In the height of the Vietnam War, a slogan went around the nation that became a bumper sticker and was emblazoned on t-shirts. It went, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” The slogan became so popular that it became a movie starring Tony Curtis and a cast of popular actors and actors from the late 1960’s.
Suppose they gave a 68-team tournament and 50 teams not deserving of the honor accepted invitations? While the former slogan led to a funny movie, the latter slogan will lead to a diluted NCAA Tournament this season. Back in the 1960’s, there was no set number of teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, or as this writer remembers it, “The UCLA Invitational.” The tournament would invite 22, 23, 24, or 25 teams in those days, depending on how many they felt deserved the invitations. You had automatic qualifiers from the major conferences of the day, which numbered about 17, and then there were about 50 independent teams.
In some years, just five independents had resumes worthy of playing in the tournament. In others, a dozen teams were worthy, but the NCAA maxed out the number at 25, so only eight of the dozen received bids.
The best conferences, by virtue of their won-loss record in the most previous tournaments, received byes in advance of the tournament selection, meaning they began in the Sweet 16. The ACC, Big Ten, Big Eight, SEC, and Pac-8 (AAWU) basically retained byes every year, whereas the Southwest Conference, Missouri Valley, Southern, Middle Atlantic and other strong conferences of the day had to begin in an opening round (play-in) to make the Sweet 16.
There were many years when top 10 teams did not get into the NCAA Tournament, and even a year where the arguably number two team did not get in. Only the conference champions made the NCAA Tournament of that time, and a number two team many times was good enough to be a Final Four contender but had to settle for the NIT or nothing at all.
In 1971, Southern Cal went 24-2 with multiple future NBA stars on their roster. Unfortunately, the two Trojan losses came to number one UCLA. USC stayed home in the postseason as a top 5 team.
The NCAA Tournaments in those days had its share of blowout games, especially when UCLA played their Sweet 16 game. The old PCAA or WCAC (two leagues that no longer exist) provided fodder for the Bruins. Frequently, the opponent would stall in the pre-shot clock days, but it did not matter, as the Bruins would win 50-39 over a lightweight that never had a chance.
What can we take from the current and the past and plan something better for the future? The 1971 USC’s should not have been punished for being the possible second best team in the nation and not having a postseason to continue playing. However, inviting a team that finished in the bottom half of their league standings to the tournament is just as wrong. Why invite a team that goes 7-11 in league play and finishes the regular season at 19-14? This team doesn’t even deserve to be in the NIT.
There are roughly 20 teams every year that really deserve to be on the national stage when the title is on the line. Sure, you have your upsets, but when a #15 upsets a #2, all that has done has removed a really good team from the later part of the tournament. The #15 almost always goes down by a large number in the next game.
And, yes, a George Mason, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth makes a deep run every five or so years. So, there are some good low-major teams that occasionally deserve to be on display.
How best can the fans and teams be serviced so that the really good teams do not have to go through a gauntlet of low-major opponents, but at the same time, have a system in place that allows the low majors to compete?
We at the PiRate Ratings have been toying with an idea for a couple of years, refining it a little each year. Here is how we believe the tournament could be changed to make it more exciting for the low major teams, while at the same allows the major conference teams to face off without having to go through a low-major opponent first.
Here’s how we would do it, and it would add four additional teams to bring the total to 72:
Divide the NCAA Tournament into two brackets
1. An upper bracket with the 24 best teams from the major conferences (AAC, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC). The national champion has come from teams in these conferences every year since UNLV won in 1990.
2. A lower bracket that includes the 25 conference champions from the remaining conferences plus the 23 best remaining teams, regardless of their conference.
3. The upper bracket 24 would play one round to reduce to 12 teams, each seeded 1-2-3 in one of the four regionals
4. The lower bracket 48 would be seeded into 4, 12-team sections or subregionals to the upper bracket regionals. The top four teams in each subregion would receive byes to the second round, while the 5-12 teams in the four regions would play in the first round.
5. The four regions would go from 12 to 8 to 4 to 2 to 1.
6. The winners of the four regions would then join the 12 upper bracket winners to make the Sweet 16.
7. Each region would have one “cinderella” and three power conference teams remaining.
8. The power 24 would have to win five times to become the national champion, while the other 48 would have to win seven or eight games depending on seed, but at least four of these teams would now make the Sweet 16 every year and win three or four tournament games.
Let’s use some pretend teams as an example for the 2019-20 season.
Let’s say that Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 and enters the Big Dance at 30-4. They are seeded #1 in the Midwest Regionals in Kansas City. At the same time, Virginia finished in fourth place in the ACC with an overall 26-8. They are seeded #6 in the Midwest. Oklahoma State and Virginia would face off, and the winner would advance to the Sweet 16. The #2 and #5 teams and #3 and #4 teams would play in this same region in a triple header. The other three regions would do the same #1 vs. #6, #2 vs. #5, and #3 vs. #4.
A week earlier, the lower bracket would start play. Let’s say your team is the Summit League champion South Dakota who finished the regular season as probably the best low major team with an overall record of 31-3. They are seeded number one in the lower bracket Midwest Sub-region. They get a bye, while #5 seed Northern Iowa (25-9) plays #12 seed UT-Arlington (an upset winner in the conference tournament and just 14-18 overall). Northern Iowa then trounces UTA and advances to play South Dakota. South Dakota proceeds to beat Northern Iowa. They follow it up with two more victories over mid-majors to win the Midwest Sub-region and advance to the Sweet 16. They face Oklahoma St. in the next round.
We have heard other possibilities like moving the top 8 conferences into a super league with the top 16 teams from this group facing off in playoffs similar to the NBA playoffs. How would you like a best of 7 North Carolina-Kansas finals instead of one game? Might a 7-game series between these two teams or Kentucky vs. Villanova, UCLA vs. Duke, or any other series final between dynasty schools shatter all types of viewer records?
Back to the present–the above is just a pipe dream, but sometimes the dreamers create something incredible for the world. Let’s look at the 2017 NCAA Tournament contenders. Conference Championship Fortnight is fast approaching.
ONE BID LEAGUES
Stony Brook 8-2/13-10
The Vermont winning streak has now stretched to a dozen games following two double-digit victories during the week. The Catamounts close with four home games, one road game against a weak conference foe, and one road game against UMBC. If they win out to improve to 29-5 by Selection Sunday, it would not be a push to see the Catamounts seeded as high as 11. They have no major wins, but they competed against teams that will be in the Dance.
Florida Gulf Coast 8-1/19-6
South Carolina St. 5-4/15-11
North Florida 5-4/10-16
Kennesaw St. 5-4/11-14
The top two teams have pulled away from the pack with a couple of really good weeks of actions. FGCU has won five games in a row, while Lipscomb’s winning streak is now four games. FGCU has the best defense in the league, while Lipscomb has the best offense. The Eagles have been here before and even made the Sweet 16 under former coach Andy Enfield. As for the Bisons, they have made the NIT and CIT in the past, but the last time they played for a chance to win the national title was win they were the Duke of the NAIA.
Weber St. 9-1/14-7
Eastern Washington 8-3/16-8
North Dakota 8-3/13-8
Weber St. has now won 12 of 13 games, and if they keep winning and earn the automatic bid, the Wildcats may be able to avoid having to begin in Dayton. Weber St. leads the nation in 3-point percentage at 43.1%, and they don’t lead by taking a conservative amount of bombs. They make almost 10 per game. Senior guard Jeremy Senglin has hit close to half of his three-pointer, and he leads the Wildcats with a 21-point average. A weak rebounding frontcourt will doom WSU against the big boys, and you can never fully count on three-point shooting to carry you through a conference tournament, so keep an eye on the other contenders in this league.
It counts as just one win, but Eastern Washington comes off an historic record-breaking night. The Eagles met Portland State Saturday and played a triple overtime affair that ended with a 130-124 victory. Teammates Jacob Wiley and Bogdan Bliznyuk did something that may never again be replicated: they both scored 45 points in the game, while combining for 27 rebounds. They also both played 53 of a possible 55 minutes, and EWU could be vulnerable in the second half of their next game at North Dakota on Thursday. Second place will be on the line.
What was once an automatic given that UNC-Asheville would win the conference in both the regular season and the postseason conference tournament has now become anything but that. This is the best three-team race in the low-major conferences, and there is no clear choice as to which team is best. UNCA still has home games with the other two contenders, so the Bulldogs may have a slight advantage for the top seed. In this league, the number one seed gets to play at home throughout the tournament.
Cal State Northridge 6-4/10-13
Hawaii 5-4/11-11 is ineligible
No Big West team has played consistently enough to make much noise in the Big Dance this year. UC-Davis lost to a 6-win Cal Poly team last week. Irvine has dropped three games in a row. Northridge fell at home to a Hawaii team that all of a sudden looks like the best team in the league but one that cannot compete for the bid due to ineligibility. Senior guard Noah Allen has been hot as of late, scoring at a better than 23 points per game clip in the most previous seven contests.
College of Charleston 10-2/19-6
William & Mary 7-5/13-10
A couple weeks ago, UNCW was close to earning a spot on the bubble if they needed an at-large invitation to the Dance. However, the Seahawks have hit a rough patch, losing by 18 at William and Mary, and then dropping a home game to Charleston due to a late defensive lapse that allowed Charleston to get a basket and foul shot at the end to win the game.
Now, this has become a definite one-bid league. Neither Wilmington nor Charleston can improve their resumes enough to move into contention to become a bubble team. In fact, neither co-leader can be considered a heavy favorite to win the conference tournament, because there is some quality in the next group of teams, as William and Mary’s domination of Wilmington proves.
Middle Tennessee 10-1/20-4
Louisiana Tech 8-3/16-8
Old Dominion 7-4/14-9
Middle Tennessee was in the same, or even better, boat as UNCW. If the Blue Raiders had won out in the regular season, there would have been a fair chance that they could have still gotten into the field of 68 if they had been upset in the CUSA Championship Game. Losing to UTEP has basically popped MTSU’s bubble. If they want another chance to upset a big team like they did last year when they raced past Michigan State, they will have to win the conference tournament.
This year, there is a lot of quality talent all the way down to the 10th place team, so the conference tournament is going to be quite interesting. Keep and eye on two teams well back in the pack that could gel into winning units in March. Marshall tends to wear teams down in the second halves of games, and they could take advantage of their helter-skelter philosophy against an inferior conditioned opponent in the semifinals and finals of the tournament. Western Kentucky has under-performed to date, and the Hilltoppers could decide to put it together when they arrive in Birmingham for the conference tourney.
Green Bay 9-3/15-9
Here is one more league where the leader was positioning for at-large contention, but like the previous two conference leaders, Valpo went down hard at Green Bay on Saturday, losing by 17 points. If the Crusaders win out from here but lose in the Horizon League Championship Game, they would be 28-6 with one win over a team that was in the top 25 (Rhode Island) at the time they played. A case could be made for Valpo, but we believe politics would send a power conference team into the Dance ahead of the Crusaders.
Mark it down–the four top teams above have basically already clinched the four spots in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia. There is still time for the two-loss teams to catch Princeton for the top seed, but it really matters very little how the four teams will be seeded on a neutral floor that will not have the home team Penn Quakers present. The winner of the automatic bid should be a quick out this year, as none of the Ivy League teams have exceptional and experienced talent. Harvard has the most talent, but their top two players are inconsistent freshmen.
Saint Peter’s 8-5/12-11
This year’s Monmouth team is a little less talented overall than the one that deserved to be an at-large team last year. However, the 2017 Hawks may get the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament as the MAAC champion, when last year’s team was capable of winning a game or two or three. This year’s team would have to be hitting on all cylinders to win a game.
The path to the Dance is not a simple one for Coach King Rice and his team. Their old nemesis, Iona, is playing the best basketball of any league team at this time, and Monmouth still has to pay a visit to New Rochelle, where Monmouth ended a long Gael home winning streak last year. Iona then won at Monmouth and beat Monmouth again in the MAAC Tournament finals.
St. Peter’s has given Monmouth fits this year. The Peacocks bested Monmouth by 10 in Jersey City, and they almost completed the sweep before losing in OT at Monmouth Friday night.
Ball St. 6-4/14-8
Northern Illinois 6-4/14-9
4 others at 5-5
Akron is the favorite to win the conference tournament, but the Zips are only marginal favorites in a league where teams from just off the lead tend to win the conference tournament. The team nobody wants to see in its bracket is Central Michigan, because if the Chippewas are hot, they can shoot teams out of the gym in a matter of a couple minutes. No other Division I team in recent memory has had two 5-9 guards in the starting lineup. Also, no other DI has had a player averaging over 30 points per game and another at more than 20 per game. In CMU’s case, the two 5-9 guards are the two high scorers in question. Marcus Keene tops 30 points per game, while Braylon Rayson tops 20. Keene has the lone 50-point game in NCAA play this year.
North Carolina Central 7-1/16-6
Morgan St. 7-2/10-12
Norfolk St. 7-2/10-13
Savannah St. 7-3/10-13 is ineligible
UNC-Central and Norfolk St. continued to extend lengthy winning streaks last week, with UNCC’s hitting seven games and NSU’s reaching six. We believe that UNC-Central has the capability of pulling off a major upset in the NCAA Tournament if they can win the conference tournament and move up to a #15 or even #14 seed. The Eagles play tough half-court defense; they hold their own on the boards for a team that is more of a ball-hawking defense. Most of all, they have held their own against power conference teams, winning at Missouri and almost winning at Ohio State and LSU.
Boise St. 8-3/15-7
Colorado St. 7-4/15-9
New Mexico 7-5/14-10
Leon Rice is a poor man’s Mark Few. The Boise State coach has made the Broncos a consistent big winner in his seven years in The Potato Republic. Had the Broncos been able to hold onto a lead against Oregon earlier in the season, they could be on the bubble, as they did beat SMU in the pre-conference schedule.
Nevada was 16-3 a couple weeks ago, which included a double-digit win at Boise State, but the Wolfpack have cooled off in the last fortnight. Coach Eric Musselman does not look like a former NBA head coach due to his height (5-7) and his weight (150), but he makes up for it with his brain (Einsteinian). When Musselman left assistant positions at Arizona State and LSU, the teams regressed quite a bit from the way they were when he was there. In just a year and a half in the biggest little town in America, the biggest little coach has proven that he is ready for a big contract reward at a big power conference school.
Mount St. Mary’s 10-2/12-13
St. Francis PA 8-4/11-12
Fairleigh Dickinson 8-4/10-13
Long Island 7-5/14-11
It will be close to a miracle if the eventual champion of this league avoids an opening round game in Dayton. At the moment, the top of the league is swooning, while the middle of the pack is gaining. It should make for an excellent conference tournament that is up for grabs, but it also should make for a quick exit for the eventual champion when the center jump circle logo changes from NEC to NCAA. Although the tournament is played at the higher seeded home courts, the home court advantanges in this league are not all that advantageous.
Morehead St. 7-3/11-12
Jacksonville St. 7-4/15-11
Murray St. 6-4/12-12
Belmont has run away with the regular season race, as the Bruins have a commanding 3 1/2 game lead in their division. The Bruins have won 13 games in a row, and their four losses are to Vanderbilt, Florida, Rhode Island, and Middle Tennessee. Belmont cannot get in as an at-large team, as they have not beaten a top 50 team. The Bruins have outscored their conference foes by more than 13 points per game, so it will take either a monumental effort by a rival or a total collapse by the Bruins (and maybe both) for another team to get the automatic bid. The Bruins know how to get to the Dance; they have been there seven times in the last 11 years. One of these years, they are going to upset somebody with their hot inside-outside shooting. Belmont has led both Duke and Virginia in the second half of NCAA Tournament games, and they have won at North Carolina, so they will not feel intimidated in the Dance.
Like Belmont, Bucknell has been the dominant team in their league. Additionally, the Bison have two NCAA first round wins (Arkansas and Kansas) in this century. This year, Bucknell has wins at Vanderbilt and at home against Richmond, but that is not enough to merit at-large consideration.
Lehigh beat Bucknell in Lewisburg, so the home court advantage that goes to the top seed is not that strong. In fact, Bucknell has been the top seed five times in the last six years and only twice won the conference tournament. Overall, the top seed has won just half of the conference tournaments in this century.
East Tennessee St. 8-2/18-5
This league is undervalued this year. The top four contenders all have enough talent to get past a higher-seed in the Round of 64, and it would not be a major surprise if the SoCon representative sneaks into the Sweet 16.
ETSU has the resume of the team with the most chance of winning in the Big Dance, as the Buccaneers have no real weaknesses. Coach Steve Forbes, a former assistant to Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, has his team playing with the same hustle that made the Volunteers an SEC power during his time in Knoxville. ETSU has a nice rebounding advantage over their opponents, but the key to their exceptional defense and fast break comes from the pressure defense that allows the Bucs to steal eight passes a night.
Chattanooga has not yet played up to its potential, as former star Casey Jones has not returned to the form that made him the best player in the league prior to a season-ending injury last year. At the time, Jones had an unbelievable 6 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. This year, he has more turnovers than assists.
Sam Houston St. 8-3/17-7
New Orleans 8-3/13-9
Stephen F. Austin 7-4/12-11
The co-leader can hear footsteps. With Brad Brownell no longer lurking on the sidelines at SF Austin, it appeared that somebody else would win the SLC for a change. When SFA began the season at 1-2 in league play and 6-9 overall, the Lumberjacks were dismissed as a rebuilding team with a new coach that needed seasoning.
Since then, SFA is 6-2, and all of a sudden the Lumberjacks are just one game behind the top two. The top two must still play the Lumberjacks before the SLC Tournament begins, so the top seed is definitely up for grabs.
Texas Southern 9-1/13-10
Alcorn St. 7-3/10-11 is ineligible
Under former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis, Texas Southern has won either the regular season or SWAC tournament four consecutive years, so it should come as no surprise that the Tigers are the class of the league once again this year. TSU is 0-6 in NCAA Tournament history, and unless they receive a ticket to Dayton to play in the Opening Round, they are likely to fall to 0-7, if they make it back this year.
North Dakota St. 7-3/15-8
South Dakota 7-4/16-10
Fort Wayne 5-5/16-8
North Dakota State has come back to the pack with successive losses. The most recent one was at home to South Dakota in a game that was not close following an 18-0 USD run in the first half. This should be an entertaining conference tournament, and current fifth place team Fort Wayne has shown that this league has merit. They are mediocre in league play, but the Mastodons beat Indiana out of conference. This could be the league with the best overall home court advantage in college basketball.
Arkansas St. 8-2/17-6
Georgia St. 8-2/15-7
Georgia Southern 8-2/15-8
Texas St. 6-4/13-9
Coastal Carolina 6-4/11-12
Georgia State and Arkansas State have long winning streaks (7 & 6 respectively), but the two teams are only slight favorites to make it to the final round of the SBC Tournament. The SBC Tournament will take place in New Orleans, and it will be a truly neutral site. UTA has the big non-conference win, as the Mavericks’ 14-point win at St. Mary’s might look really good if the Gaels beat Gonzaga in Moraga this weekend.
New Mexico St. 8-0/22-2
Cal State Bakersfield 6-1/15-7
Grand Canyon 4-3/15-9 is ineligible as a transitioning team to D1.
Just how good is New Mexico State? The Aggies have very little competition in the WAC this year, and NMSU could easily run the table to the Big Dance. At 30-2, their resume would have very little to elevate the Aggies up to a single-digit seed. They did trounce Arizona State in Tempe, but that is not a big deal this year. The Aggies will get a shot in the arm soon when guard Sidy N’Dir returns to action following a ligament tear early this year. If N’Dir can return close to form, NMSU could be a dangerous dark horse against an unsuspecting higher seed.
ONE OR TWO BID LEAGUE
The Missouri Valley Conference comes in as a split decision this week among our gurus. Of the 12 participating contributors, six had the MVC as a one-bid league, while six had two teams making the Dance.
Wichita St. 11-1/21-4
Illinois St. 11-1/19-5
If you looked at the scoreboard late Saturday night or Sunday, and you saw the score of the rematch between Wichita State and Illinois State, you might be thinking we are crazy that ISU is still in the discussion. If you didn’t see the result, Wichita embarrassed the Redbirds to the tune of a 86-45 pasting. The Shockers opened an early second half 30-point lead and then extended it to 40 with 2:41 remaining in the game.
So how can Illinois State still be in the discussion? First of all, margin of victory does not count, which is why you will see that Clemson is still a Bubble team after losing by even more to Florida State yesterday. Second, ISU is still tied for first in a league that has had a recent Final Four participant and undefeated number one team entering the NCAA Tournament. And, should the two teams keep winning and meet for a rubber match in the finals of Arch Madness, the loser of that game would definitely be in the mix. Finally, there just are not a lot of great middle of the pack teams in the major conferences this year. It is a lean year, so the MVC has a good chance at sending two teams to the Field of 68.
MULTIPLE BID LEAGUES
Rhode Island 7-3/15-7
North Carolina 9-2/21-4
Florida St. 8-3/20-4
Notre Dame 6-5/17-7
Virginia Tech 5-5/16-6
Wake Forest 5-6/14-9
Georgia Tech 5-6/13-10
North Carolina St. 3-8/14-10
West Virginia 6-4/18-5
Iowa St. 6-4/14-8
Kansas St. 5-5/16-7
Oklahoma St. 4-6/15-8
Texas Tech 4-6/16-7
Seton Hall 4-6/14-8
Michigan St. 6-4/14-9
South Carolina 9-1/19-4
Here is the consensus field of 68 from our Gurus
|12||New Mexico St.||WAC|
|14||Florida Gulf Coast||ASun|
|15||East Tennessee St.||Sou|
|15||North Dakota St.||Summ|
|16||Sam Houston St.||SLC|
|16||Mount St. Mary’s||NEC|
The Last 8 In
First Four Out
Arkansas vs. Miami
California vs. Clemson
Weber St. vs. Mount St. Mary’s
UNC-Central vs. UC-Davis