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  • The bubble debate hinges on the same old arguments every March. What if there was a way to settle that arguing after Selection Sunday?
By Michael Beller
March 13, 2019

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Another Selection Sunday is on the horizon, and with it will come a list of this season’s biggest tournament snubs. No matter who is on that list, we’ll get the standard discussion about what type of bubble team is more worthy of an at-large bid, which is sure to go in a huge circle and end up where it started. Is the power-conference team with high-profile wins but a mediocre record a better choice? Or is it the mid-major that dominated its league, but fell short in its conference tournament? Some will say that high-majors with sub-.500 records in their own conference should be precluded from even being on the bubble. Others will say that mid-majors need to prove they can beat tournament-quality competition, and that the average high-major could dominate the Atlantic Sun or the SoCon or the Ohio Valley. There will be recriminations and rejoinders and ripostes, all without resolution. We’ll eventually forget about it all, until next year at this time when we do it all over again.

The NCAA and Selection Committee have tried in the past to make the selection process more transparent and understandable through myriad vehicles, the latest of which being the NET rating, which is supposed to sort teams with wildly different schedules and résumés better than the RPI did. Still, the same issues loom over the bubble every season. That’s because everything the NCAA and Selection Committee have tried to this point has been a half-measure that only obliquely addresses the problem at its core. That ends today.

What if there were a way we could make the circular high-major/mid-major bubble debate a thing of the past, while making an inherently iniquitous process as level as possible? All any of us can ask for is equality of opportunity. We propose to give that to every bubble team by eliminating Championship Week and replacing it with the Bubble Showdown Series. A few hundred words from now, you’re going to wish you lived in a world with the BSS.

We admit that we’re asking you to suspend reality to imagine the BSS. After all, it only works if the NCAA, its member conferences and institutions, and the TV networks that broadcast the games forsake however many millions of dollars they rake in via conference tournaments. Pretending we’ve already cleared that hurdle is worth it, though, so stick with us.

Here’s how the bracketing process would work with the BSS in place. The final Sunday of the regular season would double as Selection Sunday. The country’s 32 regular season conference champions would earn automatic bids. This means that every conference in the country would still be sending at least one team to the Big Dance. On Selection Sunday, the committee would reveal the identities, seeds and matchups for the first 60 teams in the field of 68—the 32 regular season champions and first 28 at-large teams. That would leave eight spots to fill, the ones we know today as the “last four byes” and “last four in,” and we’d do that with the Bubble Showdown Series.

The BSS would include the next 16 teams on the committee’s at-large list. The top team on the list would play the team ranked 16th, the second team would play the team ranked 15th, and so on. The winners of those games would advance to the NCAA tournament. The losers would be the top eight seeds in the NIT. All games would be played at a neutral site (though not the same site), similar to how the First Four is played in Dayton. The games would take place on Wednesday and Thursday of what is now Championship Week, giving all teams ample time to travel, no matter where the site of their game may be.

Why those two endpoints? Why are there 16 teams involved in the BSS? Well, the bubble debate ultimately centers around only a handful of teams by Selection Sunday. Reasonable people can disagree on who the last few teams in the field should be, but everyone agrees on at least 28 of the 32 at-large teams, which is why we aren’t pulling more teams out of the field and forcing them into the BSS. At the same time, no one is arguing on behalf of a team that’s ultimately a No. 4 seed in the NIT to get an at-large bid. The last eight into the field and first eight out make for a nice, neat, comprehensive series to fill out the tournament field.

How would this work in practice? Let’s consider this season as an example. Using our latest Bracket Watch, we can create a Bubble Showdown Series with our Last Four Byes, Last Four In, First Four Out, and Next Four Out. The matchups for this season’s BSS would be as follows:

TCU (top remaining team on the seed list after the first 28 at-large bids) vs. Georgetown
Temple vs. Furman
St. John’s vs. UNC-Greenboro
Indiana vs. Belmont
NC State vs. Alabama
Florida vs. Texas
Ohio State vs. Creighton
Arizona State vs. Clemson

Those eight winners would then be re-seeded and placed into the field of 68. From there, the tournament would flow as it already does.

I see only two problems with this idea as presented above—not including the whole “All these entities like making money, right?” question. The first is that, under this exact plan, teams that make the tournament without being in the BSS would have nearly two full weeks off before their first tournament game. That wouldn’t be ideal for teams, fans, TV networks, or really anyone. That, however, could be fixed with a simple tweak of the schedule, such as ending the regular season during the week, letting the BSS teams know immediately who and where they’re playing, and keeping Selection Sunday on its traditional day.

The second would be that four BSS winners would still have to play in a play-in game, even after winning their BSS game. This, admittedly, isn’t ideal, but it’s a whole lot better than engaging in the same reductive conversation about the bubble dichotomy between high- and mid-majors. And it’s certainly a better deal for the teams that ultimately get left out to who now have a guaranteed way to play their way into the field. You think any teams that landed on the wrong side of the bubble in previous seasons would complain if they had to win two play-in games, staged a week apart, before they played their first-round game? I sure don’t.

I admit, this first iteration of the BSS isn’t perfect. But we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. We shouldn’t go on living with problems simply because they’re hard to solve. I want teams like Belmont and UNC-Greensboro to have more navigable paths to at-large bids. At the same time, I appreciate that teams like Indiana and Texas have done significant work against high-level, tournament-quality competition. We decide everything else in this magnificent sport on the court. It’s time the bubble got that same treatment.

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