Saturday, February 2, 2019

How to Fix the Play-In Games

This post was originally written about a year ago. I made an attempt to update it and clean it up so it would sound a little less "rant-y." But I wanted to re-post it because I think about it every time I place four 16-seeds into their respective play-in games, and on the self-serving side, because it's likely that one of my favorites would be placed there if they somehow won their tournament. They, and all the 16 seeds, deserve better.

How to Fix the Play-In Games

Imagine for a moment that there was a national contest at your school. The winner from each school would get to compete at a national competition. So you won, but wait! When the contest pairings come out, you learn that since went to a smaller school, you have to compete against winners from other small schools, and if you win THAT time, you’ll get to go to nationals.

This very thing happens to four teams every Selection Sunday. Four conference tournament champions, with automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament, must play each other for the right to advance to the round of 64. None of the other conference champions have to do this - they are placed directly into the 64 team bracket.

Bids to the NCAA Tournament are supposed to be guaranteed to winners of the conference tournaments. No matter your record, if you win your conference tourney, you’re going to the Tournament. Everyone has a chance. It's what makes the conference tourneys so dramatic, and it contributes to the term "March Madness."

Think about what making the Tournament means to some of the lower tier conference schools. Both school and conference get some national air time. Their representative gets to square off against a national power – likely a once in a lifetime shot. Think what that means for recruiting, for national exposure, to the coaches and individual players! Verne Lundquist and Jim Nantz are going to be discussing them by name! Sure, the 16's have only one win against the 1's (congratulations, UMBC!), but it's still a great opportunity for these schools.

However, the champions from two conferences will not get that opportunity. They won’t get to play Duke or Tennessee this year, because they’ll have lost the First Four game against another team from another lower-tier conference.

This is profoundly unfair to these 16-seed teams.

Yes, these games get some viewership. Yes, you get some competitive, exciting games. And yes, teams (and especially coaches) can claim they “made the NCAA Tournament” or even “won a tournament game.” The financial rewards are no less if you're in the play-in game, and in fact, two conferences will get an extra share because their teams will have advanced. (Note I said "conferences," since tournament payouts go to the conferences for distribution to teams, not directly to the teams or schools themselves.)

But losing to North Carolina on Thursday, with half the country watching, while painful, is very different than losing on Tuesday or Wednesday night before a fraction of the audience to a team from a similar conference. Losing to UNC means you played UNC. You might’ve even hung around for the first half. Lose in Dayton, and you miss that whole experience, and far fewer people saw you.

That’s what’s wrong with the First Four games as they are currently set up. They deny two conference champions, who have earned the right, their shot at the frenzy of the NCAA Tournament. Their shot at a top team. Their shot at exposure and yes, their shot at history (slim though it may be). These teams earned their ticket but were given one EXTRA hoop to jump through, failed, and were shown the door before even really taking the stage.

Let’s flip the script a minute. If we’re weeding out two 16’s through the play-in games, that means that a pair of what would’ve been 15’s are now on the 16 line. That means that two 1 seeds that are expecting to play a 16 (which, again, have only toppled a 1-seed once) are really playing 15’s, (which have knocked off a handful more 2’s). Indeed, this is true right up the line. A pair of 2-seeds are getting what should be 14’s, and a pair of 3’s are getting 13’s, and so forth. So even if you’re a high seed, you’re very possibly playing a (ever so slightly) better team. In fact, without the 16-seed play-in games, UMBC would have been a 15 seed and not played Virginia at all!

We know that the first play-in game was set up after the split of the WAC and Mountain West, but instead of eliminating an at-large bid, they made the two lowest-seeded teams play their way into the tournament. Again, these teams EARNED BIDS BY WINNING THEIR CONFERENCE TOURNEYS! So Winthrop (which lost the first play-in game by four points) was denied access so that a bigger conference also-ran could snag a bid and get beat by double digits. How fair was that? So fair that the 2001 Tournament’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even list the score of the play-in game, only that Northwestern State lost to Illinois. Gregg Marshall’s Winthrop team is only mentioned as the second 16 seed in Illinois’s region. Sure, they might’ve lost to Illinois by 42 like NWST did, but that’s not the point. They didn’t get their day in the sun.

I think teams that earned the automatic bid deserve a bid in the round of 64. But what about the other play-in teams, the ones on the bubble? Since the “First Four” concept was established, half the play-in games are for bubble teams to play their way in. That is how ALL the First Four games should be. 

Most bubble teams are middling teams from the power conferences. They were around or below .500 in conference play, had a couple of decent wins balanced out by perplexing losses, and are usually pretty inconsistent. A few bubble teams are from the "mid-major" conferences, enjoying great runs but playing weaker schedules. Middle Tennessee, Valparaiso, and Monmouth are recent examples of teams that were dominant in conference games, played a tough enough schedule to merit at-large consideration, lost in their conference tourneys, and landed on the bubble. So you have consistent excellence against weaker competition, vs inconsistent and mediocre performance against higher level competition. The Committee invariably goes with the latter when deciding between them.

So here's a solution:

I want every 16-seed to know it’s going straight to a Thursday/Friday showdown and getting its shot at that season’s hoops royalty in front of the entire country.

I want eight bubble teams to duke it out for the right to eke its way into a double-digit seed. The “last four in” and “first four out” can settle it on the court.

And I want at least two of those bubble teams to be from outside the multi-bid conferences. The rule I’d make would be that at least two of the eight First Four teams must come from conferences that do not already have two teams in the field.

Am I really advocating that the Committee be forced to reach past some bubble teams for teams that in some years might be truly inferior? The answer is yes, because we’re trading proven mediocrity (in the form of, say, a 17-14 record) for what MIGHT be mediocrity… or what MIGHT be considerably better (in the form of a 26-win team or conference regular season winner/runner-up that only played a handful of top tier opponents). Three quarters of the First Four spots can reward high major mediocrity and one quarter of the spots can reward mid-major dominance.

Making the 16’s play their way in is both unfair and a cynical way to make room for the bigger conferences to get extra bids. But changing the First Four to all-bubble teams, and mandating some room for a couple extra mid-major teams, will make these games into true play-in games that will involve the teams that most deserve to be in such a game. And if you’re a bubble team that couldn’t get into a play-in game, you probably didn’t deserve it anyway – certainly not as much as the 16 that won their conference tournament.

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