Big or Small, It's Time to Focus on Basketball

As some conference tournaments get under way, more mid-sized schools fight perennial powers for slots in the upcoming NCAA Division I tournament. And in Division III, one school's amazing turnaround offers a first-round highlight.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

March madness is upon us, though the NCAA has yet to name the 65 teams that will compete in the men's college basketball tournament. At least three teams will know they're in tomorrow with more to come each day after that. We've called commentator John Feinstein to talk about all of this. Good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now you've always said that this week is your favorite time of the year, how come?

FEINSTEIN: Well, this is the week when the little guys get their chance to shine. Once we get deep into March, the power teams will all come out. But this week is when the smaller conferences play their tournaments. The winner gets to go to the NCAA. They get an automatic bid. So this is the week when kids at smaller schools who rarely get attention nationally get their moment to shine.

MONTAGNE: And two conference tournaments are - especially we're talking about the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic Association.

FEINSTEIN: These were the two upstart conferences last year. The CAA had George Mason, which we remember their famous run to the Final Four last year. The Missouri Valley got as many bids as the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the power conferences. Both these conferences have to be looked at very closely by the selection committee because of what they did last year, even though traditionally they're not considered among the elite conferences.

MONTAGNE: And what about the big conferences? Lots of talk about how many bid some of these leagues will get.

FEINSTEIN: They are so paranoid about the mid-level conferences. It's almost as if the power conferences are putting on negative TV advertising against the mid-majors saying, do you want these schools in your NCAA tournament? Because they're afraid. But everybody is campaigning to try to get their mid-level teams into the NCAA, because of course that means more money for those conferences.

MONTAGNE: And John, I gather you've got something of an off the beaten track story.

FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, we all focus on Division I, but there's Division III, the little tiny schools. And they play a tournament too, which begins today. And one of the schools in the tournament is Averett University. Three years ago, Renee, they were 0 and 25. They hired a young coach. They won their conference tournament, and tonight they will play the defending Division III champion in the first round. That's a great story.

MONTAGNE: Comments of John Feinstein. He's author of "Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four."

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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