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It Is Broken, So Fix It

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--There are
65 teams that make it to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament every March, not 64. As much as everyone (except the competitors involved) would like to see it go away, the play-in game exists. That darn 65th team makes it a mess.

In the past, depending on the website you print from, the overall (1) seed has an interesting opponent. Some brackets leave it blank, some write "Play-in Winner", others write "TBD" or even the names of both schools. By virtue of running many office pools in my day, I have seen and heard it all. People have asked me for the nickname of "TBD." In a different year, I received the bracket of a person that assumed the (16) seed was an all-star combination of the two schools listed. That is about the only way to make that First Round matchup fair.

The issue is back on the table. The Tournament Committee is once again talking about expanding the field. Whispers coming out of the meetings have been 68 and even the absurd 96.

There is no denying that mid-majors are showing their worth. Better non-conference scheduling and a deeper crop of talent in small schools have led to unexpected leagues having more than one genuine contender. The Missouri Valley Conference is a fine example, sending four teams with staying power to the 2006 tournament. The rewarding of MVC teams ultimately hurt the big conferences. Those who accumulate 10 wins in the gauntlet that is the Big East schedule can find themselves NIT bound these days. Such was the case in 2007 with the Syracuse Orange; Coach Jim Boeheim became a vocal and adamant proponent of expansion that season.

Angering the giants is a quick way to have the NCAA executives calling for change. After all, those teams and conferences are their highest revenue generators; they need to be in the tournament. That tumultuous 2007 Selection Show is when I began a proposal for expansion of my own.

Everyone currently debating the issue says that 96 teams in the field waters down the First Round and unnecessarily drags the tournament on for an additional weekend. Simply put, I completely agree.

The contemporary view that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is only applicable if the tournament is faultless to begin with. However, the tournament exists with 65 teams and thus is a broken system. Either you contract back to the 64, eliminating an at-large team, or you make the play-in system better. Staying put is no longer an option.

The "Island of Misfit Toys" that is the play-in game gives one team the joy of an NCAA tournament victory that should not even count. Case and point: the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has six official tournament victories. Yet, teams from the MEAC have won an NCAA First Round game on just two occasions. The other four wins came at the expense of the 65th ranked team in the field. As for the loser of the play-in game, congratulations on a good season but you are the ONLY team to be eliminated before the "Dance" even starts. I am sure they really feel included.

I would not be opposed to the idea of 68 teams, for it is conceptually the same, but my 2007 proposal incorporates 72.

This format brings back symmetry and adds a full draw to opening play-in games, as to make competitors feel more associated with the tournament. A field of 68 adds just three more play-in games and provides only partial symmetry. From an aesthetic perspective, a prime number of teams in each region is plain wrong. A 72 team bracket gives balance in all dimensions.

My format also increases the number of at-large bids to 41, up from 34. This takes 7 bubble teams off the snubbed list every season. True, it does add 7 more who feel wronged by the system, but that is the case with any tournament in any sport. Even a 96 team field leaves that 97th team furious. At least these new snubs would have less credentials than the bubble teams of the past.

The addition of at-large teams helps small-market and perennial powers alike. It potentially gives the upper echelon mid-majors two representatives. For example, the Mid-American Conference has only once received an at-large bid (1999). For a league with a rich tournament pedigree, this is a shame.

The proposal also covers the power conference team, squarely on the bubble, that is hurt when a nationally ranked mid-major powerhouse
(bound for the tournament regardless of a conference championship) is upset in their postseason tournament. This annual occurrence gives
those small conferences two representatives when it would ordinarily send only one; robbing a Big East, Big Ten, etc. bubble team. Is it fair to have a 10-loss Missouri Valley conference team in the draw simply because they got hot late in the season, strung together four victories, and snatched an automatic bid? The emphatic answer is yes. It is the beauty of the conference tournament automatic bid system. But it is unfair for this MVC team’s inclusion to come at the cost of a far superior 10-loss Big East team, with a near impossible task of winning its conference tournament. My resolution is that both belong.

Steve Wieberg of the USA Today presented apprehension, "T
here is concern about diluting the field and its effect on the event. Maryland last year became just the seventh team in the past decade to land an at-large berth despite finishing under .500 in its league. That frequency almost certainly would increase." Mr. Wieberg made the counter-argument too easy. That Maryland team, that he feels should not have belonged in last year's tournament, upset Cal by 13 points. In effect, he made my proposal stronger. I hate to say it, but the ACC--and other major conferences--actually need more representation. I would be fine with 10 teams from the Big East every season. Their records suffer because they beat up on each other for two months straight. Why is this hurting their tournament credentials? Arizona had 13 losses last year and made it to the Elite Eight. Add more teams from the big conferences, but not at the expense of the mid-majors. This means expansion, case closed. No one is out to make the NCAA tournament strictly major conference First Round matchups.

Big Ten Commissioner and denouncer of expansion, Jim Delaney, stated, "We know, in the First Round, you have a lot of David and Goliath (matchups). What happens when it becomes largely David vs. David?"

I would partially agree with him, but I feel the current First Round is only David vs. Goliath for some. The top two seeds in each region have games that are more like Goliath vs. my grandmother. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (1985), the number one seed has never fallen to number sixteen. Similarly, the number two seed has only lost to the fifteen seed on four occasions out of 100 games. The top two seeds have combined to go 196-4 in the First Round; not quite the compelling drama Delaney insinuates. It might as well be a first-round bye.

My proposal balances everything out; a better region from top to bottom but does not push it all the way to Delaney's "David vs. David." Using the 2007 data I presented to the NCAA, let's dissect the 72 team bracket.

The Snubs:
West Virginia - Big East, 21-8 (9-7)
Missouri State - MVC, 21-9 (12-6)
Syracuse - Big East, 21-9 (10-6)
Air Force - MVC, 23-7 (10-6)
Kansas State - Big XII, 21-10 (10-6)
Florida State - ACC, 19-11 (7-9)
Drexel - CAA, 22-7 (13-5)

All of these snubs now make the tournament as the last 7 of the 41 at-large teams. The Selection Committee then places them into the four (14) seeds and three of the four (13) seeds. These constitute the new lowest seeds possible for a guaranteed First Round game.

What happened to the (15) and (16) seeds?
These two seeds are now blank spots on the bracket, up for grabs in eight play-in games.

So now that the play-in game is a legitimate Wild Card Playoff, who plays in it?
There are 31 conferences that receive automatic bids. Under my proposal, the NCAA Selection Committee ranks these teams 1 through 31. The top 15 teams are safely into the weekend, while the 16 at the bottom are sent to play-in games.

The complaint that the tournament expanding would create a fourth weekend need not worry. These expansion naysayers claim the tournament is a perfect three weekend format as is. They must still be living in the year 2000. The modern format is 3 weekends
and a Tuesday. Thus, the proposed Wild Card Playoff takes place at four regional sites on the Tuesday before the First Round games. Essentially, it is no different than the current setup, just with more than one game that night. Either way, it is not four weekends.

2007 Wild Card Playoff Matchups:
Regional Site 1
Jackson State - SWAC vs. Davidson - Southern [6:00 p.m.]
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi - Southland vs. Miami (OH) - MAC [8:00 p.m.]

Regional Site 2
Florida A&M - MEAC vs. Holy Cross - Patriot [6:00 p.m.]
Weber State - Big Sky vs. Wright State - Horizon [8:00 p.m.]

Regional Site 3
Eastern Kentucky - Ohio Valley vs. New Mexico State - WAC [6:00 p.m.]
Oral Roberts - Mid-Continent vs. Belmont - Atlantic Sun [8:00 p.m.]

Regional Site 4
Central Connecticut State - Northeast vs. Albany - America East [6:00 p.m.]
North Texas - Sun Belt vs. Penn - Ivy [8:00 p.m.]

To be blunt, but realistic, eliminating half of these teams before the Big Dance starts creates a better tournament. These teams still get a chance to play a non-conference foe with equal talent, perhaps capture a victory, and feel good about a successful season regardless. These teams are (15) and (16) seeds, not the next George Mason. With the NIT reducing its field in recent years, these conference representatives would not be playing in any postseason tournament otherwise.

If they want to play that (1) or (2) seed they have every opportunity to go get it. In that sense, half of these teams get to play in three nationally televised games (conference championship, Wild Card play-in, and NCAA First Round), more than they would ever expect in the current system.

Because this proposal was done in 2007, I have the benefit of validating these moves by looking at the results. Not one of the 16 teams I relegated to the Wild Card Playoff won their First Round game. Furthermore, the biggest upsets of the tournament--(11) VCU beating (6) Duke on a buzzer beater and (11) Winthrop handling (6) Notre Dame--were matchups that would have been the same in my bracket. Even the pesky (5) vs. (12) matchup, one that the higher seed has only won 66% of the time, also remains unchanged.

To appease the power conferences, I unfortunately added a footnote that no one from the Untouchable Eight (ACC, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, C-USA, Pac-10, SEC) can fall into the Wild Card Playoff. I did not want to do this, but college athletics
are about money and politics. Commissioners of these leagues would never agree to a proposal that could relegates one of their teams to a Tuesday play-in game. To their credit, it should be a moot issue. If a team wins any of those conference tournaments, they beat some stiff competition. It would be a hard sell to say any ACC tournament winner would be below the 15th best automatic qualifier.

Now for the fun part--playing out the hypothetical 2007 72 team bracket. Eventual Champion, Florida, played a Jackson State in the First Round. Talk about David vs. my grandma. The 43-point blow out is what my proposal fixes. The Wild Card Playoff would have matched Jackson State with Southern Conference Champion, Davidson. Meanwhile in the 64 team bracket, Davidson was a (13) seed that played Maryland down to the wire. After defeating Jackson State, the Wildcats definitely would have pushed Florida to a closer game than 112-69. Chalk this up as a victory for the fans.

To take Davidson's spot as the (13) seed is one of the snubs, West Virginia. Now, Maryland has to play a Big East team in the First Round and not a mid-major. The pairing encroaches on "David vs. David," but I feel the (4) seed is still the heavy favorite. In a vacuum, nothing changes but the final spread.

Since 1985, the (13) seed has only lost to the (4) seed 21% of the time. So this--and all lower seed win percentages--may increase with my proposal. Capturing the title will take "earning it" to a new level. Surprisingly, this might be better news for the top seeds. Those that are challenged every step of the way are battle-tested, those that are not seem to stumble. It is the very nature of a Second or Third Round tournament upset: the higher seed has to "turn on" its game, while the underdog has been playing at unprecedented heights for weeks.

Keeping the high seeds sharp throughout the tournament is dangerous. Critics that say 96 teams is far too many, myself included, would be shocked to see all the number one seeds make it through to the Final Four, especially in an expanded format that large. However, the "watered down" field could perhaps make these top four teams distance themselves even further.

Then again, maybe the "TBD" Screamin' Eagles finally clip that very same number one seed. That is the beauty of the beast; it truly is anyone's guess.

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