Jay Bilas is awesome. We're all on the same page on that one, right? He's fantastic on Twitter, he's a consistent intelligent voice on ESPN's college basketball coverage and, in his spare time, he blasts huge gaping holes in the NCAA.
The onetime star of Dolph Lundgren's I Come In Peace eviscerated the NCAA yesterday in brilliant fashion, pointing out, in a series of tweets, how the NCAA not only makes money off the sales of player jerseys without the player seeing a dime from it, but actually allows you to search the name of the player to find the jersey on the e-commerce website ShopNCAASports.com, a direct refutation of the organization's insistent claims that they don't profit from player names and likenesses. (Apparently shamed by Bilas, the NCAA turned the search function off midday, but it still lives on in tons of other places.) It was fantastic. Is there a more vivid illustration of NCAA hypocrisy than its investigation of Johnny Manziel for possibly selling his autograph going on at the exact moment it cashes in off searches of his name? Maybe Patrick Hruby can come up with something, but I can't.
The letters in the NCAA have been a snarling punchline for decades, but you can see the foundations starting to crack. The major sign of this was during all the football media days last month, when various league commissioners of the major conferences started talking about "concerns" with the NCAA. (SEC commissioner Mike Slive was particularly sly about this.) It's clear that the big conferences have had enough of the NCAA. They think the gap between the haves and the have-nots in college athletics is so wide that they need to form their own subdivision, perhaps one outside the purview of the NCAA altogether.
Maybe a lot of this is because the conferences would like to be able to give their players a little bit more to live on, since they have it. (Though just a little bit more: We're not talking full free agency here.) But what I think they really want is to not have to play by the NCAA's rules. No one is going to cry for the NCAA here, if that happens. And it's certainly their own fault for dragging their heels on some of the problems plaguing their own ranks. But it's worth looking at what it might mean for us as sports fans if the big conferences do break off. Particularly when it comes to the NCAA tournament.
Which brings us to what Jay Bilas was talking about last week.
Bilas was a guest on the ESPN College Basketball podcast with Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg, and the topic was turned to the aforementioned big conference exodus scenario. As with most college sports stories, usually this is all discussed through the prism of college football. But Bilas noted -- with glee -- how this would change the world of college basketball. If the big conferences break off in football, honestly, a lot of us would barely notice. (OK, maybe it would be a little harder for Fresno State to make the national championship game.) But in college basketball, it would basically end the NCAA tournament as we know it.
Under this theoretical, all those little schools, those Northwestern States, those Florida Gulf Coasts … the tournament wouldn't be about them anymore.
Here's the money quote from Bilas on the podcast, and I ask, in all seriousness, whether you agree with Bilas or not:
You can't have a system where the revenue drivers are being told they cannot do what they want to do. People say, 'You take away the opportunity for the little guy to pull off the upset against the big guy, this thing will crumble and no one will watch it.' That is ludicrous. Football isn't based on Appalachian State beating Michigan a few years ago in football... Clearly people aren't pining for the upset the way we think they are. If in the NCAA tournament, if some of the automatic qualifiers -- who truthfully have no chance of winning -- were replaced with the better teams who weren't making it now as at-larges, the tournament would be better right away. People would enjoy that even more than they do now.
Is that true? In college football, separating the haves from the have-nots is easy, and not all that painful: As Bilas said on the show, you have Boise State, occasionally, and that's about it. They're not central to the experience. But in college basketball? When Bilas says that teams like Florida Gulf Coast, and George Mason, and Austin Peay, aren't central to the tournament experience, I frankly think he is wrong. I think that is precisely what is so fun about the tournament.
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated has said that in some early models, small schools might not get the shaft as much as Bilas seems to imply. But, on that aforementioned podcast, Katz said that conference tournaments might no longer be the basis for automatic bids for small conference schools, and Greenber joked that if these theoretical rules were instituted when he were coaching, he'd still have a job with Virginia Tech (which seemed to perpetually be the final team out all those years). This could be what we'd looking at if the big conferences break away from the NCAA. You don't get rid of all the bad stuff the NCAA and get to keep the one good thing they do.
And by "good" I mean, "fun for fans," not empirically "good," by the way. As Hruby has written so eloquently, college athletics, whether we want to admit it while we're watching or not, is sort of a con game for the players, which is a bigger deal than "I like watching Lehigh upset Duke!" But if you believe that the conference commissioners and university presidents are going to come up with this altruistic, athlete-friendly system outside of the NCAA purview -- if you think the NCAA is the only reason the system's so rigged now -- you have a lot more faith in that group of old white dudes who run conferences than I do.
While maybe wrong about the tournament impact of an NCAA-less world, Bilas is right about the NCAA in general. And I think, ultimately, the league is going down. But let's not pretend what would replace it is coming from some place of goodness and light. And let's not pretend we wouldn't lose something valuable and great. The NCAA is a mess, but I'm not sure reducing its power is really going to make things better. New boss, same as the old boss. Maybe worse.
But I dunno: Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe people really don't care about the Prairie View A&Ms and the IUPUIs? Bilas has forgotten more about college basketball than I'll ever know. You tell me. Email me at email@example.com, follow me @williamfleitch or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.