Monday, March 12, 2007

The Money Behind the Madness

It amazes me every year how awful the Selection Committee for the NCAA Basketball tournament turns out to be. The only thing that bothers me more is the pandering done by ESPN “analysts” like Jay Bilas. ESPN always spends hours arguing the Selection Committee, but never for the right reasons.

Every year the Selection Committee loads the field of 65 teams with teams from the 6 power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, SEC, PAC 10). For example, last year the Big East sent 8 teams. That is half of the teams in the Big East, and the teams made 1/8th of field of 64 (and you really only should count 64). This year the power conferences counted for 34 teams(7 ACC, 4 Big 12, 6 Big East, 6 Big 10, 6 Pac 10, 5 SEC), which comes out to over half of the field no matter how you count them. 25 other conferences fielded a total of 31 teams. Yes, 6 teams made the tournament from non-power conferences without winning their conference. The answer should be obvious to all. The tournament is not about crowning a national champion; it is about money. The big conferences are where the well-known teams are, so they all get in no matter what. They draw more viewers. How else do you explain Texas Tech getting in over Kansas State, who finished higher in the conference and beat Texas Tech in the Conference Tournament, except that Bobby Knight is a house hold name? It is a perversion of justice.

Appalachian State beat Virginia, co-champs of the ACC, Vanderbilt, a tournament team from the SEC, and VCU, champs of their conference, as well as Witchita State for an overall record of 25-7. Don’t forget they lost in the Southern Conference tournament in the semi-finals to the team hosting the tournament, so it should count as a road loss.

Drexel finished their season with a 23-8 record and in the top four of their conference. They beat Syracuse, the Big East favorite of Jay Bilas, and Villanova, a tournament bound team from the Big East, as well as Creighton, a team that made the tournament from their conference. Five of Drexel’s eight losses came against teams headed to the tournament.

Air Force also finished 23-8, and maybe the biggest snub of all. Air Force beat Standford, tournament bound from the Pac 10, Colorado of the Big 12, Texas Tech, a tournament bound Big 12 team, Wake Forest from the ACC, as well as Long Beach St, which is going to the tournament. They also won games against BYU and UNLV, which are both going to the tournament out Air Force’s conference.

Marist won the regular season title of the MAAC. They finished the season with a record of 24-8 with wins over their conferences eventual representative, Niagra, as well as tournament bound Old Dominion, and a victory over Big 10 team Minnesota, at Minnesota. Yet, they were left out of the tournament.

We are supposed to believe that these teams are so bad that they could not pull at 6th place 10-8 record in the PAC 10 (18-12 overall), which got Standford into the tournament. Or an 7th place 8-8 record in the Big 10 (22-11 overall), which got Michigan State into the tournament. Or even a 5th place 9-7 finish in the Big 12 (21-12 overall), which was enough to get Texas Tech into the tournament. Or worse yet an 8th place finish 9-7 in the Big East (22-10 overall), which bought Villanova a place in the Madness. Of course we cannot forget the committee saying that these schools could not break even in the ACC 8-8 for a 6th place finish. That along with a 22-10 record overall got Duke into the tournament.

What is worse is that ESPN and Jay Bilas spent time arguing that 6 at large bids split between 25 conferences is too many. Jay Bilas actually tried to make an argument that Syracuse deserved to be in rather than Xavier. Mr. Bilas examined the stats and revealed that Xavier was 3-2 against teams ranked in the top 50 RPI while Syracuse was 3-7. In Jay Bilas twisted version of reality Syracuse had the same number of wins, and thus should have gotten the bid. So we are to believe that a 30% winning percentage with most of those games played at home is as good as a 60% winning percentage with most of the games on the road. No one in their right mind actually thinks that way. Jay Bilas is out to make sure that no team outside of the 6 power conferences plays in March. In fact, I bet Jay Bilas would be happy if the rest of the conferences just went away.

The solution to this problem is really simple. It just takes a dash of common sense. First, no conference deserves more than four teams. Period. If you are not at or near the top of your conference then you are not an elite team that deserves a shot to play for the national championship. I do not care how good Syracuse is supposed to be when you finish 12th out of 16 in your own league, you do not deserve to make the tournament. This still gives the power conferences 24 teams total. The other 25 leagues will get the remaining 40 bids.

Second, if you must have 65 teams rather than 64 make the play-in game among the power conference teams, not the small conferences. It is always a shame to watch two league champions face off in a play-in game, effectively canceling out one of the automatic bids for the small conferences. Rather make this game a play-in game for the power conferences. For example make Arkansas face off against Illinois. The winner gets an 8 seed, and the loser goes home.

Third, if you must, give the power conferences the high seeds and the small conferences the low seeds. That way the bigger-badder conferences are still rewarded for their ‘tough conference’ and you still have the principle of the best teams meeting late in the tournament.

The benefits of this are enormous and the drawbacks are non-existent. It restores competitive balance throughout college basketball. It makes the regular season more important and conferences tournaments for the big conferences relevant again. Right now a team like UCLA can lose in the first round and still get a number 2 seed. It gives them extra rest before the big tournament, and it might even get their conference another team in the Madness by removing themselves from the tournament.

I hope one day these changes will be made or at least advocated on a supposed Sports News Channel, but don’t hold your breath. There is a better chance of Fox News endorsing Hillary Clinton than ESPN actually using its brain.