Nathan Mayberg: Give mid-majors the harder road to the NCAA tournament
For years, the NCAA basketball tournament's selection committee has taken criticism for leaving deserving teams out of the tournament, while questionable ones got in.
The committee, an easy target with a thankless job, has often been criticized for mis-seeding teams, creating easy brackets for some and tough ones for others.
In years past, the committee was made up of university administrators and perfunctionaries with no athletic or basketball background, though that has changed slightly in recent years.
As a way to allow more at-large teams in, the committee expanded the tournament to 68 teams a few years ago ... technically. Eight of those teams, though, would have to compete in a play-in to nab the final four spots.
Four of these teams won conference tournaments in weak leagues but didn't win their regular season title, and the other four were the last at-large bids picked.
Just one problem. That means, in this year for example, a squad like Mount St. Mary's, with a 16-17 record from one of the tiniest schools in the country, received a berth in a play-in game by winning the Northeast Conference tournament while a plethora of better teams were left out in the cold.
The University at Albany went 9-7 in the lowly American East Conference and got to the second round of the tournament after beating Mount Saint Mary's in the play-in game on Tuesday. Xavier, which beat top-ranked schools like Creighton and Cincinnati, is out before the tournament technically began, losing its play-in game to North Carolina State.
Tennessee beat Iowa in a play-in game to advance to a matchup with UMass. Tennessee nearly upset Florida, the number one team in the country, in the SEC tournament championship. Tennessee (21-12) also crushed No. 1 seed Virginia earlier in the year.
Iowa (20-12) played in the Big Ten and defeated two-seed Michigan and sixth-seeded Ohio State. They took two-seed Villanova and fourth-seeded Michigan State to overtime.
Yet Iowa goes home before the madness begins, while Albany takes a dusting from Florida. California Polytechnic University, with a losing record of 14-19, also gets into the tournament after winning their play-in game over Texas Southern on Wednesday night.
Among the more qualified teams sitting out the tournament include SMU, which beat seventh-seeded UConn twice, fifth-seed Cincinnati, and Memphis -- which had the same record as SMU in the same league. Arkansas (22-11) beat Kentucky twice and took Florida to overtime. Clemson (21-12) beat Duke and came within a point of beating them a second time in the ACC tournament.
What's the solution? Combine some of the smaller, weaker conferences.
The America East and Northeast, which produced Albany and Mount Saint Mary's, should be one league.
The Southern Conference, which produced Wofford could easily join the Big South -- which gave us Coastal Carolina this year, or the Atlantic Sun, which will deliver Mercer. Mercer needed two overtimes to get by USC Upstate -- yes, that is their name -- in their conference tournament.
Other combinations could include merging the Horizon League with the Ohio Valley, or the Summit League and its eight teams heralded by North Dakota State with the WAC -- which boasts Grand Canyon, Idaho and UMKC, among others.
The opposing argument is that the NCAA tournament gives these smaller schools a chance to shine and potentially give a major school a scare. That's great when it happens, but the few that could deliver those upsets should be in bigger conferences. There are 32 Division I conferences. There are more titles than in boxing.
This should be about watching the best teams. The most deserving teams from the power conferences should have a guaranteed spot in the tournament and let the minor schools from the other conferences prove their mettle in a play-in.
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