NCAA tournament time highlights peculiarities of college basketball

An underdog's life is difficult enough without throwing additional obstacles in their path

Cal Poly, in white, made it into the NCAA Tournament proper by beating Texas Southern, in red, in a play-in game on March 19, 2014. Gregory Shamus / Getty Images / AFP
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Late March in the United States is a time of great promise and waning productivity. Winter is bidding an overdue farewell, baseball season is just around the corner and – most importantly – the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament swings into action.

This is the time when even those Americans who do not give college basketball a moment's thought during the rest of the year start poring over brackets and giving serious consideration to which 12 seed they should pick to upset a No 5. Some do it for office bragging rights, some do it because their alma mater is in the tournament, and others do it just to avoid being the office outcast for the next month.

One of the inescapable draws of the NCAA tournament is the presence of underdogs. For every blue-blood programme such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, there are many more for whom just getting this far is a triumph. The first weekend of the tournament is most often their showcase – consider last year’s event, when then-unknown Florida Gulf Coast shocked two higher-seeded teams to reach the Sweet 16, or the previous tournament, when No 15 seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State stunned Duke and Missouri.

The fun need not stop after the first week, of course. In recent years, unheralded George Mason and Wichita State have reached the Final Four, and unassuming Butler played for the national championship in consecutive tournaments.

Beyond the pompoms and pep bands, though, there are certain inequities built into the system that make life needlessly difficult for schools already at a significant disadvantage in talent and resources.

Jumping through hoops

Consider the opening round of the tournament – officially known as the “First Four” but dubbed “play-in games” by those not affiliated with the NCAA. One of the primary assumptions under which college basketball operates is that if teams win their conference post-season tournament, they will receive a berth to the NCAA tournament. Thanks to conference realignment and the siren song of television revenue, that is not necessarily the case.

Instead, the four weakest conference-tournament winners and four lowest at-large teams from bigger conferences are thrown together in Dayton, Ohio, two days before the start of the tournament proper. Because the NCAA chose not to reduce the number of at-large berths when the tournament expanded from 64 teams to 65, and later to 68, these teams are forced to jump through an extra hoop to receive the same treatment given to so many of their peers.

Why are these teams who lived up to the agreed-upon standard for reaching the NCAA tournament – ie. winning their conference tournament – made to clear another hurdle before being allowed what is rightfully theirs? The sensible approach would be to eliminate four at-large berths and return the national tournament to a 64-team field. True, none of Albany, Mount St Mary’s, Texas Southern and Cal Poly are threats to win a national championship, but one could easily say the same of North Carolina State, Xavier, Iowa and Tennessee. Would the NCAA tournament really be that much poorer for the absence of the latter quartet?

If the NCAA wants to persist with a 68-team tournament, it should at least give all conference-tournament winners an automatic berth in the tournament proper and save the play-in games for teams from midsized and larger conferences who did not win their respective tournaments. Claims that letting these smaller schools play in Dayton before the tournament gives them their day in the sun are, at best, patronising. Let them ride their puncher’s chance in the tournament proper and take a swing at the established powers of college basketball.

That a No 16 seed has never beaten a No 1 seed in the men’s NCAA tournament is beside the point. Teams who win their conference tournament have lived up to the qualifying standard set before each season and should be rewarded as such – let those teams who failed to live up to that standard go the extra mile to join the party.

Play them again, Sam

Conference tournaments are another of the inequities that lurk behind the scenes in college basketball.

At some point during the development of American sporting culture, determining champions by who had the best regular-season record became either unworkable or unpalatable. Rather than reward regular-season winners with the championship and call it a day, Americans make their best prove themselves all over again in the post-season.

In one sense, this is understandable. Contesting championships in a knockout, post-season tournament is more exciting and TV-friendly than round-robin play and it might be fairer towards otherwise talented teams who endured a rough patch for one reason or another. Then again, making the biggest prize on offer contingent on winning a post-season tournament does raise the question of just how beneficial it is to be a regular-season champion.

Consider this season’s conference tournaments. Of the 32 conferences sending teams to the NCAA tournament, 31 awarded their automatic berth in the national event to the winner of their post-season tournament. (The Ivy League, as is their ivy-covered wont, eschews the vulgarity of conference tournaments and awards their automatic berth to the regular-season champion. How quaint.) The 34 at-large berths are handed out by a selection committee to the teams they deem most worthy of participating in the NCAA tournament.

This year, of the 31 regular-season conference champions, only 10 – Delaware, Wichita State, North Dakota State, Gonzaga, Weber State, Western Michigan, North Carolina Central, Stephen F. Austin, Florida and Virginia – followed that success by winning their post-season tournament. That means only 11 of 32 conferences put forth into the NCAA tournament the team who had proven themselves the best in their league during the course of the season.

Of the 21 regular-season conference champions to lose in their post-season tournament, just seven – Cincinnati, St Louis, Villanova, Michigan, Kansas, San Diego State and Arizona – received at-large berths. Regular-season champions who miss out on the NCAA tournament are guaranteed a berth in the second-tier National Invitational Tournament, but that is cold comfort after having a season’s worth of success dashed after one loss.

College basketball can and should do better than this. The simplest solution would be to abolish conference tournaments, but tradition and the prospect of forfeiting TV revenue make that unlikely. Still, smaller conferences might benefit more in the long run from emulating the Ivy League than throwing open their NCAA berth to all comers. According to Forbes magazine, a single win in the NCAA tournament could net a conference upwards of US$1.6 million (Dh5.9 million).

Whether in the form of post-season byes, hosting privileges or other benefits, steps must be taken to protect regular-season champions. It will give a better reflection of the conferences and make the NCAA tournament stronger.