Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Play-in game starts the tournament; History of the game and what it SHOULD be

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.


Anonymous said...

I always found it pretty bad that the 'play-in' game has automatic qualifiers.....but this writing brought up a question -- how much is each 'unit' worth? In college football, we know the payouts. In basketball, the average fan knows nothing on this.

Is it 100k per win, 1mm per win? I have no idea that earnings...

R said...

Hey, if one day of four games is great, why not two days with four games? Why not two days with eight games? And so on. For the NCAA, more is more. Unfortunately for the rest of us, more is less. They are going to wreck the greatest event in American sport.

Rich, Denver

Ed - Bethesda said...

"They're a bunch of hypocrites," seems a bit over the top! But your suggestion is a good one especially since increasing the field appears inevitable. A four team increase seems reasonable rather than the nightmare of a 96 team field.
I have never read a breakdown of tournament revenues by team and how advancing in the tournament impacts an athletic dept.'s bottom line. I realize that teams share money with their conference schools. How much money did North Carolina earn from their 2009 championship? This information is probably not made public by the NCAA, the conferences or the individual schools but it certainly would make for some interesting reading and give some texture to the often cryptic NCAA statements and policies.

Now we know said...

So as punishment for his "transgressions," Tiger will sacrifice ... not even one attempt to win a major. My kids get stricter consequences for acting out at dinner.

Gunnar said...

The 68 team format is a great idea. I think the play-in for automatic qualifiers/conference champs is unfair. It should involve the final at-large teams selected.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mr. Feinstein. It seems to me that there's a logistical problem with your proposal for a 68-team field: Where would the winners of those four play-in games be seeded? The last four at-large teams are (if I'm looking at the bracket right) seeded 12th, 12th, 11th, and 10th. Would those seeds hold if those four teams had to play the first four out on Tuesday night? Because then the tournament would feature, for instance, two five seeds playing twelve seeds who aren't as well rested as the other twelve seeds. Which I think most people would consider an arbitrary (and thus unfair) advantage for those four teams who, pretty much based on nothing that they had done, play first-round games against presumably more tired teams. And if, on the other hand, it's determined beforehand that the play-in winners would all be given the same seed, that obviously would be completely arbitrary and thus also unfair. It seems to me that most teams would rather be a five seed playing a twelfth-seeded play-in winner than a four seed playing a well rested thirteen, right?

And if the counter is that, well, these are young men and great athletes, and they shouldn't be that tired; or any advantage a team gets by playing a moderately tired play-in winner is mitigated by the fact that said team has less time to know who they're playing and thus less time to prepare, I'll counter by saying that one of the beauties of a 64-team tournament is that everyone's starting on equal footing: there are no byes; within the actual brackets, there are no teams playing at some sort of structural advantage or disadvantage.

If power-conference greed is the reason for the play-in game and will be the reason for expansion to ninety-six teams, it would be the reason for expansion to sixty-eight teams, too. I don't want to say that I don't feel sorry for, especially, the Mississippi State players who came within a few tenths of a second of winning the SEC, but that doesn't change the fact the a sixty-four team field is perfect, should never have been corrupted with the play-in game, and certainly shouldn't be expanded any further.


Steve in Reno

Shaun E in PC said...

Greed...pretty much explains everything wrong with sports: PEDs, tournament expansion, keeping the BCS and Tiger's return.

Jason Connor said...

I, too, have always thought that the play-in game should go to the last two at-large bids.

Winthrop and Arkansas Pine Bluffs earned their way into the tournament. And losing on Tuesday isn't really being in the tournament.

UTEP and Utah State had their chances to win an automatic bid and failed.

You're idea to go to 68 is a good idea and would be a decent compromise to the absurd idea of moving to 96 teams.

ARCstats said...

John, could you fill us in on the current payout for this event. I've heard that each team gets 1 million upon selection, and another million for every victory. Then each team keeps half their "earned" amount, with the other half going into a conference pool, with the pool being evenly divided by all conference schools - thus the push for as many teams in the tournament from each conference as possible.

I'm assuming this is not a "Masters" situation where discussion of prize money is taboo for media types, but you sure don't see any details on the payouts for this event. Thanks in advance......

Anonymous said...

Although I hoped the field would not expand next year and it looks like it will, I would suggest that teams winning their conference tournaments be given a first round bye. This would give smaller conferences a boost and would add much more to the conference tournaments which are becoming more and more meaningless. This would add a lot to the major conference tournaments. Even if the final has 2 top 10 teams, there is a reason to win the conference tournament and get a first round bye....just a thought.

Anonymous said...

The NCAA tournament selection process makes the BCS look good by comparison. At least with the BCS we have computer rankings based on known criteria and polls by a wide variety of known voters, none of whom can apply undue individual influence on the the outcome. For all the faults of the BCS which, in the opinion of its detractors, denies the opportunity to determine a true champion, at least it isn't 10 athletic directors in a smoke-filled room as with the NCAA selection committee.

What about the negative effect on conference tournaments? The ACC tournament used to be the best event in college sports -- even better than the NCAA event. But now with half the league being "in" and more concerned about fatigue and injuries that might affect their play in the NCAA event, we get four of the top five ACC seeds losing in their first game. Give credit to Duke for being the notable exception year after year.

Why not just go back to some version of having to win either the regular season conference title or post-season tournament in order to advance to the NCAA field? This way every team has a chance through their conference tournament to play a the next level. Put independents into their own tournament, etc. Have the NCAA negotiate this set-up as a TV deal (since we can assume that they won't consider it unless they get their cut). They could still get an extra weekend of regional and national TV coverage without cheapening the main event.