Before I begin this post, my apologies to former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora, who I so shamelessly just ripped off in this post’s title. Bad sports puns aside, tonight is indeed the night when the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament will hold the first two of its four “play-in” games in Dayton, Ohio to determine which of the four weakest conference champions and the four weakest at-large teams will actually advance to what is now being called the “second round” of March Madness. For the record, tonight’s games are UNC-Asheville versus Arkansas-Little Rock and Clemson versus Alabama-Birmingham while tomorrow night, Alabama State will play Texas-San Antonio and VCU will play USC.
Since the play-in game was first introduced in 2001, it hasn’t gotten a lot of respect and it’s not hard to see why. Up until this year, the game has generally pitted the champions of whichever two conferences are deemed the weakest that year for the right to advance and become their regional’s No. 16 seed and no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No.1 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, let alone 68.
These are teams national audiences have rarely, if ever, heard of, let alone actually seen on TV and since they’re usually not from anywhere near Dayton, they inevitably must play hundreds or thousands of miles away from home against opponents they didn’t even know they were playing until two days beforehand. After that, the team that wins the game has to turn straight around and fly to wherever their first round game is scheduled to face the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament or at least a No. 1 seed. Until a couple years ago, play-in game participant schools didn’t even get paid for their appearances in the game on the same level as other schools making it into the tournament’s first round. As college postseason games go, it’s not as controversial as say, the BCS but it’s not exactly a recipe for ratings success.
This year of course, there are actually two such play-in games fitting the scenario I just described above and two more games for the Nos. 11 and 12 seeds in the East and Southwest regions respectively. I still don’t really expect these games to be met with any different public reactions than usual, except for maybe a little more grumbling about the added wrinkle this gives anyone filling out a bracket pool for the Big Dance. And that’s understandable. I was in Buffalo when Niagara University made it into the NCAA Tournament for only the third time ever in 2007, only to find that it would have to beat Florida A&M for the right to get beaten by Kansas in the first round. While people were obviously thrilled that the Purple Eagles had won the MAAC, some of them also felt a little insulted. And I doubt anybody outside of the Buffalo area or Tallahassee, Florida, where Florida A&M is located, really cared about those two teams too much.
I think as much as anything the main reasons why people don’t like the play-in games is because they contradict the two biggest reasons why so many people, including non-sports fans care about March Madness: filling out brackets and rooting for the underdog. At this point, filling out March Madness brackets is part of American workplace culture. Not everybody does it but everybody knows someone who does do it in their office or online and it often seems as though the less people know about college basketball, the better the bracket they fill out. For these people, the play-in games are just one more complication they have to deal with, frequently without any knowledge about the teams involved and knowing that the winners of these games usually won’t affect the overall tournament too much.
As for the underdog aspect, well, everyone loves a good underdog in sports. Unranked Villanova winning the whole tournament in 1985, Hampton beating N0. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001, VCU beating Duke in 2007, George Mason’s 2006 Final Four run, Stephen Curry and Davidson’s 2008 run, Butler almost winning it all in 2010, even our neighbors at Cornell making it all the way to the Sweet 16 that same year….the entire appeal of the tournament is based on teams which would have no chance most of the time and no chance at all in sports like football topple the giants of big-time college basketball.
One of the most famous calls in the history of CBS broadcasting March Madness came after Gonzaga upset Florida in a 1999 Tournament game, prompting Gus Johnson to exclaim “the slipper still fits!” It’s true that these “Cinderella” teams are always a long shot to pull off the upset but there’s at least a chance that they could do it. It’s a lot harder to pretend that a team that has to play an extra game just to earn the No. 16 seed is going to be able to last past the first weekend of the tournament.
Having said that, the NCAA Tournament is still a big deal for anyone lucky enough to get to play in it, even if only in the play-in game. I doubt the players, coaches and students at these schools are any less proud of their teams for getting this far. And as for getting farther into the tournament, you never know. After all, there’s a first time for everything.