Bursting Everyone’s Bubble

March 16, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

Should the NCAA End The Bubble Debates and Just Include Everyone?


The great debate of the local sports weekend came to a happy conclusion on Sunday at 6 o’clock when the Terps were granted passage into the field of 65, for the NCAA tournament. Now the question becomes whether or not this team is equipped to pick up a couple of wins and make some noise before going out. Beyond that though, it’s tough to envision this small, scrappy bunch making any kind of serious run at the title, no matter how well they’ve played at times this season.


If history is any indicator, none of the teams that were sweating out their futures along with the Terps at 6 pm on Sunday stand much of a chance at a title anyway. The lowest seed ever to win the big dance was Villanova in 1985 as an 8th seed. So while the debate over the last few teams to gain inclusion every year is a fierce one, it usually has no bearing on the tournament itself, as these teams have historically performed badly once in. The debate surrounding the bubble teams though, begins the building of interest that leads into March Madness, and gives significance to the conference tournaments too.


The debate is what keeps it interesting too, at least that would seem to be the NCAA’s standard operating procedure. After all, these are the same folks who give you the annual food for debate over an actual football playoff as opposed to their current convoluted system. Simply expanding the basketball tournament field to include everyone would be simple enough. But then there’d be no debate leading up to the selection show, no full time columnists devoted to projecting the field every single week of the season, and most importantly no real significance to the conference tournaments either.


There are currently 347division 1A men’s basketball programs. In the current tournament format, a team has to win six games in a row in order to win a national championship, seven games if they were to win it from the play in game as a 64th or 65th seed. If you simply ranked every division 1 team at the end of the conference tournaments, from 1 to 347, it would only add 2 games to the schedule. The top 165 teams would get first round byes, leaving the bottom 182 teams to play for 91 available slots. From there the field of 256 would take 8 games to decide a champion.


Let’s face it; conference tournaments already have little significance anyway. Most legitimate contenders have already cemented their tournament resumes before conference tourneys begin, and only a few bubble teams stand to benefit by gaining an opportunity to pick up another big win or two. And of course, there is always a team or 2, like Mississippi State this season, that only get in by winning their conference tourneys. Still, when only 3 of the top 8 seeds won their conference tourneys and 3 of 4 number 1’s failed to make their conference finals, it’s tough for good teams to feel urgency at conference tournament time.


In fact, it may be safe to assume that teams like Pitt and UConn could benefit from early exits and extra rest, while a team like Syracuse, which had to play 4 games this weekend, plus another 35 minutes of overtime, may be worn out by the time they take the court this Friday. Duke, Memphis and Mississippi State all will have to turn around quickly on Thursday after finishing up grueling weekends on Sunday. Maybe it’s better to be out early in the conference tournament if your ticket for the big dance has already been punched.


Conference tournaments have certainly changed a lot over the last 20 years or so too. The ACC tournament has gone through many variations since the simple 8-team format of the late 80’s. Under it’s current format, the formula seems right; but is it really serving the conference?


We all saw the empty courtside seats throughout the weekend at the Georgia Dome. And even though most of the games were very close and competitive, I was surprised at the number of people that I talked to this weekend who were simply disinterested, outside of Maryland’s own plight. What’s more, as we saw from the Terps on Saturday, having to play that extra game can definitely catch up with a team, especially one without a lot of depth.


I understand the current format, earning one of the top 4 seeds should entitle you to some benefit, and not playing on Thursday can have it’s drawbacks too. For the first 5 minutes or so at least, of Friday’s games, the teams that played on Thursday seemed to have an advantage, they seemed to have rhythm. But since only Maryland, among those teams, was able to pick up a victory on Friday, the advantage couldn’t have been that great.


As it stands today, it’d be very tough for any team to win the tournament while having to play in on Thursday night. And although that’s the way that it should be, technically, wouldn’t the conference be better served if those teams had a chance? The top 4 seeds in the ACC tournament are pretty much guaranteed entry into the field of 65 anyway. Wouldn’t it make a little bit of sense to give a lower seed a chance to get in too?


How to accomplish that fairly is another matter altogether, and as mentioned earlier, probably of little significance anyway, as those teams don’t historically fare well in the big dance. One thing the ACC should consider doing though at least, is moving the whole thing forward one day, and finishing up on Saturday night, like the Big East and a few other conferences have done. At least that way they can give the teams who do fare well there, an extra day to rest, and make it more worthwhile for top teams to make a run at it.


I suppose you could look at the conference tournaments as a way of expanding the field to 347 teams already. Everyone has a chance after all, no matter how they did in the regular season, as long as they keep on winning once the post season comes around.