Duke alum Jay Bilas has a good opinion article on ESPN.com about why the NCAA tournament should eliminate the automatic bids. It is a good opinion article because it is well written. Like any good lawyer, Bilas lays out a cogent argument in support of his opinions. In the end, however, the Confidential believes that Bilas is fixing something that is not broken. And there are better reasons not to chance the system.
The Bilas proposal
It is a pretty simply concept–eliminate the automatic bids: “In fact, the more I consider how the automatic bid affects the fairness of the NCAA tournament, the more I am convinced that automatic bids should be eliminated altogether.” As Bilas accurately points out–the bubble is replete with teams every year that are mid-majors. But, instead of allowing the 22-8 mid-major to enter the tournament, we allow a team that is 13-18, but won its Mid-Delaware-Valley conference tournament to have keys to the Big Dance. A team like Murray State could be excluded because a team that lost most of its games got hot for a weekend in March. And as Bilas also points out, no team from outside the AQ football conferences has won a national title in 20+ years. Finally, Bilas notes that a 1-64 game, where team #64 was the sixty-fourth best team in the country at least presents the chance for a first-day upset. That does not exist now.
The Confidential believes that Bilas makes a great point about how the automatic qualifier system harms mid-majors. It is true that a team that runs away with its conference–but plays in a one-team conference–will be excluded for the inferior team that did win its conference. It places an onerous burden on a team that was good from November to early March to not have a slip up on one weekend. So while the Bilas proposal may favor some teams in power conferences, it will also benefit the best teams that would currently be on the bubble.
But here are the problems. First, for better or worse, the conference tournaments are a reason for every team in every conference to have a chance of mattering. While these tournaments may be money-making schemes, one cannot discount the value to students and fans. And the coaches and players also deserve a chance to compete in high pressure situations that they will remember forever. Even if the end reward might be a play-in with Dayton, rather than #1 Duke. There is no reason to take away all of that excitement.
Second, Bilas misses a huge point. While the power conferences have provided all the national champions recently, the lowest seed to ever win the National Championship was a #8 seed, Villanova. At best, Villanova was the 32nd best team in the country that year. A fair argument can be made that only the top 32 teams have a realistic chance of winning a national championship. If Bilas is correct that the only reason to be in the Big Dance is to win it all, then the NCAA should eliminate the automatic bids and scale back to 32. Anything beyond 32 already includes teams that have no chance of winning. That is what history suggests anyway.
And if the at-larges from 32 through 37 have never won it all, how likely is it that 38 through 64 will? Will a 5-11 team from the Big East have a real chance to win it all? Better to give that spot to a 25-5 team that dominates its conference and won its tournament. That actually gives more reward for the season by rewarding teams that beat more foes. Any team that finds itself from 38 to 64 has already lost enough games to question whether they can actually win it all anyway.
Bilas notes that Kentucky/Pitt would be an interesting first round game between a #1 and #64. But Pitt lost to Wagner. At home. For this year, Pitt is more name than game. You cannot lose seven in a row in a non-daunting part of your Big East schedule and think that a deep March run is even possible.
Besides, there are lots of great things about the Big Dance that do not have anything to do with winning it all. Ask Butler. Ask Virginia Commonwealth. How about the upsets by the #15 seeds–teams that would be excluded under Bilas’s scenario? Without the automatic bids, Richmond never beats Syracuse and Belmont never beats Iowa State. And whomever Kansas loses to in the first round every few years. And think of the coaches that have worked their way through the ranks by being given a chance to perform well in a mismatch. It does not take a win to get noticed. At many places, “success” is broader than cutting down the nets in April. There is no reason to change that now.
Finally, college basketball is different from college football in that the Big Dance allows everyone in. The trade-off is that the regular season is downgraded. You can be .500 after December, but still rally to win it all. Look what UConn did last year.
But the other trade-off is that it is single-elimination. Is it unfair that a team from a one-bid conference could lose its shot at the Big Dance by losing in the tournament? Perhaps. But it is equally “unfair” when a top 4 seed is upset in the first round and has to go home early. A team with outstanding national championship potential is eliminated for one bad game. A team with high hopes is eliminated. That is the nature of the one-and-done tournament. It might as well start a week early in the conference tournaments. If the champion is being crowned by a tournament (rather than the college football model), there is only so much fairness that can be built in. And it is very fair right now.
So, while Bilas deserves a lot of respect for presenting a logical argument, the Confidential believes that there is no reason to fix what is not broken.