Bemoaning the Bubble: The NCAA should favor mid-majors, not mediocre big names
By Pete Thamel
KINGSTON, R.I. – With Selection Sunday two weeks away, the annual bemoaning of the lack of quality teams on the NCAA tournament bubble has begun. Every season, it seems, the gaggle of bubble teams emerges to produce the basketball equivalent of yet another Police Academy sequel.
A peek at the undistinguished crop of teams hovering on the fringes of the NCAA tournament this year should be viewed with a clothespin clasped on one’s nose. There’s a middling TCU (17–12) team with a 6–10 league record, a California (19–9) team that didn’t play a true road game in the non-conference part of the season and herd of uninspiring SEC teams—Ole Miss (18–11), Alabama (16–12), Vanderbilt (16–13) and Georgia (17–12)—that are as unimpressive are they are unaccomplished. Until the past few days, some bracket experts included Clemson (4–12 in the ACC) on the outskirts of the tournament conversation. This crop of teams has ended up there by default more than accomplishment.
The NCAA tournament has a bubble problem, which is really an inclusion problem. And not addressing it threatens the essence of the tournament itself. Fixing it doesn’t require a statistical summit or a magical formula, but rather a hard reset of what teams should be considered viable participants in the NCAA tournament. Big schools that are coasting off their reputations, despite middling league records and safe non-conference schedules shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. “To be rewarded for going 17–14 and not doing anything in the non-conference makes no sense,” says Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley. “There’s logo bias.”
The 2016 NCAA tournament bracket remains one of the worst in modern tournament history, a nod to the clout of power conferences and the myopic worldview of the selection committee.
Last March, the five football power leagues, plus the Big East and the American Athletic Conference accounted for an astounding 92% of the at-large bids. And the three teams outside the sport’s highest echelons that got in—Dayton, VCU and Wichita State —wouldn’t be classified as mid-majors by anyone who follows college basketball closely. All three pay their coaches millions, boast first-class facilities and have reached the Final Four. Essentially, no true mid-major received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament last year. Think about that. That’s insane. “There has to be a way to do this better,” says Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference. “There’s a mindset that Team A in a power league is better than Team X in a non-power conference.”
When the tournament bracket is unveiled on March 12, something needs to change. The plea here is for some common sense to pervade the NCAA selection committee room. The NCAA releasing its Top 16 teams on Feb. 11 was a subtle admission of what’s become glaringly obvious the past few seasons—the college basketball season is irrelevant to the common sports fan until after the Super Bowl. The sport has too many games on television, too few recognizable stars and little familiarity with the best players skipping to the NBA in the one-and-done era. Underdogs and office pool gambling are the engines of the NCAA tournament. Fans have spoken with their remotes in the regular season, and they don’t want to watch Wake Forest, Providence and Arkansas play, just like they didn’t want to see Michigan, Vanderbilt and Tulsa play in the NCAA tournament last year. “If you have 10 or 11 teams from the ACC tournament in the NCAA tournament,” says Vermont coach John Becker, “then it’s essentially the ACC tournament.”
The NCAA tournament resonates because of Vermont beating Syracuse, Mercer beating Duke and Santa Clara beating Arizona. We want to see Steph Curry and Davidson slaying Georgetown. Teams like Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, St. Mary’s and Valparaiso got left out last season, robbing them of the opportunity to capture America’s attention.
Have we forgotten that the Final Four runs of George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011)—both No. 11 seeds from the Colonial Athletic Association—came thanks to at-large bids that were deemed controversial at the time? These teams should be the reminders that a season of accomplishment should yield an opportunity for March magic.
The way things are trending, those star-kissed ones from Mason and VCU likely wouldn’t get in. Look at the top of the Missouri Valley, which is in danger of not receiving an at-large bid despite strong teams in Wichita State (27–4) and Illinois State (25–5). There’s a host of other juggernaut small-conference teams that need to win their league tournaments to make the NCAA tournament. Vermont (26–5, 16–0 America East) has the longest win streak in the country at 18 games. Middle Tennessee (24–4, 14–1) throttled No. 2 seed Michigan State in the NCAA tournament last year. Monmouth has put together another dominant season in the MAAC (25–5, 17–2). Princeton heads into the first-ever Ivy League tournament with white knuckles, despite a 19–6 record and 12–0 league mark. There are countless other examples—UT-Arlington, UNC-Wilmington, Belmont and Valparaiso.
A 10-year data study shows that the top six conferences have been awarded 78.6% of the at-large bids. That means 21% of the NCAA’s Division I membership is being awarded nearly 79% of the at-large bids. The fundamental egalitarian nature of the NCAA tournament, outside of its automatic bids, has gone sideways.
A shift in how at-large teams are considered needs to happen soon, as the gap between power conferences and smaller leagues is about to grow even larger. The ACC is headed for a 20-game league basketball slate in 2019. It would be surprising if the other power leagues didn’t follow suit, as the two additional games means a trove of new inventory for their television networks. That means power teams will be even more reluctant to play true road games in the non-conference season or challenge themselves by playing strong mid-majors in November and December. What’s the incentive when 20 leagues games will give you plenty of strength of schedule?
So what’s the solution? It’s not expanding the tournament, as the four extra slots added in 2011 haven’t helped mid-major teams earn more bids. Better data would help, and the NCAA appears to be addressing that with its recent statistical summit. (How can Wichita State be No. 10 in kenpom.com and No. 41 in the RPI?)
A change in perspective is needed. The committee should value mid-major dominance over high-major mediocrity. The committee’s job is to select the best teams, but they aren’t always found in the middle of the best leagues. (NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships, Dan Gavitt, declined to comment on Saturday but engaged in healthy conversation off the record.)
The first place to start is changing the population of the selection committee. Five of the 10 members are from the six power basketball conferences and seven of the 10 are from FBS schools. If half the selection committee comes from six leagues, don’t be surprised when those six leagues make up 80% of the at-large field. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, but rather a simple deduction that the field is going to be representative of the committee picking it. “When you look at what’s happened,” said one former committee member, “I do think what you have in place is a committee that’s populated unequally.”
Here’s hoping the committee takes a broader perspective this year and remembers why people are tuning in in the first place. We want to see Hoosiers, not another Police Academy sequel.