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.
The introduction of the play-in game changed this dynamic. Now un-heralded teams from non-power conferences face the unsavory prospect of having to play their way into college basketball's proverbial promised land. As an ESPN story on LIU Brooklyn revealed, disappointment understandably filled the team's locker room after news broke that their conference tournament victory did not earn them a spot in the tournament proper. The subsequent loss to JMU justified their disappointment.
The most memorable moments of the early rounds of March Madness involve unknown schools pulling massive upsets. Avid followers of college basketball and casual fans unite when a team like Lehigh sends Duke packing, or a Northern Iowa upsets a Kansas. Those moments resonate throughout the years. The play-in games reduce the possibilities for memorable upsets by eliminating some smaller schools before the 64-team bracket commences play. And teams that earn their bids the hard way—that is, by winning a conference championship—should not have to jump one more hurdle in order to play on Thursday or Friday.
Thus, the NCAA selection committee should create a rule stipulating all conference tournament champions are exempt from opening-round games. These opening-round play-in contests could then become the forum through which "bubble" teams from power conferences like the Big Ten, the Big East, and the ACC compete for the final slots in the Big Dance.
Every season, several teams from power conferences find themselves "on the bubble." Too often, many of these teams get admitted to the tournament despite questionable regular-season resumes. This season, Cincinnati, Iowa State, California, and Minnesota are four teams whose at-large bids were shaky. I'm not singling out these schools as the power-conference teams most undeserving of at-large bids, or saying they don't deserve a spot in the Big Dance. But considering none of them won their respective conference tournaments and their regular season resumes are solid but not spectacular, it would have made more sense for these teams to take part in the play-in games. Liberty, JMU, North Carolina A&T, and LIU Brooklyn should have gone right into the 64-team bracket.
Teams from big conferences get plenty of opportunities to compete on a national stage. The NCAA tournament is about giving smaller schools and schools from less powerful conferences a chance at one shining moment. The play-in games have become an additional, unnecessary impediment to this dream.