With the four play-in games now history (the NCAA wants us to call it the First Four, so in the spirit of compromise I’ll call it the First Four Play-In), the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins in earnest today.
By the end of the weekend there will be a couple of blowouts, a couple of upsets, and perhaps one real stunner.
That’s how the first round of the Large Waltz almost always plays out, and one of the reasons it’s arguably the most exciting sports tournament in the world.
What I really like about it, though, is that every school that has a legitimate chance to win the national championship is in the field.
That’s why I always have to stifle a chuckle on Selection Sunday when coaches bemoan the fact that their team was “snubbed.”
And there were quite a few feeling left out and disrespected this time around.
Louisville, for example, finished 20-13, and there was a time not so long ago when leaving an ACC team with 20 victories out of the tourney was unthinkable.
Plus, the Cardinals had a rating percentage index (RPI) of 38.
But this year the NCAA went all mathy and decided to judge teams based on their performances in four quadrants.
Quadrant 1 is home games vs. 1-30 RPI teams; neutral-site games vs. 1-50 RPI; and away games vs. 1-75 RPI.
Quadrant 2 is home games vs. 31-75 RPI; neutral-site games vs. 51-100 RPI; and away games vs. 76-135 RPI.
Quadrant 3 is home games vs. 76-160 RPI; neutral-site games vs. 101-200 RPI; and away games vs. 136-240 RPI.
Quadrant 4 is home games vs. 161-plus RPI; neutral-site games vs. 201-plus RPI; and away games vs. 241-plus RPI.
Louisville went 3-10 in Quadrant 1 games, and that didn’t help their cause.
But guess what?
Louisville wasn’t going to win the national championship this season anyway.
I’m a UAB grad and a UAB fan, so I find myself rooting for Conference USA teams to do well once the postseason begins. I figure since the Blazers aren’t in the field (and sadly, they usually aren’t anymore) I might as well support the league.
It’s a one-bid conference, and Marshall took that bid by winning the CUSA Tournament.
That meant Middle Tennessee, with a nice 23-7 overall record and 16-2 league mark, could only hope for an at-large berth.
They didn’t get one because, you know, Conference USA.
It was still disappointing to the players, their coaches and fans, but the reality is that the Blue Raiders were not going to seize the crown.
Maybe they’d have won a game – even two – and that would’ve been wonderful.
And sure, I get that much of the event is about the journey instead of the ultimate destination. It’s an honor to call yourself an “NCAA Tournament team” and coaches should always advocate for their kids. Still, leaving out Middle Tennessee was not equivalent to leaving out a team that had a realistic chance to go all the way.
From a pure record standpoint maybe the biggest slight is Saint Mary’s, which is 28-5 and finished 16-2 in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels had an RPI of 40.
Saint Mary’s had only four wins against teams in the RPI top 100, and no way was that going to impress the Selection Committee.
Again, though, the Gaels were not leaving San Antonio as the last team standing. In that regard, not having them in the bracket didn’t matter.
Now, would the schools I just mentioned have a better chance of advancing than many who are dancing?
Of course. There are a number of teams that will be clearly overmatched, and that’ll show up on the scoreboard Thursday and Friday.
As long as conference tourney champs get a free pass into the field of 68, that field will always be cluttered with schools punching far above their weight class.
And that’s one of the beauties of March Madness.
However, the team that wins it all will be a no-doubter – one in which there was never any question about its NCAA Tournament credentials.
It might be Virginia, Cincinnati, Duke, Michigan State, or any number of programs with impressive talent and impressive victories.
So for all the schools that feel snubbed, I know it sucks; the main goal at the start of every season is to be one of the 68.
In the final analysis, though, the team that’ll hoist the trophy on April 2 is a team that never had to watch the bubble at all.