The NCAA Tournament's Big Problem: Small Schools on the Bubble

Will St. Mary's, Wichita State and Valparaiso get a chance to dance in March Madness, or will the at-large bids go to the usual suspects?

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The NCAA Tournament; College Basketball
With Selection Sunday looming, what will happen to mid-major teams on the bubble? Ronald Martinez/Getty

When I wrote this, Pittsburgh was losing an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament basketball game to North Carolina. This probably should've meant something, but it most likely meant nothing, because the Tar Heels were playing only for NCAA tournament seeding and the Panthers were almost certainly going to get an at-large bid regardless of whether they won the contest or not (and they most certainly did not, falling 88-71).

Pitt is now 21-11 this season. The Panthers are 45th in Ken Pomeroy's statistical ratings as of Friday morning, and 50th in the Rating Percentage Index, the deeply flawed metric that the NCAA tournament selection committee heavily relies on to choose the 36 at-large teams that they wind up inviting. In other words, Pitt had a decent season, but not a great one, but it doesn't matter, because Pitt plays in a major conference, which is why Pitt is one of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's last four teams currently "in" the field.

And that's the problem.

According to Lunardi's calculations, roughly 30 of those 36 at-large bids are currently projected to go to teams from the six major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC). That leaves just six for the remainder of the country, and given that this predictably unpredictable postseason has already resulted in losses by a number of conference champions from smaller leagues, it presents a serious problem. Monmouth, one of the most entertaining small schools in the country, is ensconced firmly on the bubble after losing to Iona in the MAAC final; so is St. Mary's, which boasts perhaps the most efficient offense in the country, but committed the forgivable sin of losing to a hot-shooting Gonzaga (after beating the 'Zags twice in the regular season) in the WCC title game.

The list does not end there. Valparaiso, at 26-6, may get knocked out after losing to a 22-win Green Bay team in the Horizon League tournament; so may Wichita State, a 24-8 team laden with veterans whose coach has been reduced to public posturing. And it's possible more top seeds in more conferences will lose over the next few days, further obfuscating the big picture. The committee may use this as an excuse to favor the big conferences, because this is their history: 29 at-large bids went to major conferences in 2015, after 26 went to those conferences in 2014. But this would be a mistake, especially in a year like this one, especially at a moment when college basketball is improved in quality and riddled with parity and poised for a postseason renaissance.

What was the greatest thing to happen to college basketball in the past decade? It was not Duke winning multiple national championships; it was the fact a school straight out of Hoosiers nearly upset Duke in the national title game. It was VCU and Butler making the Final Four in the same season. Upsets are the lifeblood of the tournament, and upsets are what set it apart, and there should be copious upsets this year: Pomeroy, the statistical guru whose numbers are part of the selection committee's criteria, told me last weekend that he's never seen so many good teams so closely bunched together since he began rating them more than a decade ago.

And this, frankly, is why it feels almost demoralizing to realize that Pitt will probably make the tournament ahead of one of the aforementioned teams. This is why I'd rather see a team that won its conference's regular-season championship get in ahead of a major-conference team with an entirely forgettable resume. Because the thing about it is this: The gap between the majors and the mid-majors at this point is less and less perceptible. Teams like Monmouth and Wichita State, teams often laden with upperclassmen, are generally more efficient and more sound and more interesting to watch, and should not be eliminated merely for losing one game in a conference tournament. (The argument against this, that the committee wants to encourage better non-conference games in the early season, is an easy one to make for major teams that have an easy time scheduling those marquee non-conference games. But who wants to play a well-coached team like St. Mary's when the risk/reward is far lower?)

The rise of the mid-major is a great trend, and it should be encouraged; this is what college basketball can do that college football refuses to do, and I hope the committee is not willing to ignore it. This is the year that college basketball can return itself to the masses, but in order to return itself to the masses, it needs to recognize the masses. Enough already with the Pitts of the world. Go small, and you'll wind up hitting big.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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