Keeping Cinderella from Balling

Sixty-eight teams from 32 college basketball conferences were invited to the “Big Dance” (the NCAA College Basketball Tournament) this past March. In spite of Covid-19, it was a typical “March Madness”, with a big part of the madness being the lopsided tallies of teams representing each conference.

Leading all conferences in number of participants was the Big Ten with nine teams in the tourney. The Big 12 and ACC were next with seven, followed by the SEC with six, the Pac-12 with 5 and the Big East with 4. More than half of the tourney teams (38) were from these six conferences. The remaining 26 conferences had a meager 30 teams in the tourney — a measly 1.15 teams per conference.

Let me repeat that fact: Six conferences fielded 38 teams (50% of their 76 teams) in the tourney. The remaining 26 conferences sent 30 teams (11% of their 276 teams) to the Big Dance. Figuratively speaking, there is a wicked stepmother working hard to keep Cinderella from balling.

There is a wicked stepmother working hard to keep Cinderella from balling.

The pundits and apologists justify the disparity by arguing that the six over-represented conferences are much stronger than the remaining 26 conferences. Top to bottom they are stronger. But not that much stronger. The evidence is in the outcomes.

The Mid-American Conference (MAC) had one team invited to the tourney — the regular season 5th place Ohio Bobcats. The Bobcats danced because they managed to win the MAC’s end-of-season conference tournament. The four teams that finished the MAC regular season ahead of Ohio all beat Ohio during the regular season (some by wide margins). But because the MAC is treated by the NCAA as a “one-bid” conference, and because the conference has decided that its conference tourney winner gets the automatic bid, the hot-at-the-right-time Ohio Bobcats got the MAC’s sole tourney invite.

What did the Ohio Bobcats do with that opportunity? They handed the number four seed Virginia Cavaliers a 62-58 first-round loss. Virginia was the regular season first place team from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and one of seven ACC teams to make the tourney.

So the fifth-place team in the MAC — the MAC’s sole NCAA tourney team — beat the first-place team in the ACC — one of seven ACC teams that made the tourney. The apologists will argue that Ohio got hot and Virginia had a bad night. Be that as it may, you cannot tell me that the six other teams from the ACC that made the tourney were more deserving than the four MAC teams that finished the regular season with better records than the Ohio team that beat the ACC’s top team.

Another example. Abilene Christian was the sole NCAA tourney representative of the Southland Conference. They were Southland’s second-place regular season team, securing the conference’s automatic (and sole) tourney bid by winning the conference tournament. They then proceeded to knock the Big 12’s third-placed Texas Longhorns out of the tourney in the first round. The Big 12 sent seven teams to the tourney. Were all seven of those Big 12 teams more deserving than Nicholls State, the Southland Conference’s regular season champion who didn’t get invited to the dance?

Another example. North Texas was arguably the fifth or sixth best team in Conference USA (CUSA) during the regular season, but went on a run in CUSA’s conference tourney, securing their sole NCAA tournament bid. In the first round of the tourney, North Texas took out the Big Ten’s fourth place team, Purdue, one of nine Big Ten teams invited to the Big Dance. Were all nine of those Big Ten teams more deserving than the four CUSA teams that had better regular season records than North Texas?

Another example. Loyola Chicago of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) was one of two teams from the MVC that made the tournament. In the first round they beat Georgia Tech of the ACC, and then reached the Sweet Sixteen by beating number one seed Illinois of the Big Ten. Were the nine Big Ten teams that made the tourney more deserving than every one of the eight MVC teams that did not?

We’re not done yet. Fifteenth seeded Oral Roberts from the Summit League beat second seeded Ohio State from the Big Ten. Ohio State was fifth best in the Big Ten regular season, and Oral Roberts was fourth best in the Summit League regular season — the only Summit League team to make the tourney. Were all nine of the Big Ten teams that danced more deserving than the four Summit League teams that finished the regular season ahead of Oral Roberts? 

Oral Roberts went on to beat Florida of the SEC. Florida was the SEC’s sixth place team in the regular season, and one of their six teams in the tourney. Oral Roberts then narrowly lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Arkansas, the second-place regular season SEC team. Were all six SEC teams more deserving than the four Summit league teams that finished the regular season ahead of Oral Roberts?

The perennial dearth of dance invites for a majority of conferences, while a minority of conferences get the majority of the tickets to the ball, creates a situation where it is perpetually difficult for the “Cinderella” conferences to compete.

More NCAA Tournament berths guarantee more exposure, more money, better facilities, better recruiting, better coaching hires, and, ultimately, more NCAA Tournament berths. The cycle is self-perpetuating, and further entrenched when numerous deserving teams from single-bid conferences are overlooked in favor of less-deserving teams from multi-bid conferences.

More NCAA Tournament berths guarantee more exposure, more money, better facilities, better recruiting, better coaching hires, and, ultimately, more NCAA Tournament berths.

The NCAA College Basketball Tournament isn’t as blatantly rigged as the corrupt cabal that is the College Football Playoff (CFP). But, as in the CFP, the NCAA shouldn’t be in the business of perpetuating the power of a few conferences over most. Just like for the CFP, the best solution for the basketball tourney is to even out the bids per conference.

Rather than have a single guaranteed bid per conference, and dozens of at-large teams, there should be two bids per conference. For the 32 conferences that equals 64 total teams (also eliminating the ridiculous play-in round). Each conference would send their regular season champion, plus one other team. That second team could be the winner of their conference tournament (if they have a conference tourney won by a team that didn’t win the regular season), or it could be their second-place regular season team.

The result of this obviously equitable arrangement is that the regular season will truly matter. Deserving teams from traditionally discriminated-against single bid conferences will make the field. The bias-perpetuated imbalance of power among conferences will dissipate and eventually disappear, ultimately resulting in more parity and more exciting and meaningful regular season and conference tournament basketball games. And the wicked stepmother that is the NCAA College Basketball Tournament selection committee will no longer be in the business of keeping “Cinderella” from balling.