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.

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