Abolish the “Opening Round” Game
No one buys that tonight’s game between Alabama State and Morehead State is the “opening round.” Hell, according to the very scientific poll conducted by Dan Patrick, more than 70 percent of his listeners do not believe that the tournament begins tonight. I agree with them. Nothing against the Hornets and Eagles, it does not start tonight. No matter what the NCAA tries to tell people, the play-in game does not register on anyone’s tourney radar. Sure, in reality it begins tonight. But it is like the beginning of college football — sure there are games between Tennessee-Martin and Austin Peay on the last Thursday in August, but for most fans the season kicks off on the Saturday before Labor Day.
Look at how it is structured in terms of brackets. In the case of this year, there is not an extra bracket for ASU and MSU on most brackets; typically it will show the top overall seed (in this case Louisville) and both teams separated by a slash (Alabama St/Morehead St). And I am not sure that anyone makes a prediction on tonight’s game…except for compulsive gamblers. I know that it is not available on Yahoo! Sports, while ESPN has a shameful “TBA” in the space for either the Hornets or Eagles. And, if it is the opening round, then why are BOTH teams a sixteenth seed; why isn’t one a 16 and one a 17? Well…that is because IT IS A DAMN PLAY-IN GAME!!!!!
I understand the reasoning for the play-in game. The NCAA wanted to maintain the 34 at-large bids after the WAC downsized (the once mega-conference in terms of number of schools split in half, with a new conference — the Mountain West Conference — being formed out of most of the “better” teams). Since the MWC would need an automatic bid, it would take away from the at-large pool. So, the NCAA expanded…by one spot!? WHAT!? The at-large bid that the MWC took would obviously go to the “last team in”; this year it would have been Arizona. I am trying to run various tournaments through my head, but is it not common for the last time in to be a mediocre team from a “power conference”? It was Villanova (i believe) last year and they did make a run. Before that, it was Illinois; then Bradley (a thirteenth seed, who made it to the elite eight); then UCLA; then UTEP. Maybe ridding the tourney of that at-large bid would not be a bad idea as it seems to go to a team from a power or good conference and only perform marginally well.
But here is what needs to be abolished — the play-in game. Both Alabama State and Morehead State should be playing on either Thursday or Friday, not on Tuesday! So, one less at-large bid! Yes, it might take out a Butler or a Dayton, but it could also take out an undeserving “power” school like Arizona and Wisconsin.
Let’s be clear — I am not stating that ASU or MSU would do anything in the tournament. Both would be a 15th or 16th seed and would go home really quickly. But Alabama State did what they were supposed to do in order to make it to the “Big Dance” — they won not only their regular season title, but also won the SWAC tourney (hence, the automatic bid). Morehead State was not as solid, but they did what they had to do — win the Ohio Valley tourney. Both the Hornets and Eagles had to work harder and essentially do more to make it in. On the other hand, Arizona and Wisconsin just had to play average basketball overall in order to get in the tournament. Hell, Wisconsin lost SIX IN A ROW at one point, including to Big Ten bottom feeders Iowa and Northwestern!!! Arizona did lost four in a row, but those were not all bad losses. However, Arizona was carried by name, the conference, and wins against teams (namely Kansas) that were not the same team as they were down the stretch. Get these teams out of there!!!
Another problem I have is that the teams in the play-in game do not seem like the worst teams. Sometimes, it is the teams with the worst records (I remember seeing teams with losing records in the play-in game), but it does not always have the two “worst” teams. For example, this year, Morehead State might deserve to be in the play-in, but Alabama State is probably better than UT-Chattanooga or Cal State-Northridge.
Here is the biggest problem I have — as I stated in my previous post, the play-in game is a slap in the face for both of those teams. Yes, technically one of those teams will get a tournament win on their resume (the only way a 16-seed will win, I guess) and they get some national exposure. But it basically states that neither of these two teams belong in the tournament, but are only there because of that silly “automatic bid” thing.
If the NCAA must have the play-in game, then I think it needs to be tweaked. And here is what can happen. If it has to be 65 teams, the play-in game should be between the last two teams in (i.e., at-large bids) and NOT automatic team bids unless there is an automatic bid team with a losing record. So Arizona and Wisconsin…enjoy your play-in game. And thank god one of them will be gone before people care about the actual tournament.
Or carry that one step further and expand the field to 68 teams. And, again, the play-in games are bubble teams. So you could add in San Diego State, St. Mary’s, and either Auburn or Creighton. Bring in the last five in (likely Wisconsin, Arizona, Dayton, Michigan and Maryland) and let those teams earn their way in. Alabama State and Morehead State earned their spot already.
At least, with this method, the play-in game could have more meaning and perhaps be really considered the opening round!