Press Box: NCAA Tournament bidding should be altered

Illustration by Lindsay Hart

Ryan Grube, Contributing Writer

The month of March brings, arguably, the most exciting and intense sports tournament of the year. The NCAA Tournament, widely known as “March Madness,” presents fans with an annual display of clutch shots, thunderous dunks and nail-biting finishes.

But after the tournament concludes, we’re left wondering how the bubble teams would have fared if they were included in the field.

Each year, the tournament committee is tasked with selecting and seeding the 68-team field, comprised of 32 automatic qualifier bids and 36 at-large bids. The task is often an unpleasant one, as committee members receive extensive criticism for leaving out certain at-large teams in favor of others.

The one thing the committee hasn’t been able to control are the automatic bids, which teams earn by winning their respective conference tournament. Every year, teams like Fairleigh Dickinson and Abilene Christian receive spots in the field as No. 15 or 16 seeds while potential at-large teams such as Indiana or NC State are left to play in the NIT.

These smaller schools certainly earn a right to play in the NCAA Tournament with the current format, but Indiana, NC State and other bubble teams are just as deserving. More importantly, they could put up a better fight against the top seeds.

While the committee didn’t make any notable mistakes when selecting this year’s field, the finalized bracket left analysts wondering if the format should be changed to include notable bubble teams over smaller conference champions.

“The committee did a great job. [It] gave Belmont an opportunity, which is really important,” said Seth Greenberg, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, following the selection show March 17. “But [the committee] left out teams that had a lot of wins against the field — teams that can win games in the NCAA Tournament but just lost too many games.”

There’s little to no doubt that Indiana and NC State would have been more competitive than Fairleigh Dickinson and Abilene Christian in their first-round games. The Longhorns won seven games over current tournament teams during the regular season, while the Hoosiers had five such wins. Fairleigh Dickinson and Abilene Christian were bounced by 38 points and 35 points, respectively, in the opening round.

Between the two schools, Fairleigh Dickinson and Abilene Christian faced just one team in the top 50 in NET rankings.

It’s a familiar story every year — most No. 15 and 16 seeds don’t face the necessary competition before postseason play to prepare them for powerhouse No. 1 seeds like Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga or North Carolina.

As a result, No. 15 seeds have won just eight games in tournament history. Meanwhile, UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to upset a No.1 seed when the Retrievers shocked Virginia in the first round of last year’s “Big Dance.”  

Variation in schools and conferences is needed, but the tournament also needs better competition for the higher seeds.

If the NCAA made a change to incorporate the best 68 teams in the country in its field, it would make for more intriguing matchups for the top seeds. No. 1 and 2 seeds shouldn’t automatically be penciled into the second round; there should be some thought put into those games.

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