The First Four has been with us for awhile. Seventeen years, actually.
It’s a kooky concept, of course, the addition of games to the NCAA Tournament’s regal 64-team bracket, but it has one redeeming quality – more games. I like ballgames.
But I’d never really watched a First Four game. Not wire to wire. Not intently. Sometimes not at all.
On occasion, I’ve been traveling the Tuesday or Wednesday before the NCAAs begin. Headed to cover OSU or OU for games starting Thursday or Friday. I’d try catch the end of a First Four game, or at least monitor the score. Or the Thunder would be playing at home during the First Four, and often in March, I’m swamped by the NCAA Tournament, and any chance I get to catch the Thunder at home in March, I take it.
But Tuesday was different. I was home. Nothing scheduled. And the First Four was on – a New Orleans/Mt. St. Mary’s-Kansas State/Wake Forest doubleheader.
I enjoyed it. Good basketball. Tight game in the opener, with the crazy drama of infighting among the New Orleans Privateers and a Mt. St. Mary’s victory. Then K-State’s Big 12-pride victory in the nightcap.
I’ve written about the First Four for years. How it’s ludicrous. But now that I’ve actually watched a First Four doubleheader from Dayton, I feel qualified to say it again. The First Four is ludicrous.
And I’ve got a way to fix it. Call me the anti-Jim Boeheim.
More on the Syracuse coach in a moment. First, a First Four history.
The NCAA Tournament has expanded throughout the eight years. Eight teams from 1939-50, 16 teams in 1951-52, from 22-25 teams from 1953-74, 32 teams from 1975-78, 40 teams in 1979, 48 teams in 1980-82, 52 teams in 1983, 53 teams in 1984 and 64 teams from 1985-2000.
But in 1983, the NCAA conducted four play-in games before the tournament, and a year later five play-in games were staged. Those games, matching automatic qualifiers from lowly conferences, were not considered part of the tournament, and the losers were not eligible for any of the television money the tournament generated.
Then came the 64-team bracket, and those unheralded conferences helped fill out the bracket and provide a Cinderella aspect to the tournament that exists still today.
But in 1999, the Mountain West Conference formed from the bloated, 16-team Western Athletic Conference. The WAC remained intact, but the Mountain West was a legit, concise eight-team league with status from birth.
And the NCAA basketball committee had a decision to make. At the time, 30 conferences had automatic berths, with 34 at-large bids available.
Now, anyone with a lick of sense and a sense of fair play would say, just make it 31 automatics and 33 at-larges. But the NCAA Tournament at its core is corporate big business, and the power leagues realized that change would cut one berth from their midst.
So another play-in game was instituted. At least this time, even the losers were considered in the tournament. So for 10 years, the two lowest-seeded 16 seeds met in Dayton for the right to get on the bracket. Northwestern State of Louisiana played Winthrop in the first play-in game, followed by the likes of Siena-Alcorn State, North Carolina Asheville-Texas Southern, etc. For the record, a team from one of the two historically black college leagues – the SWAC or the MEAC—played in nine of those 10 play-in games. The committee never had the chutzpah to make them both play in a single year.
But greed being what it is, the NCAA basketball committee wanted even more money from the networks, and the networks said more money means more games. So in 2011, the official First Four was created.
Four games, spread over two nights in Dayton. Two games matching No. 16 seeds. The other two games matching the lowest-seeded at-large selections. That meant matchups like Alabama-Birmingham/Clemson, Virginia Commonwealth/Southern Cal, BYU/Iona, South Florida/California. VCU went all the way to the Final Four out of the First Four.
So that’s where we are.
But here’s where we should be. If you’ve got to have 68 teams – and there’s no going back, we’re always going to have at least 68 teams and probably eventually more – then make the First Four all at-large qualifiers.
It’s the moral thing to do. And the entertaining thing to do.
Boeheim a few years ago politicked for the tournament to expand to 76 teams. His idea, stage 12 play-in games among the lowest-seeded teams. His motivation, give eight more mediocre power-conference teams a berth in the field. You know, like Syracuse.
That’s crazy, of course. We don’t need more Syracuses in the field. You can argue we need more Illinois States, yes. But not more Syracuses.
Boeheim missed the point of the First Four totally. The NCAA Tournament is charming when Vermont plays Purdue, or Florida Gulf Coast plays Florida State, or Kentucky plays Northern Kentucky, or West Virginia plays Bucknell.
But Vermont vs. Florida Gulf Coast? Or Northern Kentucky vs. Bucknell? Uh, no thanks. Underdog vs. Underdog doesn’t add much to your viewing pleasure.
Why do you think the First Four’s 16-seeds game tips off at 5:30 p.m. Oklahoma time? The prime-time game is Kansas State-Wake Forest, or Southern Cal-Providence (tonight). Cinderella at the ball is exciting. Cinderella sweeping in the attic, not so much.
So let’s make the First Four totally at-large. Let all the North Carolina Centrals and Cal-Davises go straight to the bracket. Let them experience the tournament in all its splendor. The First Four experience is like the state high school tournament starting in Yukon or Bethany, trying to reach State Fair Arena. Nothing wrong with Yukon or Bethany or Dayton. But give the little guy a pass to the Big House.
And give the First Four some added television cachet. K-State/Wake was some good basketball. What if the First Four last night had also included Xavier-Oklahoma State, or Marquette-VCU?
That would have been more entertaining – and more moral. The idea that the lower-level conferences get a bid to the big dance is charming. The idea that we congregate six, instead of four, teams into the No. 16 seed line means their chance of winning is zilch. But make two of the 16-seed teams 15-seeds, and their chances of a glorious upset rise a little. And two teams rise to a 14-seed, and the chances increase quite a bit. Two teams rise to a 13-seed, and 13-seeds often win.
The First Four should be the committee’s way of saying, it’s hard to pick these at-large teams. They didn’t win their way in. Let them sort it out on the court.
The First Four would be more exciting basketball, since there would be no Cinderella-Cinderella matchups. And the 64-team bracket would be enhanced, since there would be more Cinderellas at the ball.
How to fix the NCAA Tournament’s First Four – NewsOK.com