Making the NCAA tournament for a mid-major program is a huge accomplishment. It allows a team to be publicly discussed on national television for at least a few days, something that is rare for a smaller squad with no TV contracts on major networks. It gives the university millions of dollars in free publicity and exposure. Most importantly, it gives the players on the lesser known teams a chance at the national stage, despite not having a truly realistic chance at winning the whole thing.
The foundation of March Madness is that anything can happen. These same mid-majors enter the NCAA tournament with an equal opportunity to come away with a program defining victory, create a moment, an experience that will last them a lifetime. For the major programs, their goal is to win it all, as it is with the mid-majors, but those major programs don’t necessarily need all those extra incentives. They have the money, the publicity and the reputation to put them to the top at any given moment. Mid-majors need that NCAA tournament to give them a shot at leveling the playing field, or at the very least attempt to do so.
Following the NCAA tournament each and every year, fans enjoy the prospect of the upset. It gives them a chance see schools they’ve probably never seen or heard of before taking on the elite in college basketball. No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed, but the journey to get to that game is fascinating in its own right. But now, with the institution of the First Four, some of these teams that have worked their way up and earned the shot for national exposure have it taken away from them just as quickly.
Each year during the tournament the debate about the First Four is always a wild one. High profile basketball personalities all weigh in on their thoughts of it and come down on one of two sides: either the First Four is a joke and should be abolished or if you don’t like the First Four, play better during the season or accept a bid to the less popular CIT or CBI tournaments.
Tuesday night’s Albany-Mount St. Mary’s game ignited the discussion once again, mostly because of CBSSports.com’s Gregg Doyel and his piece on how big of a insult the First Four is. Doyel is known for having some very controversial opinions on certain topics and this one is no different. Again, the battle lines had been drawn. Doyel received great praise for speaking on the the topic including from me. Others felt the need to defend the First Four and what it represents, an opportunity.
There certainly are two sides to the argument here. In Doyel’s piece he outlines how disappointing it was to see Mount St. Mary’s, a team that earned their way into the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tournament, had to play in front of a half empty arena and almost no media members except himself present for the event to interview the players. He depicts a seen of weeping players struggling to cope with their season ending loss and nobody there to give a damn about it.
What’s so amazing about the First Four is that it’s meant to give more teams a chance at the NCAA tournament but it also takes away that chance as well. Despite what the NCAA and selection committee would like you to believe, the First Four is not the first round. It is a play-in round. In order to get to the actual tournament you have to play in another game, putting your potential tournament games at seven, one more than the remaining 60 teams in the field. It also represents the fact that those same 60 teams that don’t have to play their way into the actual tournament essentially have a bye of sorts.
The truly disappointing part of the First Four is that it is completely unfair to the mid-majors, the 16-seeds that earned their way into the tournament by winning their conference championship, a concept that has existed for many years. It’s no longer enough to do what is required of you to do — win your conference tournament — to get to the “Big Dance.” No, now you have to earn your way into the tournament again. What this says to those mid-majors is that, “You don’t play in a big enough conference, so you have to jump through an extra hoop to re-earn your spot in the tournament.”
One argument that is made in favor of the First Four and the mid-majors that are forced to participate in it is, “If you don’t want to play in the First Four, the NIT and CBI are accepting applications.” Well, yes, there are three other tournament fields those teams could play in, but the same can be said for the at-large bids that are placed in front of the automatic bids. For example, N.C. State, the last team in the field for the 2014 tournament, is playing in the First Four, winning their game against Xavier on Tuesday night for the right to play Saint Louis on Thursday in the real tournament.
What gives a team like, say, Stanford or George Washington, entrance into the NCAA Tournament over Albany, Mount St. Mary’s, Texas Southern or Cal Poly? The fact that those two teams play tougher schedules? Probably, but the key factor is that those four mid-major teams don’t draw big money. People will tune in or pay to watch Stanford play but probably won’t bother watching Texas Southern.
Despite claiming to be a “non-profit organization,” the NCAA is money oriented. Everything they do is driven towards the goal of making more money than they did before. Since that’s the case, then why not make the First Four be four games where four at-large bids are at stake. You’re already lucky to have been entered into the NCAA Tournament field, so why not make those teams, the ones that didn’t earn bid by winning their conference tournament, jump through that extra hoop? Last night’s crowd in Dayton showed that those fans don’t want to go watch two small-time mid-majors do battle. They’ll show up in droves if you put N.C. State-Xavier or Tennessee-Iowa in front of them. Those are four programs that have history of long term successes and have big fan bases across the country.
And to top it all off, what the First Four says with its current setup is that if you’re a mid-major, winning your conference tournament is no longer enough. It’s not enough to play 30 or more games and three, four, sometimes five more games in the conference tournament to earn that spot. No, now you have to earn it one more time. For example, Stephen F. Austin, the team that hasn’t lost a game since November, went into their conference championship game knowing that if they didn’t win that game they had no chance at being in the NCAA tournament despite the fact that, if they had lost that game, they would only have three losses on the season. The ultimate goal in college basketball, and any sport really, is to win your games. If you’re a mid-major and don’t win your conference tournament it really doesn’t matter how many games you’ve won, it’s all about your name.
This is the same problem that Wichita State faced all year. Had they suffered a loss in the Missouri Valley Conference championship, they likely would’ve dropped from a 1-seed to, potentially, as low as a 4-seed. That’s the stigma of being a mid-major. It’s bad enough they have to face the constant questions of “who have you beaten” but winning consistently isn’t enough anymore. It’s a crying shame that it has to be this way but that’s the sports world we live in. Mid-majors will always get the shaft and that’s the reason why most casual fans have never heard of some of the teams in the tournament field. That’s due to the fact we’re supposed to ignore them because they don’t bring in the big bucks, they don’t have the history of a Duke or a Syracuse. It’s always going to be a losing battle for the smaller schools.
If you’re a mid-major program you better schedule the toughest non-conference schedule in the history of college basketball, because that’s what will earn you some credibility. Oh, you must also win at least half of those games to get any sort of respect. That’s not going to happen, so we’re stuck in this sports world where the mid-major is slowly deteriorating into the abyss. Enjoy it while you can, because soon it might not even be around to be disrespected.