Tim Benz: A little tweak to make the NCAA Tournament’s First Four better
You may not have even submitted your bracket yet, and the 2019 NCAA Tournament is one night old.
One potential 16th-seeded Cinderella — Prairie View A&M — is already going home. Another — either North Carolina Central or North Dakota State — will get eliminated Wednesday night.
All that before the real start of March Madness begins on Thursday.
That’s because the silly First Four games have started in Dayton.
Nothing against the great city of Dayton, Ohio. I’m glad it gets this traditional bump. And any elimination college basketball game in March is a good thing.
But all the First Four is designed to do is sneak a few extra large-conference teams into the tournament that otherwise should’ve been left out.
That’s why the field expanded from 64 to 68. The small conferences always were going to get their automatic bids. That move was made to save a few major conference head coaching jobs per year among bubble teams.
It also potentially helps television ratings and gets a few more big schools with large fan bases to regional venues on the first weekend.
To all of those points, then, why not make the First Four games exclusively for the large-conference bubble teams?
In other words, allow all four No. 16 seeds to be automatically slotted to play the top-seeded behemoths. Then make all four games on Tuesday and Wednesday of Week 1 for the big-conference at-large schools.
Leave all 11 or 12 lines open for those who advance.
I’d rather see the small-conference schools go right into the field of 64 and make mediocre representatives from mega-powers earn their right to get into the big dance and keep their seasons going.
Usually, I don’t cry a river for the smaller schools. I don’t stay up at night on behalf of a snubbed team or two from the OVC or the MAAC or the Horizon. That’s especially true when those bids benefit a few extra squads in the top handful of power conferences. In most seasons, the seventh- or eighth-place school from the ACC or the Big Ten is going to be more deserving and more talented than the second- or third-place school from the Mountain West or the Mid-American.
So I usually don’t get caught in the caterwauling about favoritism toward the larger institutions. The big, bad conferences are bigger and badder for a reason.
This First Four argument is different, though. It’s not about who gets in. That’s already been determined, for better or worse. This is about best staging the field of 68.
And I think that’s best done by making the last few at-large qualifiers sing for their supper in Ohio.
From a practical point of view, it’d be good for attendance in Dayton. First of all, think of how much better the atmosphere would be if universities such as Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota were there (along with St. John’s and Arizona State) instead of the four obscure No. 16 seeds.
From a viewership point of view, I’m far more inclined to watch any combination of those four teams play each other than I am two matchups of 16 seeds. Usually, those showdowns have 10 players on the floor that most of the country can’t recognize.
I watch the 15th- and 16th-seeded teams to see if they can shock the huge favorites, not to see them play each other.
That’s the beauty of the tournament’s first weekend. I think every small-conference school should get that chance instead of finding out you are in the bracket, only to lose in anonymity to another club of your ilk on a Tuesday night.
In other words, Prairie View A&M earned the right to put a first-half scare into Duke, just as much as it earned the right to get pounded by 30. Somehow, that seems more glamorous to me than blowing a second-half lead to Fairleigh Dickinson.
Look at North Carolina Central. The Eagles have been relegated to playing through Dayton three straight years. They lost to UC Davis in 2017 and Texas Southern in 2018.
Some of the small-conference schools like it this way. For instance, Fairleigh Dickinson now can boast about posting its first tournament victory. Those who care about every minute of the tournament saw the university win in prime time. Furthermore, coaches get handsome bonuses for NCAA Tournament victories.
Plus, some believe those two additional automatic bids would encourage the small schools to continue creating — or sustaining — more small conferences just to maintain or expand the number of automatic bids.
Yeah. Maybe. But that incentive exists already.
It’s a little thing. And I’m not one who likes tinkering with the tournament until we don’t recognize it anymore.
The First Four was one of those tweaks in the first place. And I think this minor adjustment would be a major step to make it better.