Tuesday night, Morehead St. defeated Alabama State, 58-43, in the NCAA Tournament play-in game. Their reward? Big East champion and overall No. 1-seed, Louisville. At least they got a trip to Dayton?
This modern-day form of bloodletting began in 2001, when the WAC split, and the Mountain West Conference was formed, and with it, an additional automatic bid to the tournament. Instead of getting rid of one of the 34 at-large bids, they expanded the field to 65 teams, and thus the play-in game. However, technically, the NCAA does not consider the game a "play-in" competition -- to them, it's the start of the actual tournament, and known as the opening round game. But that's just to protect themselves.
Winning one's conference is supposed to ensure the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Both Alabama State (Southwestern Athletic) and Morehead St. (Ohio Valley) won their league's tournament, and thus deserve at least a chance in Big Dance. But instead of joining everyone else in Thursday and Friday's madness, they're stuck playing a meaningless game on a Tuesday night that no one cares about, save for alumni. All a win gets you is the chance to lose by 30 points to one of the best teams in the country. The schools, student athletes and fans all suffer, and surprisingly, so too does the NCAA. Isn't it time to change the format of the play-in game?
Why not make it a game between the last two teams in? This year, that would be Wisconsin and Arizona. Wouldn't that be a much more entertaining basketball game? It would at least involve two teams that people could actually point out on a map, and would almost guarantee higher ratings. Moreover, it gives conference winners what they’ve earned – a chance to fully experience the NCAA Tournament.
Additionally, the “Does this bubble team really deserve to be here?” question is immediately answered for two teams – the last two in are indeed the ultimate bubble squads. Want to be in the tournament? – Great, here's your chance to prove it.
Why did the NCAA choose to play the game between two of the worst teams instead of the final two at-large teams? Because the final at-large teams this year were Arizona and Wisconsin and the play-in game pits two schools nobody has ever heard of. You do the math.With all the recent talk of further expanding the field of 64 (Bobby Knight wants 128 teams; he is a crazy man), this may soon become a moot point. But for now, it's clear the current system of a play-in game isn't working. Just ask Alabama State.
The NCAA keeps insisting that its bylaws require there to be 34 at-large teams, which is true, but ignores the fact that the NCAA can easily change said requirement. The organization is hiding behind a rule created and upheld by itself.
The play-in game takes away the dream of being Cinderella for one team. The loser of [Tuesday's] game won't get the chance to take in the excitement of playing in the first round. They won't be on the same floor as Tyler Hansbrough or DeJuan Blair. They won't get a chance, however remote, to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. And isn't that what the NCAA tournament is all about?