Navy coach Billy Lange has a hard enough recruiting pitch with the specter of post-graduation deployments looming for anyone who considers the academy. Now, the NCAA may have made the basketball side of his sell job more difficult, too.
With Monday's announcement that the NCAA tournament's expansion to 68 teams will include a second play-in (sorry, opening-round) game for teams jousting for No. 16 seeds, the hopes for the Patriot League to earn regular direct berths into the bracket proper have diminished. Last season, league rep Lehigh barely escaped the play-in game, and with the conference's relatively low RPIs and strong competitive balance, it won't be an easy task going forward to get out of the bottom four and avoid that fate.
It could be goodbye to selling the magic and allure of the NCAAs, and hello to ... Dayton on a Tuesday?
"When they were doing it and they went to [a 68-team model], I said, 'Well that won't have any impact on low-to-mid majors,'" Lange said on Tuesday, prior to heading on a recruiting trip. "I thought, 'Well, that's just a way to get Virginia Tech in and people that are arguing [for berths].' I'm shocked that they are going to have four automatic qualifiers, likely from one-bid leagues, playing for the last two spots."
It could have been worse for Lange and leagues like the Patriot had the NCAA elected to make all four play-in games for the 16 seeds. Then about half of the traditional one-bid conferences would have been condemned to Tepid Tuesday, with four exiting the tournament before the madness really begins.
The resulting hybrid solution, though, has created a host of questions. The NCAA hasn't announced exactly how it will handle the "First Four" games. If they're like a traditional Thursday or Friday subregional, two teams will face a noon tip-off just 42 hours or so after the bracket is unveiled. It would be prudent for the NCAA to inform those teams in advance to aid in travel and preparation.
There's also disagreement on the merits of the new at-large play-in games. When asked by text whether they would be OK with an opening-round appearance after Monday's announcement, two coaches from non-power conference leagues whose programs recently battled for at-large berths simply replied, "Yes." That was offset by Tuesday's tweet from Virginia Tech coach (and bubble staple) Seth Greenberg, who griped about the inequity of making higher-seeded teams play an opening-round game while two 16 seeds saunter directly into the main draw.
"I've heard criticism of this that it's not fair to the last four at-large teams," said West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, whose burgeoning league could benefit from the extra at-large spots. "Well, the last four [actually three] at-large teams wouldn't have been in. ... In some aspects, they have an advantage because now they get a [first] game that's a pretty winnable game."
Will nontraditional powers actually get more chances for those wins? Per CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm, 13 of the 21 lowest at-large seeds in the decade of the 65-team tournament have been from outside the six biggest leagues. That doesn't mean, though, that the teams next in line that would fill these three extra spots would hold to that ratio.
Getting a No. 1 seed in the postseason NIT isn't a perfect proxy for the last four teams left out of the NCAAs, but it's still illuminating that in its last five versions, 17 of the 20 top NIT seeds were power-conference teams and two others were from the Mountain West. Only one No. 1 seed, Creighton in 2009, was from a true mid-major league, suggesting that bigger programs may grab an inordinate share of the new at-larges.
The presence of a second auto-bid play-in game could also cause some radical changes in some of the smallest conferences, with the SWAC being the most obvious candidate. Annually the nation's lowest-rated conference, in large part because of the crippling number of guarantee games its teams play every season, the SWAC has made five appearances in the first 10 play-in games (and was kept out on other occasions to avoid a matchup with the MEAC, the nation's other historically black conference).
According to CollegeRPI.com, the league went 7-87 last season in nonleague Division I play, and there was as large a conference RPI gap between the SWAC and the 30th-ranked MEAC as between the MEAC and the Big South, which was the fifth-worst league (and roughly a cutoff for play-in game status). It's almost impossible with the way the SWAC currently operates for its NCAA representative not to be one of the four worst teams in the field. Unless things change, the play-in game will become an annual SWAC holiday.
"Something's going to have to happen eventually," SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp said. "Once it gets on the presidents' radars, that's where we get the call to action and we can do what we need to do to formulate a plan."
One interesting byproduct of the play-in game is that it counts as a full NCAA tournament game, which means a win adds to the conference's coffers. Arkansas-Pine Bluff's victory over Winthrop in last season's game netted each SWAC school an additional $22,000 (approximately) a year for each of the next six seasons. (Each NCAA tournament win share equals six years of payment.) Weirdly, part of the SWAC's rebuilding strategy could actually include trying to improve while staying in the play-in games to collect wins and more NCAA revenues, which could allow a decrease in guarantee games. Sharp didn't sound interested in that plan of attack, and he said not having a solo play -in game stage is a step back. "For us, our intent is to get out of it," he said. "Our intent is to improve our RPI so that we're not part of this. Until we do that? Yeah, it does hurt a bit. It was always better when you know you're the only game on and you have the national audience."
So what are we left with? Grumpy at-larges. Weeded-out conference champs. Midweek basketball on a channel formerly known as CourtTV. The hybrid plan will keep things as close to 64/65-team status quo as possible, but at this stage, it just doesn't feel right. You could almost see Lange shaking his head just from his tone on the phone. Like other mid-major coaches, he wouldn't thumb his nose at a play-in berth, but he also knows it's not the same as what he's pitched to dozens of recruits over the years.
"If we're talking about expansion, you want the entire NCAA tournament to feel like an event," Lange said. "If we're playing Tuesday, we [in essence] have one more 'conference tournament' game before we get into the big show."
He then broached the two questions College Hoops Nation has been asking for months.
"Why are we expanding? Who are we really expanding this for?"