coach in Fran McCaffrey.

INSKEEP: John, always a pleasure to speak with you.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Comments from John Feinstein, author of "Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery."

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