Commentary

Making the case for mid-majors

Originally Published: April 16, 2009
By Joe Lunardi | ESPN.com

Mr. Lunardi,

I enjoyed your most recent article, "Re-examining the at-large 'eye test'." In full disclosure I must admit that I'm a student at the University of Arizona and was completely shocked when we made it into the tournament, but we'll take what we can get.

You speak of which team is "best" and "most deserving" to get an at-large bid to the field of 65. Why not examine who is "best" and "most deserving" to be in the tournament overall? Do your No. 15 and No. 16 seeds represent the best teams in the country? Where would they fit in your RPI-based evidence chart? Is the conference champion of a crappy conference really "deserving" to play with the "best" teams in the country? For example, should David Stern start including D-league division or conference champions in the NBA playoffs? Aren't they as "deserving" as Morehead State or Radford (I think there's more parity between the D-league and the NBA as compared to UNC and Morehead State)?

[+] EnlargeChase Budinger
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJoe Lunardi has nothing against Chase Budinger or Arizona, Wildcat fans, but he does feel a winning record in conference is a prerequisite for at-large consideration.
I think we need to stop giving out automatic bids to conference champions and start taking the best 64 (not 65) teams in college basketball to the NCAA tournament. As you said, the best and the most deserving are the same teams. Right?

Thanks,

Birch, Tucson, Ariz.

Thank you, Birch, for raising just about every point I wanted to make at the start of the second phase of my examination of the NCAA tournament at-large selection process. Let me address those points (and a few related ones) before we get to the meat of my simple blueprint for the future:

• I have nothing against Arizona. What I object to is the at-large selection of a team to play for a national championship (twice, actually) with an 18-21 record in its own conference over the past two seasons. If you can't win at least half the time in your own league, what makes you worthy to compete for a championship against the best teams from every other league?

• I am not opposed, as an accident of circumstance, to 30 of 34 at-large teams coming from the six power conferences. The decline in the number of selections from non-BCS leagues is skewed by the fact that the Big East and ACC both have expanded in recent years. Not long ago, we used to count Louisville, Marquette and several other current BCS schools among the "non-power conference" invitees. If the committee does its job properly, this isn't a meaningful number.

• It would be a hoot to bracket the 64 "best" teams regardless of conference affiliation. It also would be a hoot to sit in a hot tub with 10 supermodels. Since neither is happening any time soon, the whole notion is more "moot" than "hoot." The fact of the matter is that Division I basketball consists of 31 automatic qualifying conferences, and it would take a split on the order of the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision in college football to bring about such a bracket. And then we'd have to ask ourselves whether, in the regular season, there would be enough opponents for the remaining upper-division schools to complete meaningful 30-game schedules.

• I am on record as opposing expansion of the current NCAA tournament field, but it probably will happen some day. When it does, I prefer the extra games to be among the final at-large candidates as opposed to the lowest automatic qualifiers but not for the reason you think. Let's say eight teams are added. That means 16 teams "play in" at the bottom of the bracket and the top eight get a bye. What happens when No. 1 seeds like North Carolina, instead of pounding the Radfords of the world, start losing opening games to what previously would have been No. 14 seeds like Weber State? Anarchy, that's what. Better to have four Tuesday/Wednesday doubleheaders among so-called bubble teams for the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds in each region. It's more fun and more fair to everyone.

• You could even keep flexible the number of teams chosen for the play-in spots (up to a maximum number, obviously). Some years you wouldn't need all eight, depending on the quality of the at-large pool or the number of upsets in conference tourneys across the country. This will never happen of course, because it would throw off TV programmers, but I'd simply air additional NIT games if there were any gaps. Incidentally, the number of NCAA tournament teams did fluctuate as recently as the 1970s and early 1980s.

You might ask at this point: Why are we even having the discussion? Isn't the NCAA tournament just about perfect the way it is? I would answer that, yes, the tourney is indeed just about perfect. But we can tinker with the "just about" part, and we should do it by insisting that every team in the field actually achieve something other than passing an arbitrary "eye test."

Consider this simple fact: In the 25 years of the 64/65-team era, 46 teams have been selected at large with losing conference records (I include conference tournament games, which take on significance in my world). Of those teams, only one -- NC State in 1986 -- has reached even a regional final in the NCAA tournament. Only six others have made it as far as the Sweet 16.

Overall, these 46 teams -- despite an average seed of 8.9 -- have won less than 40 percent of their NCAA tournament games (.395 to be precise). In the past 10 years, the numbers are even worse (13 teams, .350 winning percentage), when, by seeding, the figure should be much closer to 50 percent. Dare I suggest that we can do better than have losing conference teams in the NCAA tournament field?

Non-BCS at-large candidates, by comparison, win an even 40 percent of the time -- this despite being seeded to lose (a 10.9 seed average, two spots worse than their BCS counterparts) and less favorable geographic placement. We also have seen a Final Four team from this group -- George Mason, 2006 -- as well as four others in the Elite Eight.

And that's just the past 10 years ….

This all is such a big deal because, in spite of what you might have heard, the power conferences are a bit of a "closed system" with respect to scheduling. Membership in the BCS leagues has not changed in the past three years. Yet the number of games played by BCS schools against their closest competitors -- the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, MVC, Mid-American, Mountain West and WAC -- continues to decline. It has dropped more than 7 percent, in fact, in just the past two years. Worse, the non-BCS schools get home games against their BCS rivals less than a quarter of the time and neutral court matchups only slightly more often.

I'm not complaining about scheduling, by the way. The economics are what they are, and the big-timers always are going to have more than their share of home games because they have larger arenas and more paying customers. I get that.

What I am complaining about is not punishing the BCS teams when they don't win against each other. If you're playing fewer games against non-BCS teams that can beat you, if you play a disproportionate number of them on floors where you win 70 percent of the time, if you play the large majority of your games against each other, you should have to go at least .500 in the latter group.

So, let's recap:

• Teams with losing conference records significantly under-perform their seeds in the NCAA tournament.

• Winning teams from non-BCS conferences, despite consistently poorer seeding, have a better NCAA tournament record than their BCS counterparts who enter the tournament with losing conference records.

• We continue to see the latter chosen at the expense of the former on Selection Sunday.

Here's something the BCS folks should understand: You have to be tournament-eligible (just like being bowl-eligible in college football). I've written it a thousand times. Show me at least a .500 conference record -- and I'll even give you the chance to reach it (or blow it) in your conference tournament -- and I'll show you an at-large bid. If not, too bad.

The public, I think, understands this intuitively. The NCAA tournament should be for winners, and there is 25 years' worth of data supporting the notion. If that doesn't work for NC State or Alabama or Iowa State or Providence, no one is holding a gun to their heads to stay in power conferences (and I highly doubt we'll see a sudden exodus).

But we would see an average of two additional bids per season made available to teams that actually have achieved something and done so in the context of their opportunity for achievement. This is a far, far easier concept than expanding or juggling the existing NCAA format, and it would add drama exponentially to the regular season and especially the major conference tournaments.

There's still a place for a 7-9 team, by the way. It's called the NIT.

Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments can be sent to bracketology@comcast.net.

Joe Lunardi | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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