The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, March 12, 2007

It's NCAA Tourney Time!: How to Keep Mid-Majors from Getting the Shaft: Eliminating Automatic Bids for Low Mid-Majors

The Centerman emerges from hibernation for the event of the year...

It’s NCAA Tournament Time, March Madness blah blah etc etc. Don’t take that the wrong way – I love March, I love college basketball, I love the tournament. But hasn’t everything been said that can be said?

Well, maybe not. At least here’s something I’m not hearing. Major college basketball needs to split into two divisions, as major college football did a generation ago. There are now 336 schools claiming to play Division I college basketball. Among many others, these include schools such as New Jersey Tech, Longwood, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and some place that goes only by the mysterious initials IUPUI.

Fans of true mid-majors such as Air Force, Drexel, Appalachian State, and Utah State, and Akron are bummed that their teams weren’t chosen, and note that this year there were only six “mid-major” at large picks, a low number in a declining trend. They blame the big conferences for trying to squeeze out the middies. Meanwhile, fans of “high-majors” such as Syracuse, West Virginia, and Kansas State are furious, and throw the blame on a handful of teams that got in – Arkansas, Xavier, and Illinois mainly. But the real reason the for both groups disappointments is that the Tournament – admittedly the most perfect sporting event in the world, is simply awarding too many automatic bids. It is time to cut Division I basketball in two.

Right now there are 31 Division I basketball conferences. Let me suggest that 15 of these conferences do not deserve that designation. These are: America East; Atlantic Sun; Big Sky; Big South; Ivy; Metro-Atlantic (MAAC); Mid-Continent (MCC); Mid-Eastern Athletic (MEAC); Northeast; Ohio Valley (OVC); Patriot; Southern; Southland; Southwestern (SWAC); and Sunbelt. I’m not saying that absolutely every team in every one of these conferences should be dropped from Division I, or that every team in the other 16 conferences necessarily deserves to stay. There may be some re-alignments necessary, as, for example, the best teams in the Patriot, Holy Cross (which also has a deep basketball tradition) and Bucknell find new homes to stay in Division I, while some clubs, such as Drake or Indiana State in the Missouri Valley, or Duquesne in the Atlantic 10, consider a drop to I-AA. But it should be done.

Let’s look at the record of these 15 conferences in NCAA tournament play. I looked at two relevant time periods: the last 10 tournaments (1997-2006); and the period since 1985, when the tournament went to 64 teams. This is, I think, the relevant history. I will note here that I do not give a team a tournament “win” for winning the “play-in” or, as the NCAA prefers, “opening round” game between the last two teams in the field.

Here’s what we find:

America East:
Record: ’97-’06 - 1-10
Record: ’85-’06 – 3-22
Last Win: Vermont, 2005 over Syracuse, 60-57
Last At-large bid: Never
2007 Entry: Albany, (13th seed)
Vermont’s 2005 win over Syracuse ended a string of 8 consecutive tournament losses for this conference. It’s worth noting that the conferences only other victories in NCAA play go to Drexel, now a member of the Colonial Conference, in 1996, and Siena, now a member of the Metro-Atlantic Conference, in 1989. Northeastern, which also left the conference years ago, won a couple tournament games in the early 1980s, before the field grew to 64 teams.

Atlantic Sun:
Record: ’97-’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85-’06 – 3-22
Last Win: Georgia St., 2001 over Wisconsin
Last At Large Bid: 1994 (Charleston)
2007 Entry: Belmont (15th seed)
All three of the Atlantic 10’s NCAA tournament wins have come from teams no longer in the conference: Georgia St in 2001; Charleston in 1994, and Arkansas-Little Rock in 1986. Except for the now departed Charleston, the conference has never received an at-large bid. Belmont is representing the league for the second consecutive season. Last year, also as a #15 seed, they lost to UCLA by 34 in the first round.

Big Sky:
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-22
Last Win: Montana 2006, over Nevada
Last At-Large Bid: Never
2007 Entry: Weber State (15th seed)
The Big Sky has been around since the NCAA first began awarding at-large bids to conference teams in the early 1970s, but has never received an at-large bid. The Big Sky has some nice old history in coaches such as Dick Motta and Jud Heathcoat, and Montana did get a win last year, but the truth is, this league just in’t cutting it anymore.

Big South:
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 0-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 0-15
Last Win: Never
Last At-Large Bid: Never
2007 Entry: Winthrop (11th seed)
This year’s Winthrop team may have the best chance this league has had yet to win a tournament game. Winthrop is the first Big South team to be seeded above 14th, and 8 of the 15 Big South entries have been seeded 16th. If they can’t do it, you have to ask if they ever can. The all-time average margin of defeat for a Big South team in Tournament play is 20 points, and 5 of the league’s entries have lost by 30 or more points.

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 1-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-23
Last Win: Princeton, 1998 over UNLV.
Last At-Large Bid: Columbia, 1968
2007 Entry: Penn (14th seed)
People love to talk about how tough the Ivies are to play, but the fact is, they almost always lose. No Ivy has reached the Sweet 16 since Penn crashed the Final Four in 1979. They’ve lost 8 straight tournament games since Princeton managed a #5 seed and a first round win over UNLV in 1998. And at that the league is not as good as its tournament representatives – Penn or Princeton has represented the league every year since 1988, and every year but three since 1962. One hates to stomp on Bill Bradley and all that history, but let’s face it – this is a I-AA conference.

Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference:
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 1-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-23
Last Win: Manhattan, 2004 over Florida
Last At-Large Bid: Manhattan, 1995
2007 Entry: Niagara (16th seed/play in game)
Other than Manhattan’s first round wins in 1995 and 2004, the only team from this league to win a Tourney game was in 1990, when LaSalle, long since departed for the Atlantic 10, won a first rounder behind Lionel Simmons. I was a bit surprised, actually, by how poorly this league has done.

Mid Continent Conference:
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 7-22
Last Win: Valparaiso, 1998, made Sweet 16.
Last At-Large Bid: Northern Illinois (1991)
2007 Entry: Oral Roberts (14th Seed)
The MCC’s all-time record looks much better than it is. The only team still in the conference to ever win a game is Valparaiso, which reached the Sweet 16 in 1998. Wisconsin-Green Bay and Cleveland State, both in the Horizon Conference for over a decade, won in 1994 and 1986, respectively (with Cleveland State reaching the Sweet 16), and Northern Iowa, and Missouri State, long departed for the Missouri Valley, won games in ’87 and ’90, respectively. The conference’s last five entries have lost by an average of 23.4 points.

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 2-22
Last Win: Hampton, 2001 over Iowa St.
Last At-Large Bid: Never
2007 Entry: Florida A&M (16th seed/play in)
Since Hampton’s 2001 first round win, all five MEAC entries have lost by double digits. The league’s 2-22 record since 1985 is pretty bad, but then, before 1985 the league had never won a game.

Northeast Conference
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 0-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 0-22
Last Win: Never
Last At-Large Bid: Never
2007 Entry: Central Connecticut State (16th Seed)
This league has never won a game other than a play-in, with an all-time 0-25 record. Nineteen of 22 entries since 1985 have lost by double-digits, including two losses by more than 40 points.

Ohio Valley Conference
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 0-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-23
Last Win: Middle Tennessee State 1989, over Florida State.
Last At-Large Bid: Middle Tennessee State, 1987
2007 Entry: Eastern Kentucky (16th seed)
Another grand old conference that no longer cuts it, with 17 consecutive losses in Tournament play. The Conferences best historic program, Western Kentucky, fled long ago.

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 2-15
Last Win: Bucknell, 2006 over Arkansas
Last At-Large Bid: Never
2007 Entry: Holy Cross (13th seed)
Bucknell has won first round games in each of the last two years, the league’s first two wins ever. Holy Cross is a tough team this year. So it’s a bit difficult to relegate this league to I-AA, but behind those two clubs there is no depth at all to this league (Lehigh, Lafayette, American, Army, Navy and Colgate).

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 2-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-22
Last Win: Chattanooga 1997, Sweet 16
Last At-Large Bid: North Carolina State, 1950
2007 Entry: Davidson (13th seed)
One of the oldest conferences in the nation, and for decades one of the best, the Southern has long been a shadow of the conference that once included every major program south of the Mason-Dixon line – as illustrated by the fact that it’s last at-large bid went to North Carolina State in 1950! The league is not even what it was when Lefty Dreisell prowled the Davidson bench in the late 1960s. The league has just 3 wins since the Tournament went to 64 teams in 1985: two of those belong to Chattanooga in 1997, and the third to East Tennessee State in 1992, but since forced out of the Conference for dropping football. The league actually had an up season this year – Davidson is a tough team, and Appalachian State, in some years, would have merited an at-large bid.

Southland Conference:
Record: ’97 – ’06 – 1-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 3-22
Last Win: Northwestern State, 2006 over Iowa
Last At-Large Bid: Louisiana Lafayette 1973
2007 Entry: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (15th seed)
Last year’s tournament win for Northwestern State was the league’s first since Lousiana Tech, now a member of the WAC, reached the Sweet 16 in 1985. That also broke a string of 16 consecutive double digit losses, nine of them by more than 20 points. The league’s last at-large bid came in 1973, to a school then known as Southwestern Louisiana.

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 0-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 1-22
Last Win: Southern, 1993 over Georgia Tech
Last At-Large Bid: Alcorn State 1980
2007 Entry: Jackson State (16th Seed)
This league’s representative has lost three of the last 5 play-in games, and hasn’t been seeded above 16th since 1999, or above 15th since Ben Jobe’s Southern team in 1993, which is also the only league entry to win a non-play in game since Alcorn State beat South Alabama in 1980.

Record: ’97 – ’06 – 0-10
Record: ’85 – ’06 – 11-31
Last Win: Western Kentucky 1995 over Michigan
Last At-Large Bid: Western Kentucky 1994
2007 Entry: North Texas (15th seed)
In the mid-1980s, this was a wonderful up and coming conference, including Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth, Western Kentucky, Alabama-Birmingham, Jacksonville, and Charlotte, and coaches such as Gene Bartow, J.D. Barnett, Clem Haskins, and Bob Wenzel. Charlotte, then known as UNC-Charlotte, reached the Final Four in 1977. From 1981 to 1989 the league went 14-18 in the Tourney, and routinely received multiple bids, including 4 bids in 1986. And then the league began to desinigrate. Of the schools mentioned above, only Western Kentucky remains in the conference. The league has lost its last 12 Tournament games, including a 26-point route of South Alabama last year. Western Kentucky needs to find its way into the Missouri Valley or perhaps Conference USA, and the rest of this league should fall to division I-AA.

That’s a record of 16-150 for these 15 conferences over the past 10 years, without a single at-large bid. In short, they are cannon fodder for the top seeds. Moreover, these 15 leagues make up all 5 #16th seeds (including the play-in), all 4 #15 seeds, and two #14 seeds in this year’s tournament. We like to think that it's fun to watch these little teams try to pull off the upset, but generally the games are just snoozers - it is the better mid-majors that pull off the upsets.

Imagine that these 15 conferences did not receive automatic bids, and we went back to a straight 64 team tournament. Who would be out this year, and who might replace them:

1. Florida A&M/Niagara 1. Syracuse
2. Jackson State 2. Drexel
3. Central Connecticut State 3. W. Virginia
4. Eastern Kentucky 4. Kansas State
5. Belmont 5. Appalachian State
6. North Texas 6. Air Force
7. Weber State 7. Missouri State
8. Texas A&M Corpus Cristi 8. Bradley
9. Oral Roberts 9. Michigan
10. Penn 10. Florida State
11. Albany 11. Utah State
12. Holy Cross 12. Holy Cross
13. Davidson 13. Davidson
14. Winthrop 14. Winthrop

Notice I still put in three of these teams as at-large clubs. I think if the at large bids were eliminated, the NCAA would want to give a good deal of attention to those teams that win their conferences and play well, and I would still put Holy Cross, Davidson, and Winthrop in the field, and maybe Albany. But look at those first 11 swaps: which set of teams would you rather see in the tourney? Wouldn’t Florida-Appalachian State be more interesting that Florida-Jackson State? And notice that the mid-majors do quite well, with Drexel, Air Force, Missouri State, and Bradley almost certainly making the field, and possibly Appalachian and Utah State as well.

If we truly split the NCAA into Division I and I-AA, and kept 16 auto bids in I-A, the spots held in the right hand column above by Holy Cross, Davidson, Winthrop and Appalachian would also become open, to schools such as Clemson, Oklahoma State, Hofstra, San Diego State, and Akron. Again, true mid-majors (as opposed to “low majors”) will benefit as much as anyone.

While there would be resistance to being pushed out of Division I and into I-AA, it strikes me as quite possible that the low-majors would benefit from that, too. Notice how interest in the National Invitational Tournament has been growing among hard core fans. The NIT now has a selection show of its own. Picture a 32 team I-AA tournament in place of the NIT. Wouldn’t that draw fan interest? Might that not actually be a better option for teams such as Central Connecticut State, a chance to win 2-3 or more games, rather than get blasted by a #1 and sent home on Thursday afternoon?

Just to get a sense of what it would look like, here might be the 32 teams in such a I-AA tournament, taking all the 15 above conference champs and the other top teams, just in order of this year’s RPI (obviously the Committee would not slavishly follow RPI, but I’m not up to more thorough analysis). I’ve listed them by their seeds:

1. Davidson 27-4 Holy Cross 25-8 Appalachian St. 22-7 Winthrop 24-4
2. Albany 23-9 Tx. A&M-CC 24-6 Bucknell 22-9 Vermont 25-7
3. Penn 21-8 Oral Roberts 22-10 Marist 24-8 Charleston 22-11
4. Belmont 22-9 Sam Houston 18-10 Delaware St. 20-12 E. Tenn. St. 22-9
5. Oakland 18-14 S. Alabama 18-11 E. Kentucky 19-11 Siena 20-12
6. Utah Val. St. 20-7 Niagara 22-11 N. Texas 20-10 Tenn. Tech 18-13
7. Weber St. 17-11 No. Ariz. 16-12 C. Conn. St. 22-11 Sacred Heart 18-14
8. N. Dakota St 20-8 Ark. St. 18-15 Jackson St. 20-13 Florida A&M 18-13

That would be a fun little tournament?

And it would improve the NCAA tournament, making for better first round games, giving more bids to mid-majors with a realistic chance of winning a game, and keepting the excitement of "championship week" conference tournaments.

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