Once a year, the nation turns its collective eyes toward the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Teams practice yearlong for an attempt at glory in the greatest postseason tournament in sports. For teams that belong to smaller conferences, their only shot at joining this tournament is to win their conference tournament. The conference tournament winner receives an automatic bid to the national NCAA tournament. With the current “First Four” structure, some teams will have to win yet another game until they actually make the tournament.
The First Four set up is a direct shot to the bow of the smaller conferences. Every year, four teams from smaller conferences face off in two of the first four games to decide who will end up as the actual 16 seed in the tournament. These teams have to fly to Dayton, Ohio, play a game on Tuesday or Wednesday, then fly to the host city for another game on Thursday or Friday. They have no rest in between games. Their reward for winning their play-in game is a match up against one of the top seeds in the entire country.
The first four should be changed to include only at-large teams. At-large teams make the tournament on their body of work throughout the season. They do not have a real complaint when they do not make the tournament as they always have access to an automatic bid like everyone else. The NCAA should treat every conference the same no matter how big or prestigious it is.
Every conference should be able to determine how it selects its team for their automatic bid. Some conferences may prefer to have their automatic bid go to their regular season champion while others would like to have their bid go to tournament champions. I would think that most of the bigger conferences would continue to allow their tournament champion claim the automatic bid for the conference. In most cases, the regular season champion would have a better résumé and would likely make the tournament anyway as an at-large selection. Smaller conferences would likely benefit from the opposite approach.
Smaller conferences that never receive multiple bids for the NCAA tournament would benefit from having their regular season champion make the field. They would benefit from the extra exposure they would receive if their team would pull off some upsets and make a run in the tournament. For this to happen, the conference would want their strongest team to make the field.
The regular season champion is most likely going to be their strongest team. It is a much harder accomplishment to win a regular season championship compared to a tournament championship. A tournament championship can be won by a team hitting a hot streak or by taking advantage of match up problems. The regular season is a grind that would put the strongest team on top. The best team in any conference has the best shot at making a run in the tournament. Each conference wants to see their teams do well. They can increase the chance of tournament success by getting their best teams in the field.
Having these best teams face off in a play-in game is unfair to the players. Players work hard all season long with one goal in mind — to make the NCAA tournament. Players can ensure this bid is received by winning their conference tournament. It is time the NCAA revised its first four strategy to reward teams from smaller conferences that earn an automatic bid. Let the at-large teams battle in the play-in games. Eight at-large teams battling it out in the first four games for a shot at the NCAA tournament is a lot more appealing to me than watching the University of New Orleans get their hearts ripped out in Dayton after a one point loss in the first four.