INDIANAPOLIS — No sporting event in America is engineered for the underdog more than the NCAA tournament. The opening round is like a two-day episode of The Bachelor, manufactured drama for a small school to get a rose.
But as the first round of the NCAA tournament ended with a whimper on Friday night, this tournament has been as riveting as a CSPAN marathon of Congressional energy hearings. In the 2017 NCAA tournament, even the upsets aren’t really upsets. A tournament that’s captivated America based on upstarts and underdogs has become downright, well, predictable. Watching the NCAA tournament this year has been like rooting for the 1985 Bears, investing in Apple or betting on Tom Brady. There’s been no buzzer beaters and little drama. When the biggest story revolves around a Vanderbilt player’s unfortunate brain cramp, you know we’re searching for storylines.
The NCAA selection committee can blame themselves for these two relatively drama-free days. Sure, there’s been good games like Michigan’s 92–91 victory over Oklahoma State earlier Friday. But mainly, there’s been more chalk than an Office Depot supply closet.
As of the late set of games on Friday night, there were only four upsets so far in the NCAA tournament. (The NCAA defines upsets as five seeds apart or more). And none of the of the upsets would even be considered a mild surprise. Heck, No. 12 Middle Tennessee was favored to beat No. 5 Minnesota and went on to win 81–72. Of the four “upsets” so far in this tournament, the biggest “underdog” was Southern California. That’s about as endearing a story as cuddly underdog Syracuse advancing to the Final Four as a No. 10 seed last year. The victories of No. 11 Xavier and No. 11 Rhode Island can’t even be considered mild surprises, as they were less than two-point underdogs.
Unfortunately, the dud of the first round of the NCAA tournament can be encapsulated by the fine game between Wichita State and Dayton on Friday night. This contest lived up to the early billing as one of the top match-ups of the tourney. No. 10 Wichita outslugged the No. 7 Flyers, 64–58, in a taut game hallmarked by sharp elbows and MMA intensity.
The quality of both teams offered another reminder that it never should have been played. Wichita (31–4) getting a No. 10 seed from the selection committee was as idiotic in retrospect as it was in real time. And that ended up being completely unfair to Dayton (24–8), which should have been higher than No. 7 and definitely shouldn’t have had to play a 30-win team with a kenpom rating of No. 8.
“A No. 4 seed,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said in a quiet locker room after the game when asked where Wichita should have been seeded. “I don’t think you’re going to get a 30 or 31-team with that depth who can fire that amount of bodies at you. Their depth and size in the 3, 4, and 5 position is as good as anyone in the country.”
But there’s been a not-so-subtle shift away from rewarding mid-major teams by the NCAA selection committee. Double-digit at-large bids came from outside the power conferences in 2012, 2013 and 2014. This year, there were only four. And the seeding for the A-10, AAC, Conference USA and Valley schools was all shaky. If the sharks in Vegas can see that Middle Tennessee is better than Minnesota—guided by the betting public—why can’t the committee? “It’s discouraging,” Miller told Sports Illustrated earlier this week. “They don’t’ want to say they’re pushing you out. In many ways, they are.”
Pushing Cinderella out of the NCAA tournament robs it of its essence and gives us 48-hour stretches of milquetoast basketball like we’ve experienced this week. There’s myriad reasons for the shift away from smaller schools—scheduling issues, up-transfers and the monetary gap being among them. Also, schools like Xavier, Creighton, Butler, Davidson, VCU and George Mason have upgraded from lower leagues that they used to dominate, giving the selection committee less quality mid- and low-major schools to choose from. The trend lines, however, don’t portend to any more access, attention and opportunity for the smaller schools. And the flurry of up-transfers to higher levels every off-season makes the high-major dominance of at-large bids of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The players are going to go to leagues that get the bids, which gut the programs striving to catch them.
Miller worries that as leagues go to 20-game league schedules—like the ACC in 2019—that mid-majors will continue to have even less chance for top-50 wins. “You’re looking at 25 games against high major foes,” he says of leagues with 20-game conference schedules. “How many more are you going to play? Why would you?”
College sports leaders are historically myopic in clutching to their piece of the financial cookie instead of doing what’s best for the holistic good of the game. And few can argue less access for smaller leagues is good for the NCAA tournament. But it takes dollars away from the big leagues, as every bid is worth $1.6 million over a six-year span.
Here’s the issue. It’s not as if the high majors have pulled away and got exponentially better. There’s been a confluence of factors that have simply pushed the smaller conferences further away. “Relatively recently, in the last five years, there’s been a set of components that have made things more difficult on the mid-majors,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “I don’t think it’s made the high-majors better. It’s not like they’re so much better when they once were.”
Are your brackets broken? Hard to imagine how, unless you picked them blindfolded. The sheer joy of the tournament is ripping up your bracket, sacrificing your $20 office pool donation to the insanity and unpredictability of it all and enjoying the show.
The only way to re-energize the early days of the tournament is to allow more access for smaller leagues. And the only way to do that is give them better representation on the NCAA selection committee. Five of the 10 members are from the six top basketball conferences. And seven of the 10 hail from FBS schools. When half the committee comes from six conferences, it shouldn’t be a shock when they make up more than 80% of the at-large field. A Republican president filling the Supreme Court with his judges is going to lead to conservative rules. It’s common sense.
The lack of access will inevitably breed more dull NCAA tournament days like the past two. "I think Dayton deserved a better draw in this tournament," Wichita coach Gregg Marshall said. So did the Shockers. When the odds are stacked against the underdog before tip-off, we all lose.