Why the CAA and Big Sky champs should always be in an NCAA tournament play-in game, regardless of record

This is just a brief companion post to my longer discussion about the NCAA Tournament’s play-in games (also known as PIGs). In that post, I referenced a quote  from the Albany Times-Union made by Peter Hooley, a player for Albany. Here it is again:

“If you play well enough to win your league,you shouldn’t have to play a play-in game.”

Hooley is correct, but you might be surprised to know that not every small- or mid-major conference shares his point of view. At least, not every league commissioner agrees with him.

In a story from USA Today, both CAA commissioner Tom Yeager and Big Sky chief Dennis Farrell both suggested they would actually prefer that their respective league champions be sent to Dayton for a play-in game in a certain situation:

“We joke about it in the conference offices, but if you’re going to have a 16 seed, let’s go to Dayton,” Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager said. “Play someone that’s relatively similar to you with the opportunity to pick up another basketball unit, and then you walk into the lion’s den with the No. 1 seed.

“Last year, James Madison was able to win and then line up with Indiana. I’d rather take that route than line up with Indiana or another No. 1 seed right out of the box. That’d be my preference. It’s a winnable game, and the unit is worth, over six years, about $1.5 million dollars.”…

…”When the whole concept of the play-in games first came up, as a conference commissioner I wasn’t very excited about the prospect of having a team playing in those games,” says longtime Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell, who expects to be in Dayton to cheer on Cal Poly. “But in all honesty, when they put the financial reward on winning that game, it certainly changed my viewpoint about it. If you’re going to be a 16 seed, you might as well have a chance to pick up a victory in the tournament.

It’s possible neither man has ever asked the players and fans of affected teams about the difference between being a “regular” 16 seed and one sent to a play-in game. I guess it’s also possible neither one cares that much about the opinions of the athletes and supporters. That might seem harsh, but I’m not sure how else to interpret those comments, particularly Yeager’s.

Coastal Carolina got a 16 seed and was matched up against Virginia. Was it a difficult matchup for the Chanticleers? Of course it was (although CCU actually led the game at halftime).  Regardless, Coastal Carolina’s players and fans received the benefit of the complete NCAA Tournament experience in a way that the AQs relegated to the play-in games did not.

I know that if my school somehow ever won its league, I would be bitterly disappointed (if not very angry) if it were put in a play-in game. The difference between the play-in games and being part of the real tourney — because make no mistake, the PIGs are not part of the real tourney — is enormous.

In my opinion, if SoCon commissioner John Iamarino ever suggested that he would not mind seeing his league champion in a play-in game, it would be a sign that the SoCon needed a new commissioner.

Basically, I’m writing about this because I was struck at how open these two commissioners were about this topic and their viewpoints on it.  After all, the extra cash on the table is basically “hush money” for smaller leagues, so as to reduce the amount of complaining about automatic qualifiers having to go to the PIGs.

Yeager and Farrell aren’t the only commissioners who feel this way (the article also quotes MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas), but they are the two who are quoted as preferring the play-in game to being a “regular” 16 seed. That leads me to make a simple suggestion.

Every year, the CAA and Big Sky champions should automatically be sent to Dayton for a play-in game, regardless of their record. That way, those two leagues have the opportunity to pick up the additional “basketball unit” they seem to want.

So next year, if William & Mary were to win 20+ games and finally claim a league tourney title, instead of being part of the regular NCAA Tournament, the Tribe would go to Dayton and participate in a play-in game. That would naturally be unfair to its players (including the redoubtable Marcus Thornton) and longtime fans, who have always dreamed of playing in the NCAAs.

However, the CAA would have a chance of making a little more money. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

A rancid PIG: the NCAA basketball tournament’s biggest flaw

Last week, Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports.com wrote an excellent column about the worst aspect of the NCAA Tournament, the play-in games. Oh, the NCAA doesn’t want you to call them the play-in games, but Doyel disposed of that nonsense with ease:

The NCAA prefers that we don’t call what happened Tuesday night a play-in game, and I prefer you don’t call me bald. It’s possible I am bald, but do me the courtesy of not noticing.

Even Albany’s coach and players have been calling this thing a play-in game since Sunday night, when they gathered to watch the selection show and watched their name come up for … this. The team wasn’t clapping or hooting. The team was stunned, and trying to recover.

Doyel writes about all of the many things that make PIGs so abominable, including this key point:

And understand this: Mount St. Mary’s got screwed out of the NCAA Tournament experience — the NCAA Tournament — it earned by winning the NEC tournament. Used to be, every school in America started the season with the same premise, and promise: Win your conference tournament, and you’re in The Dance. Even the smallest of the small schools were guaranteed a spot in the field if they won their league.

It should be noted that Albany, despite beating Mt. St. Mary’s in their play-in matchup, also missed out on an essential part of the tournament experience. Normally, it would have been part of the bracket discussion until Thursday or Friday, with its fans filling out their brackets with glee, and pundits weighing in on the Great Danes’ chances to pull off a miracle upset…but no, Albany didn’t get to enjoy any of that. Instead it was shunted off to Dayton for a game against another small school.

The ideal solution would be to eliminate the play-in games and revert back to the 64-team model for the tournament, but that’s not happening. Since there is no chance of the NCAA getting rid of the PIGs, then, the next-best thing to do would be to make all four of the games matchups between at-large teams. Right now, only two of them are.

I want to illustrate how unfair that really is by breaking down the teams (and leagues) that have participated in the last four NCAA tournaments (2011-14) into categories.

What follows is based on league affiliation beginning in 2014-15. In other words, Rutgers is considered a Big 10 member, and Louisville is representing the ACC. Tulsa is part of the AAC, as are Tulane and East Carolina. Davidson is in the Atlantic 10. Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky are part of C-USA, etc.

To further clarify, another example. Pacific is now a member of the WCC, but it earned a 2013 NCAA bid as a member of the Big West. For the purposes of this exercise, though, the Tigers are considered to be a WCC school that has been in the tournament at least once over the last four years (because that is in fact the case). There are several other schools that received bids in one league over the last four years before moving to another (like Butler and UTSA).

I decided to organize things that way to avoid mass confusion, though it is practically impossible to completely avoid confusion with all the recent conference realignment. If I made a mistake or two along the way, I apologize in advance.

Okay, now for some statistics:

The “power conferences”

There are 65 schools that play in the P5 leagues (ACC, Big 10, Big XII, SEC, Pac-12). Forty-eight of the 65 have made at least one appearance in the NCAA tournament over the past four years. That’s 74% of all power-conference schools.

Of the seventeen that haven’t, only six haven’t made the tourney over the past seven years: South Carolina (last made the NCAAs in 2004), Auburn (2003), TCU (1998), Rutgers (1991), Oregon State (1991), and Northwestern, well-known as the only power-conference school to have never made the NCAA tournament.

Multi-bid regulars

The next grouping is made up of leagues that almost always will have two or three teams (sometimes more) make the tournament. The four conferences in this category are the AAC, MWC, Big East, and Atlantic 10. Obviously, two of these leagues are basically new (the AAC and the nuBig East), but quite a few of the teams in those conferences have consistently received NCAA bids.

There are 46 schools in these four leagues, and 30 of them (65%) have participated in at least one NCAA tournament over the past four years.

The occasional at-large recipients

There are three leagues that in a given year might wind up with multiple bids, but also might not. They are the MVC, WCC, and C-USA.

Of the 34 schools that will be in those three conferences as of 2014-15, only twelve received an NCAA berth in the last four years. That’s 35% of the group.

For the record, those twelve schools: Wichita State, Indiana State, Gonzaga, BYU, St. Mary’s, Pacific, UAB, Middle Tennessee State, Southern Mississippi, UTSA, Old Dominion, and Western Kentucky.

AQ-only

In the remaining 20 conferences in Division I, 54 different schools (out of 205) have made the NCAAs over the past four seasons. That’s 26% of the schools (and doesn’t count poor NJIT, the lone independent).

All 54 of those schools appeared in the field as automatic qualifiers.

Note: there were a few at-large bids out of the 20 leagues over the last four years (including teams in the Sun Belt and the CAA), but none of the schools that got at-large bids in those conferences will still be in those leagues as of 2014-15.

When you see just how difficult it is for a school in a mid- or low-major conference to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, it further underlines just how ridiculous it is that at least four such schools every year are placed in a PIG. These schools all did what was necessary to make the NCAA tournament: win their respective leagues.

From the Albany Times-Union:

UAlbany shouldn’t have to beat Mount St. Mary’s for the chance to play No. 1 overall seed Florida on Thursday in Orlando. The Danes already earned that right.

“If you play well enough to win your league,” Danes guard Peter Hooley said, “you shouldn’t have to play a play-in game.”

Hooley is absolutely correct.

I am also a bit perplexed the folks at CBS headquarters haven’t suggested to the NCAA that having an all at-large “First Four” is preferable. I would presume having larger-conference schools face off against each other might provide slightly better ratings than TruTV got for Cal Poly-Texas Southern. Don’t they want more people to see those promos for Impractical Jokers?

Hmm, maybe they don’t…

My fear is that the NCAA is more likely to go the other way, and make all four PIGs auto-qualifier affairs (which might be okay with certain league commissioners). The play-in phenomenon is not limited to basketball, either; there is apparently now a movement to introduce it to college baseball, in what seems to be a transparent attempt to marginalize smaller conferences in that sport.

Sometimes I get the impression that the people who run the NCAA Tournament don’t understand what it is that’s great about the NCAA Tournament. Never do I feel that way more than when I see the PIG matchups.

I’m not the only person who feels that way, either.

Corps Day, spring football, and some Beautiful Bulldogs

This is basically just a post to upload a few pictures I took on Corps Day at The Citadel. I arrived on campus in time to watch most of the parade, then wandered over to Johnson Hagood Stadium to see the various entrants for the fourth annual Beautiful Bulldog Contest. I have to say the costumes on some of the dogs were…inventive.

I then watched the spring football game, though I had to leave during the third quarter.

There are, to be sure, other outlets for (much better) photos of these events, including the school’s own website. I also highly recommend this gallery of Beautiful Bulldog Contest pictures from WCIV-TV, and this one from The Post and Courier.

It was a nice day for a parade, and a game, and for a bunch of bulldogs (and their handlers) to goof around.

I don’t have any in-depth observations to make about the football scrimmage. The offense is a work in progress. Mitchell Jeter was arguably the standout player overall.

Key stat: no serious injuries were reported (Walker Smith did twist/sprain his ankle).

There was a decent crowd in attendance, perhaps around 800-1,000 fans. There may have been more; I’m not sure how many people were in the club section.

Big Dance victory droughts: major-conference schools that haven’t won an NCAA tournament game in at least ten years — the 2014 edition

Last year, I wrote about the BCS schools that haven’t won an NCAA tournament game in at least ten years. Thirteen schools fit that description, unfortunately for them. Two things subsequently happened:

1) One of the thirteen, Mississippi, won its first NCAA tournament game since 2001. The Rebels beat Wisconsin in the round of 64 before losing to La Salle.

2) The Big East split into two leagues, the “new Big East” and the American Athletic Conference.

The latter event is leading to a slight change for this year’s post. What, precisely, is a “major conference” in college basketball? Does the Big East count? What about the AAC? And if they do, then perhaps shouldn’t the MWC as well? Does the Atlantic-10 have a case?

For this year, I’ve decided to consider seven leagues as “major conferences”: AAC, ACC, Big 10, Big XII, Big East, SEC, and Pac-12.

For the record, here are the 13 schools in the A-10 and MWC that have not won an NCAA tournament game since at least 2004 (a few of them have never won a tourney game at all): Duquesne, Fordham, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, St. Joseph’s, Air Force, Boise State, Fresno State, San Jose State, Utah State, and Wyoming.

The following 17 major-conference schools have not won an NCAA tournament game since at least 2004:

– Northwestern (no tournament appearances): NU is the cause célèbre of schools to have never played in the NCAA tournament, because it is the only major-conference school to have never competed in the event. You can read about Northwestern and all the other schools that have never made the Big Dance here: Link

At 13-18 this season (6-12 in conference play), the Wildcats would have to win the Big 10 tourney to make the NCAAs for the first time. That would mean winning four games in four days, against Iowa, Michigan State, probably Wisconsin, and possibly Michigan.

No, that’s not happening.

– Nebraska (no NCAA victories): The Cornhuskers are winless in six trips to the Big Dance, and haven’t made the NCAAs at all since 1998.

That “haven’t made the NCAAs” bit is probably going to change this year, though, as Nebraska appears a decent bet to get an at-large bid. Whether it can finally win a game in the tournament is another matter, of course. It should get the opportunity, though.

– UCF (no NCAA victories): The Knights’ football team won a BCS bowl game this past season, but in four trips to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, UCF is 0-fer. All four of those appearances came as a member of the Atlantic Sun.

This year, UCF is 12-17 overall, 4-14 in the AAC, and waiting for football season.

– South Carolina (last won an NCAA game in 1973): It has been more than 40 years since the Gamecocks advanced in the NCAAs. South Carolina’s last victory was actually in a regional consolation game. Its losing streak in NCAA play began with a loss to Furman.

The Gamecocks would have to win five SEC tournament games in five days to earn a trip to the NCAAs this year, which is about as likely as Frank Martin controlling his emotions on the sidelines.

– Houston (last won an NCAA game in 1984): That’s right, the Cougars haven’t won an NCAA tourney game since the days of Phi Slama Jama. That may seem hard to believe, but Houston has only made one trip to the NCAAs since 1992.

In order to return to the grand stage for the first time since 2010, the Cougars would have to win the AAC tourney, a dicey proposition at best. Houston is the 6 seed in a league tournament with five very good teams. Beating three of them in three days is probably not realistic.

– Oregon State (last won an NCAA game in 1982): The Beavers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1991, the longest such drought for a BCS school outside of Northwestern, and haven’t won a game in the tourney since 1982, when OSU lost to Georgetown in the West Regional final. The program has two appearances in the Final Four, so it’s not like Oregon State is bereft of hoops tradition.

Only a Pac-12 tourney title will be enough to get Oregon State back to the NCAAs. Raise your hand if you think President Obama’s favorite Pac-12 team can win four games in four days, with the first two coming against Oregon and UCLA. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

– Rutgers (last won an NCAA game in 1983): The last time RU won a tourney game was in 1983, when the Scarlet Knights were in the Atlantic-10. Rutgers has since moved from the A-10 to the Big East to the AAC, and, beginning next season, the Big 10.

In 1976, Rutgers made the Final Four as a member of the ECAC Metro conference. That league was probably a bit easier to navigate than this year’s AAC, in which Rutgers went 5-13 in conference action (11-20 overall). There will be at least one more year on this list for the Scarlet Knights (if not more).

– TCU (last won an NCAA game in 1987): TCU hasn’t made the NCAAs since 1997, when it was in the WAC. TCU’s last victory in the tournament came in 1987, as an SWC team.

This year, as a member of the Big XII, the Horned Frogs were the only program in Division I to go winless in conference play. I wouldn’t put any money on a league tournament run.

– SMU (last won an NCAA game in 1988): The Mustangs’ last win in the Big Dance was an 83-75 victory over Digger Phelps and Notre Dame. SMU was a member of the SWC at the time, as it was for all ten of its appearances in the NCAAs.

Under the tutelage of the remarkable Larry Brown, the Mustangs are poised to return to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 1993, this time as a member of the AAC.

– Providence (last won an NCAA game in 1997): Two notable coaches (Dave Gavitt and Rick Pitino) each led the Friars to the Final Four (in 1973 and 1987, respectively). Providence hasn’t won a game in the NCAAs since losing a regional final to Arizona in 1997, however, and hasn’t made an NCAA appearance at all since 2004.

This year the Friars are a “bubble” team. To make the NCAAs, Providence probably needs to win at least one Big East tournament game. As it happens, the Friars’ first-round opponent is another bubbler…the next team on this list.

– St. John’s (last won an NCAA game in 2000): SJU has only played in two NCAA tournaments since 2000, testimony to the modern struggles of this tradition-rich program (two Final Fours, four Elite Eights).

To have any shot at returning to the NCAAs this season, Steve Lavin’s Red Storm must beat Providence on Thursday (and likely needs to win the following day as well, a potential matchup against Villanova).

– Iowa (last won an NCAA game in 2001): Iowa is another school that has a fine basketball history. The Hawkeyes played in the 1956 NCAA title game, one of three times Iowa has made the Final Four. Since 2001, however, it has only made the NCAAs twice, losing in the first round on both occasions (the latter appearance as a 3-seed, in a gut-wrenching loss to Northwestern State).

The Hawkeyes should be returning to the NCAAs again this year, barring a lot of conference tourney upsets across the country. Fran McCaffery’s squad will get a chance to dance.

– Penn State (last won an NCAA game in 2001): The Nittany Lions got to the Sweet 16 in 2001, upsetting North Carolina in the second round to get there. PSU has only made one tourney trip since (2011).

Barring a spectacular run through the Big 10 tournament, Penn State (15-16 overall, 6-12 Big 10) will have to wait at least one more season to return to the NCAAs.

– Georgia (last won an NCAA game in 2002): UGA has only made two NCAAs since 2002. In 1983, Hugh Durham’s Bulldogs made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to eventual champ North Carolina State. That 1983 appearance was actually UGA’s first trip to the NCAAs in school history.

Despite a 12-6 conference record, Georgia will have to win the SEC tourney in order to return to the NCAAs. Of all the teams on this list that are in “win league tourney or else” mode, though, the Bulldogs may have the best shot. Admittedly, it’s not much of one.

– Auburn (last won an NCAA game in 2003): The last time Auburn made the NCAAs, the Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003 before losing by one point in the regional semifinals to Syracuse, which won the national title that year.

The Tigers tend to play well in the NCAAs (12-8 alltime) when they get to the NCAAs. Getting there, however, has been a bit of a challenge at times. This year will be no exception. Only an SEC tournament title will do, and Auburn is the 12 seed in that event.

Seton Hall (last won an NCAA game in 2004): Louis Orr was the coach when Seton Hall last won a game in the Big Dance, winning an 8-9 game against Lute Olson and Arizona in 2004. Orr was also on the bench when the Pirates made their last appearance in the NCAAs, in 2006.

This year, Seton Hall is 15-16, and would have to win four games in four days at Madison Square Garden to qualify for the NCAAs. It would be quite a story.

– DePaul: (last won an NCAA game in 2004): DePaul hasn’t been back to the NCAAs since advancing to the round of 32 in 2004.

This season, the Blue Demons have been dreadful (11-20, last in the Big East), culminating in a horrific 79-46 loss to Butler on Senior Night. That would be Senior Night…at home. In Chicago.

(Speaking of Chicago, it’s been a tough year for college hoops in the Windy City. The five D-1 schools in the metropolitan area (UIC, Chicago State, Northwestern, Loyola-IL, DePaul) have a combined record of 52-103; four of those schools finished in last place in their respective leagues.)

For any of these schools to break through and win a game in the NCAAs, the first step is getting to the tournament. This year, SMU will be there, and Iowa probably will be as well. Nebraska should join them.

Providence and St. John’s could possibly garner at-large bids. The other twelve schools can only get there by winning their respective league tournaments, a tall order. Otherwise, they are guaranteed to be on this list next year.