While most of you are focused on the start of NCAA Tournament play on Thursday, the first game of the 64 that will decide the national champion is actually tonight.
Yes folks, it’s the dreaded ‘play-in,’ game—a gift from the basketball powers-that-be to the one-bid conferences, courtesy of the absolute greed of the basketball committee.
If you know this story, forgive me but I think it bears re-telling. In 1999, The Western Athletic Conference split in half—eight teams staying in the WAC, eight forming The Mountain West Conference. For one year, while it was awaiting official certification, the MWC did not get an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Beginning with the 2001 tournament it did get an automatic bid
That meant the number of automatic bids went from 30 to 31. In order to maintain a 64-team field the number of at-large bids would have to drop from 34 to 33. Hardly a big deal, right? Except it was a big deal, notably to the men in charge of the power conferences who didn’t want to risk being the one to lose that 7th bid or 6th bid in a given year. Every bid is worth money—big money these days—that is divided among the conference members. What’s more, every win in the tournament is worth money too. That means the more bids you get, the more chances you have to pile up the cash.
And so the power conference commissioners proposed that the number of at-large bids stay the same and the two lowest-ranked automatic-bid teams would be sent to Dayton—which was chosen because it is a superb college basketball town—to play their way in to the 64-team bracket.
Naturally, the committee bridled when it was dubbed (correctly) the ‘play-in,’ game. Always ready with a euphemism (see, ‘student-athlete,’) it started calling the game the ‘opening round,’ game. In fact, only after a number of people loudly objected did the committee even agree to count the victory financially for the winning team. As I said, every NCAA Tournament victory is worth money—each win is counted as a financial ‘unit,’—except the play-in winner didn’t receive a unit until four years ago when the committee finally gave in on that.
Tonight, Winthrop, which upset Coastal Carolina to win The Big South title, will play Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the SWAC champion. This is the 10th and—probably—last play-in game since some kind of expansion next year is inevitable. In nine of the 10 games one of the two schools representing the conferences made up of historically black colleges and universities has been in the game. Even if the SWAC champion and the MEAC champion were the two lowest-rated teams in the tournament there is NO WAY the committee would send them both to Dayton—they wouldn’t risk the wrath of the PC police.
In truth, if the big boys HAVE to have their 34th bid neither the SWAC champion nor the MEAC champion nor Winthrop should be playing. Tonight, UTEP and Utah State—the two-lowest seeded at-large teams—should be playing, the winner to get a 12th seed. Actually, to take it a step further, the two lowest seeded teams from the BCS conferences should play. Those conferences have the biggest budgets; the highest-paid coaches; the ability to schedule guarantee games to pad their record and the most TV exposure. With all those advantages, if they just sneak in as bubble teams, two of them should go play in Dayton.
More often than not, the players on those teams will have other chances to play in the NCAA Tournament if they stay three or four years in college. They’ve probably been on national TV a dozen times already this season. The little guys may never get another chance to go to an actual tournament site, to go through the practice day, to walk into a packed arena dreaming they’re going to be the first No. 16 seed to win a tournament game. They deserve that chance. Every year the committee denies one of them that shot—all because of greed.
I’ve brought up the notion of sending the at-large teams to Dayton with committee members through the years. I get the same answer every time: “We could do that.”
Yes and I could pass on the ice cream after dinner. But I don’t. So, I’m fat and they’re a bunch of hypocrites.
To me, the best solution to all this and all the coaches whining about expansion is to expand the tournament by THREE teams. If the field had 68 teams this season, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and Illinois would have all gotten in and there would really be no one complaining about being left out—at least not with any serious reason to complain.
With 68 teams you take the last eight at-large teams selected and you send them all to Dayton. You have four games on Tuesday, a real made-for-TV extravaganza with some compelling matchups: Virginia Tech-California; Mississippi State-Wake Forest; UTEP-Illinois and Minnesota-Florida; how does that sound? The four winners advance to the first round as 12th seeds.
You take away the stigma of the one play-in game and you let all the little guys have their guaranteed moment in the first round sun. And you don’t blow up the magic of Selection Sunday or the first weekend by expanding to 96 teams, something that will be done for only ONE reason: money. That’s the entire list of reasons why it will happen if it happens no matter what anyone tells you.
Thursday, the first 16 first round games will be played. There will be upsets, there will be close games and there will be a few blowouts. The same thing will occur on Friday. One team, either Arkansas Pine-Bluff or Winthrop, will not have the chance to experience what all of that feels like even though both earned their spot in ‘The Dance,’ by winning their conference tournament.
The loser only gets to go to, ‘the dance.’ It’s not fair. The people who have done this the last 10 years should be ashamed of themselves. One thing I can guarantee you is this: they’re not even a little bit ashamed. Which is really a shame.