The One Tweak That Would Make March Madness More Exciting

Bubble teams should have to prove themselves in play-in rounds, while small-conference champs should automatically make the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
liu brooklyn banner.jpg
LIU Brooklyn forward Jamal Olasewere walks off court after losing 68-55 to James Madison in a first-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP / Skip Peterson)

In recent months, some sports columnists cried foul over what they deemed a lackluster college basketball season. The gist of their arguments was this: Too much parity and a dearth of great players made for less-than-compelling drama this winter.

I could not disagree more. The appeal of the college game hinges on a delicate balance of tradition and uncertainty. Throughout the regular season, well-known institutions (Kentucky, Duke, Kansas) are the stars, jostling for position in the polls and playing high-stakes games at hallowed venues like Rupp Arena and Cameron Indoor Stadium. And yet, come March, the small fries step into the spot light, and fans get to watch as schools with modest reputations—Lehigh, Northern Iowa—try to take out the Goliaths. March Madness is still one of the sports world's greatest star makers.

There is, however, one minor adjustment which, if implemented, could make March Madness even better: tweaking the opening-round games, more commonly known as the play-in games, to give more schools from non-power conferences a shot at pulling first-round upsets.

When the NCAA expanded to a 65-team pool in 2001, they instituted a play-in game between the No. 64 team and the No. 65 team. In 2011, they further expanded the field to 68 teams, creating a series of four play-in games to be held between the last four automatic qualifiers and the last four at-large teams. These games now occur on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the full field begins play, and tend to pit teams from non-power conferences such as the Big South and the Colonial Athletic Association against each other for a spot in the first full round of the tournament—the round with the widest field of competition, at 64 teams.

This season James Madison University (JMU), winner of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, defeated LIU Brooklyn, winner of the Northeast Conference tournament, in one play-in game, while North Carolina A&T, winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, defeated Liberty, winner of the Big South Conference tournament, in another. As a result, JMU and Carolina A&T will participate in normal tournament play, while LIU Brooklyn and Liberty head home before the Big Dance really kicks off.

This strikes me as unfair, and it contradicts the essence of what makes March Madness so great. The beauty of college basketball is end-of-year conference tournaments give smaller schools access to the Big Dance. Unlike college football, where admission to postseason play remains a convoluted mess, punching a ticket to the NCAA tourney is remarkably straightforward: Win a season-ending conference tournament and you're in. Prior to the birth of the play-in game, all conference winners knew they would have the opportunity to compete on either the first Thursday or Friday of the tournament, two of the most iconic days in all of American sports.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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