Selection Sunday is almost here, and with it will come one of the most wonderful times of the year as March Madness takes over the national sports conversation. Before then, however, we're stuck with one of the most tedious sports subjects: the bubble.
We know who the probable national championship contenders are. We know that Kansas and Villanova and North Carolina and Gonzaga and Oregon and many others are guaranteed to be in the NCAA Tournament's field of 68, and that they'll all have favorable seeds. And we'll soon find out who will receive the automatic bids from mid-major conferences, the other group of teams that everybody loves during March Madness, the lovable underdogs.
This time of year, however, is devoted to a third group in the middle that has had decent but forgettable regular seasons. We don't know who will populate the 10-, 11- and 12-seed lines, and thus that will be the chief topic of conversation. In other words, the next week and a half is about debating which middle-of-the-road power conference teams are the least bad. It's been especially true since the field expanded from 65 to 68 in 2011, creating a few more spots for double-digit-loss teams to attempt to play for the national championship, and it seems to be even truer this season, when bubble resumes appear to be as weak as ever.
Amid all the mediocrity, there is one way to make the bubble more intriguing. Instead of reserving only four of the First Four slots for at-large teams, all eight spots should go to those on the bubble, forcing more fringe at-large teams to play their way into the main bracket.
The First Flour is superfluous, an event tacked on to needlessly alter a 64-team bracket that was postseason perfection. The NCAA is never going to go backward back to 64, so if we accept the First Four's existence's as non-negotiable, we can acknowledge that the NCAA got it half right: Four of the eight teams that go to Dayton are bubble teams, the last four at-large teams in the field, forced to play an extra game in their quest to be national champions. The other four teams, unfortunately, are the four worst conference champions in the entire bracket, continuing the precedent set by the original opening-round game between teams No. 64 and 65 when the tournament expanded to 65.
The inclusion of 16-seeds in an extra round in the First Four goes against the entire idea of the college basketball postseason. As Will Leitch wrote on Monday, nearly every Division I team is involved in an extension of the NCAA Tournament. Most teams play in conference tournaments, and if a team wins every conference tournament game, it moves on to the Big Dance. The conference tournaments are, essentially, preliminary rounds, and winning one is supposed to be a ticket to the show on Thursday and Friday, two of the biggest days on the sports calendar. The exposure of the First Four and the chance to win what's technically a tournament game can be nice benefits for those smaller conference champions, but, ultimately, everybody wants to play in the real bracket in the Round of 64 and take their shot at history against a No. 1 seed. Teams that won automatic bids earned those spots in the Round of 64 more than seventh-place teams that are arguing for the 30th at-large.
While teams like Florida Gulf Coast and Fairleigh Dickinson last year both got to say they played in the NCAA Tournament by going to Dayton, only Florida Gulf Coast really experienced the actual NCAA Tournament when it won. As much as the NCAA refuses to admit it -- although it has at least stopped calling the First Four the first round -- the four games in Dayton are a play-in round to the real thing, the 64-team bracket that everybody knows and loves (and picks…). The First Four should be treated as a true play-in round, and that means it should be eight fringe at-large teams battling for the real spots.
Yes, NCAA Tournament bids mean a lot to teams, and they can especially mean a lot to programs on the bubble that don't necessarily experience the tournament often. But bubble complaints often feel hollow. It's one thing to be a No. 5 team that gets left out of the College Football Playoff despite having a good chance to win it; it's another thing to be the 37th-best at-large candidate, with a .500 conference record and no realistic chance of winning the national title (beyond a few rare exceptions). The selection committee often takes a lot of heat for bubble decisions, but ultimately it is always choosing between flawed resumes, none of which have truly earned their way into a national championship bracket, making the gripes feel rather inconsequential.
So make more of them earn it.
Consider the bubble this year. According to bracketmatrix.com, which compiles various bracket projections into one, the consensus last four teams in the field as of Tuesday were Syracuse, California, Vanderbilt and Illinois State. Syracuse is 17-13 overall and has won two games outside the Carrier Dome all season. California is 19-9 and has zero wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the KenPom ratings. Vanderbilt is 16-14 overall despite playing in a lackluster SEC and lost by 20 to a horrendous Missouri team a few weeks ago. Illinois State? Lacks big wins but is 25-5 and deserves a shot at a bid if it doesn't win the Missouri Valley. (The same is true for Wichita State.)
If the season ended now, those four teams might head to Dayton on March 14-15 to play opening-round games, as they should. But if all of the automatic bid winners were given their rightful place in the Round of 64, the First Four would be free to include the final eight at-large picks. According to bracketmatrix.com, the first four teams that would currently avoid Dayton but would have to make the trip in the new format are Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence and USC. Marquette is 8-8 in Big East play, and Seton Hall is 9-8. Providence is 19-11 overall with losses to Boston College, DePaul and St. John's. USC has only five wins against RPI top-100 teams. Do all of these have good tournament arguments, given the system? Sure. Have any done enough to give them bulletproof postseason cases? No. So let's send them to Dayton, too, making them earn their way in with another victory through matchups like Syracuse vs. Seton Hall, Cal vs. Marquette, Vanderbilt vs. Providence and USC vs. Illinois State, which all sound better than having teams like Mount St. Mary's and Texas Southern play each other.
Regardless of the First Four format, we're still going to be arguing about who's in and who's out, no matter the size of the field, and we're still going to be complaining about the weakness of the bubble. Altering the format won't help the bubble in those respects. It will, however, create a more interesting First Four product, as bubble cases become a lot more interesting when they're forced to play each other and decide things on the floor, certainly more so than 16-seeds being forced to play each other with none of the David vs. Goliath appeal that comes with their Round of 64 matchups.
By making the First Four exclusively a bubble event, more bubble teams would be earning their way into the true 64-team bracket. In a season in which it seems that nobody on the bubble has earned an NCAA Tournament bid with no doubt attached to it, that can only be a good thing.