Monday, March 28, 2011

VCU Run Could Be Bad News For NCAA Tourney

As much as I love watching the underdog bust everyone's brackets in the NCAA Tournament, this year's Cinderella story might wind up doing more harm than good in the long run.

I don't just say that because Virginia Commonwealth, which is advancing to the Final Four for the first time ever, is the bitter rival of my alma mater, Old Dominion. There is a little bitterness there, but most of that is directed at Butler, which beat ODU in the first round (or second round, whatever) on a last-second play.

I begrudgingly root for VCU this time of year because it helps the conference; the more VCU wins, the better the Colonial Athletic Association looks, and the more money it gets.

But in terms of the tournament itself, I fear what this run will create. This was the first year in which the tournament had a 68-team field, including what's called the "First Four" -- four play-in games in Dayton, Ohio the Tuesday before the rest of the tournament starts.

VCU was among the eight teams playing in the First Four, by virtue of being on the last bubble teams selected. How close were the Rams to not being in the tournament? Virtually every college basketball analyst -- particularly two balding members of the ESPN team -- blasted the decision, even without evidence to back up their claims.

But VCU beat USC in the First Four, then throttled both Georgetown and Purdue to reach the Sweet 16. From there, the Rams took out Florida State in overtime before stunning No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. VCU advanced to its first Final Four, and head coach Shaka Smart is looking at a massive payday, whether he leaves VCU or not.

The run has been great for the CAA; receiving three bids for the first time ever -- league champion ODU was a No. 9 seed and George Mason received a No. 8 seed as an at-large -- the CAA had to prove it deserved them.

ODU fell to Butler at the buzzer -- you know, the same Butler team that's making its second straight Final Four -- and George Mason upended Villanova in its first game before being run over by No. 1 seed Ohio State.

But VCU matched the 2006 George Mason team, becoming the second CAA team to make the Final Four. Which, like I said, is great for both the school and the conference ... but not the tournament.

Before the field expanded to 68 teams, the NCAA seriously considered expanding the field to 96 teams. Some believe such expansion is an inevitability; coaches, particularly coaches from schools that seem to be on the bubble every year, believe there are enough good teams to fill out a 96-team field and still have a compelling, competitive tournament.

VCU's run only helps their cause.

The analysts who argued against VCU's inclusion pointed to such schools as Colorado and Virginia Tech as more deserving of a bid -- despite Colorado not having any notable out-of-conference wins and Virginia Tech once again playing a cupcake non-conference schedule (and refusing to play such schools as ODU, George Mason and VCU).

Sure, the Hokies beat Duke, but they followed that up by losing to Boston College (at home) and Clemson. The Rams, meanwhile, had wins over Wichita State, George Mason and ODU -- and advanced to the title game of the CAA Tournament.

Would Colorado or Virginia Tech gone on a run like this if they had been given a bid? There's no way to tell; the tournament is so unpredictable anymore that hundreds of thousands of brackets were toast before the end of the first weekend.

But VCU's historic run validates those who feel the bubble teams should be let in by virtue of an even more expanded field. If the 67th- or 68th-best team in the country can make it from the First Four to the Final Four, then who's to say the 84th-best team in the nation can't get hot and win a few games?

I'd like to think a 96-team NCAA field is not an inevitability; maybe I'm naive. But I think there are ways to make the the 68-team field better before we even think about expanding the field again. For example, I'd like to see the committee stop putting automatic bid earners in the First Four; make the First Four a series of games between the "last four in" and the "last four out;" winners get 12 seeds.

But if we do wind up with a 96-team field in the coming years, we may have the Rams to thank for that. VCU and the CAA -- and even the NCAA -- might win in the short term, but in the long term, this run could prove disastrous for the tournament.

No comments:

Post a Comment