Hooray for the big guys! Power to the elite! Make the rich richer!
These are not campaign slogans – not overtly, anyway. Instead this remains the truth behind the focus on RPIs, the waving of Kenpom poms, the cooing over Cinderellas, the celebrations of shining moments, upsets and bracket busters that make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a source of national fascination and delight.
There’s always room reserved in the field of 68 entrants for a smattering of little guys, most owning automatic bids as conference champions. The plot line needs new characters or the narrative gets stale after a while – unless you’re part of the elite. Because if you’re among the 65 schools in one of the five power conferences, you know the NCAA tournament might more aptly be nicknamed “The Bigs Dance,” because that’s what they do this time of year.
That’s evident this month, with the Power Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) getting 26 of 36 at-large bids (72.2 percent) and 31 of 68 slots overall. Several of the biggest dancers are located right here in the Triangle. Duke and North Carolina, both seeded among this year’s top eight teams, are not just regulars in the NCAA tournament. They’re fixtures. Can’t have the NCAAs without the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. This is not hyperbole: The last time neither program placed a team in the NCAA tournament was 1974, three years before Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner was born.
There’s no question Duke and UNC, along with perennial powers such as Louisville, Kansas and Kentucky, routinely earn the right to compete for national championships. There’s also no question that, while the NCAA tournament Selection Committee insists past performance is not considered in awarding bids, those programs benefit from the wealth of tradition and exposure, income and support that comes with winning.
They also benefit financially from belonging to conferences that in turn have been built around, and buoyed by, their excellence.
Money matters because it buys resources and opportunities big-timers can use to grow bigger – access to that private jet the head coach uses to make a quick long-distance trip to a prospect’s high school game; salaries for a host of assistants, coordinators and ancillary support staff; guarantees to induce mid-major teams to come for a visit and a likely but lucrative beating. All of which presumably translates into a competitive advantage.
Prestige, exposure and big money accrue from playing in the NCAA tournament. Each round of participation, defined as a unit, is worth $264,859 this year, meaning the ACC with its nine participants got $2.38 million, escalating each year through 2022, just for showing up. In 2016 the ACC’s great performance – advancing Carolina and Syracuse to the Final Four, Notre Dame and Virginia to the Elite Eight, and Duke and Miami to the Sweet 16 – netted the conference 25 units worth a cumulative $39.9 million over six years.
“There is the optics and the undertone of, and the reality, that we are playing for money,” says John LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League, this year represented in the NCAAs by Northern Kentucky. “We are.”
Which makes it all the more understandable, and unfair, that those who benefit most are eager to defend selection methodology that crams familiar major-conference mediocrities into the NCAAs while worthy wildcards from lesser leagues are left out. Take last season’s inclusion of 10th-seed Pitt, the lone ACC member that got nowhere in the tournament. Were the 9-9 Panthers really more deserving than an overachiever like Monmouth, a Metro Atlantic member snubbed again this year despite an RPI of 49 and resounding league dominance during the regular season?
From 2010 through 2016, the 14 ACC clubs that got into the NCAAs with a seed of eighth or lower – their conference records ranging from 12-6 (UNC in 2013) to 7-9 (Georgia Tech in 2010) – were a combined 16-14 in the tournament. Hardly an impressive showing. Only four of those 14 ACC squads recorded a pair of wins before being eliminated. The anomaly was No. 10 Syracuse in 2016, which reached the Final Four.
This season the ACC, with 15 members, more than any other power league, had nine NCAA entrants. That 60 percent representation is the ACC’s best since 2004. Still, for all the crowing about top-to-bottom balance, the league’s lowest seeds, No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 11 Wake Forest, followed form and were immediately eliminated in their openers.
League coaches and media admirers lobbied for 10 bids, one shy of the record 11 garnered by the Big East in 2011. But Syracuse didn’t make it despite a 10-8 ACC mark and an 18-14 overall record. Certainly in this era of supposed analytic objectivity, the Orange’s 84 RPI and losses to lowly Boston College and St. John’s were detriments. So, hopefully, was Jim Boeheim’s decision to schedule 10 of 13 nonconference games at home, most by an ACC member.
Duke, less blatant, plays a similarly conservative schedule, sticking to neutral venues and Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils ventured to hostile courts beyond the ACC only nine times in the past eight years, twice as dictated by the challenge series with the Big Ten. Mike Krzyzewski is far from alone in avoiding road risks. Knowing the league schedule, with its formidable array of strong opponents, automatically confers a significant boost to power ratings, the 15 ACC teams combined to play a mere 23 non-league road games in 2016-17. “You get dragged along by the current, so to speak,” says Doug Elgin, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, represented this year in the NCAAs by Wichita State.
You still have to win, but it helped that neither Duke nor Notre Dame undertook a 2017 contest on a hostile floor outside the conference. In comparison, the single-bid Horizon’s 10 teams played 53 road games. “It’s just extremely difficult to muscle up and get the kind of schedule that you need,” Elgin, a former NCAA Selection Committee member and Virginia official, says of single-bid leagues. “It’s a very simple formula – you have to schedule good teams and you have to beat some of them.”
But the elite, which commanded 90 percent of the Final Four berths since 2000 (61 of 68), have little incentive to provide those opportunities during the regular season. That constriction is likely to become more pronounced once a league like the ACC goes to 20 conference games in a few years. Already the window is closing – early in-season tournaments are starting to exclude non-power schools, notes Elgin.
Opinion-makers laud the objectivity of the current selection process. But objectivity and fairness are different things, as any good journalist knows. Committee members still vote and seed, still jigger matchups so teams from the same league don’t meet in their NCAA opener.
“I think we have room for improvement to make the tournament even better than it is. It’s really good, but if everybody does understand this goes back to regular-season scheduling, is there a way to think more creatively about that ?” asks the Horizon’s LeCrone, a former Selection Committee and ACC staff member. “I would like us to think about tearing down those barriers, or those gates to the neighborhood. What’s wrong with movement within the neighborhood? I think that’s a good thing.”
Acknowledging of course, as he does, the dubious proposition that the big guys, “the beneficiaries of the system,” are willing to loosen their grip.