The Unfairness of Proliferating Play-In Games

There are very few flaws with March Madness — from bracket pools to the upsets to the chance to root on one’s alma mater, the whole experience is probably the best sports month of the entire year. I’d call it perfect from beginning to end, but it’s the beginning is the problem.

For years, the “first round” of the NCAA tournament involved 64 teams, and the “second round” 32 — indeed, the rounds went by those names alone. Then a few years ago, the NCAA decided to create a new “first round” to the tournament. The powers-that-be at the television networks and NCAA came up with the “First Four,” expanding what had been a single play-in game to four. Now, two games occur between mid-major (i.e., obscure or marginal) conference tournament winners that go on to be a 16 seed in the round of 64, now the “second round.” In an effort to give the First Four higher profile and wider appeal, the other two games pit at-large bids — quality teams that didn’t win their conference and get a guaranteed bid – from major conferences against one another.

This new format is fundamentally flawed, and prevents teams that deserve an invite — an actual and meaningful invite, not a lame First Four invite — from taking part in the Big Dance.

First, it violates the principle of trying to include all mid-major conference winners. Part of the tournament’s traditional appeal is that every corner of Division I basketball, no matter how obscure, gets represented, giving every conference champion a chance to have a go against the best of the best. But if four mid-major teams have to play a game before the tournament begins — meaning two of them won’t be in the tournament, and have a chance at an upset — it cheapens the significance of winning a mid-major conference and violates the principle of giving a chance to the cream of the crop from each conference.

As for the at-large schools, it’s even more illogical. Take this week’s games: Iowa and Tennessee played to be an 11 seed in the round of 64, while North Carolina State and Xavier played for a 12 seed in the round of 64. That means the Iowa–Tennessee game was between two teams the NCAA selection committee had already decided were better than those playing for a 12 seed, yet only either the Hawkeyes or Volunteers will get to play in the first (“second”) round of the tourney at all. If the committee had honored its own rankings of quality, either Iowa and Tennessee could have occupied the at-large 12 seed that NC State went on to get.

Ultimately, Iowa lost to Tennessee on Wednesday and saw their season come to a close after spending most of the year ranked, while NC State moved on and got a good shot at 5-seed St. Louis. While Iowa technically was in the tournament, I’d be willing to bet Iowa players don’t feel like they really took part in the Big Dance. The play-in game is a tease for an otherwise deserving team.

The “First Four” is obviously intended to make a few extra bucks and give fans something to watch between Selection Sunday and the start of the round of 64 on Thursday, but it’s faulty. The NCAA should scrap the First Four, let all conference-tournament winners play in the round of 64, and not force higher quality at-large schools to duke it out while lesser at-large schools still get to face off against a top seed. There would be two fewer at-large bids, but at least it would have some principle and logic to it.

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