Friday, March 17, 2017

The Real Madness in March Madness

It’s March again, which means another round of March Madness is upon us. If you like hype, crap officiating, office gambling, and media timeouts, this is the event for you. If you appreciate fairness, on the other hand, best look elsewhere. I’m talking about the real madness behind the NCAA basketball tournament: the annual snubbing of successful mid-major teams.

There are 32 conferences in Division I basketball, and each runs a postseason tournament with the winner getting the conference’s automatic berth to the tournament. Some tournaments are held at campus sites, with the higher seed hosting, making the regular season somewhat meaningful, while others are held at neutral locations. Some even hold the tournament at a pre-determined campus court regardless of regular season record; the Ivy League played their first tournament this year at Penn’s Palestra, and the #4 Quakers nearly upset #1 seed Princeton due to their undeserved home court advantage. At least the Ivy only invites 4 of 8 teams, most of the other tournaments invite every single team in a cynical move to generate as much revenue as possible, which again renders the 30-some games played in the regular season meaningless. Top teams get byes, so you end up with the #11 and #14 seeds facing off. Why? Seriously, why?

After the 32 automatic bids are set, the other 36 bids are decided by a selection committee, who are now celebrities in their own right, getting their own show to reveal their picks on the Sunday before the tournament begins. Meanwhile, “bracketologists” like Joe Lunardi predict the outcome, with bubble teams separated into “Last 4 In” and “First 4 Out”. The hype is ridiculous. Do even real college hoops fans care if Kansas State or Syracuse makes it in? Both are bad teams with no chance at winning the whole thing.

In the end, 33 of the 36 at-large teams came from power basketball conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, American); the only outsiders were Dayton and VCU from the Atlantic-10 (arguably not a mid-major) and St. Mary’s from the West Coast Conference, and even they are not truly mid-major as #1-seed Gonzaga is also a member. For the other 23 conferences, only the tournament winner was afforded the chance to dance. And this is what is so unfair. The committee has an inherent bias against squads from smaller conferences, primarily based on strength of schedule. Thus garbage teams like Kansas State (8-10 in Big 12) and Wake Forest (9-9 in ACC) get coveted spots, while Horizon League champ Oakland (14-4) was left out after losing their tournament opener to Youngstown State (5-13), a game that was played at neutral Joe Louis Arena.

It is not necessarily the committee’s fault either; the entire college basketball world favours the power conferences. Mid-major teams rarely host teams from power conferences (Philadelphia’s Big 5 schools are a notable exception) so they don’t have much of a chance to establish themselves in terms of the statistical requirements mandated by the committee (“body of work”, “strength of schedule”). In other words, a small fish in a big pond is better than a big fish in a small pond when it comes to selecting schools for March Madness. And that is outright wrong.

Want proof? As a conference champion that did not win its tournament, Oakland gained an automatic bid to the NIT (along with 9 other such teams), where they were given a 7-seed. Their opponent in the first round was Clemson who finished 6-12 in ACC play. Oakland traveled to Clemson and won, 74-69. Cal-State Bakersfield from the WAC, another regular season champ who lost in their tournament, was given an 8-seed. They visited Cal, who finished 10-8 in the Pac-12, and came away with the upset win as well.

Of course, other mid-major champions lost, such as Monmouth falling to Ole Miss, but the point is that these teams can compete with the lesser lights of the power conferences and should be allowed to do so in the NCAA tournament, not in the NIT.

How can this be fixed? In some cases, regular season mid-major champions should join their conference’s tournament champs in the Big Dance. It is wrong to punish these teams for a single loss. The regular season supposedly matters for power conferences (I say supposedly because seriously, how did Wake Forest get in with their 9-9 ACC record, or Vanderbilt at 19-15 overall) but not at all for the mid-majors. Second, no team that is at or under .500 in conference play should be admitted unless they win their tournament (in fact, tournaments should not accept such teams but I know this isn’t going to happen). Kansas State (8-10) beat Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, which probably got them into the dance, but does any serious fan of college hoops really want to see another crap power conference team instead of Oakland or Belmont? Upsets are the lifeblood of the tournament and Xavier beating Maryland is not an upset.

One compromise would be to add four more teams to the NCAA tournament – the best mid-major champs who lost in their tournament – to create a First Eight. I’d be much more interested in any of those matchups than Providence vs USC, both of whom went 10-8 in conference play.

So while you sit back for the next three weeks to enjoy 67 basketball games, pay attention to the NIT as well – it has a few teams that you should be watching instead.



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