Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why the First Four Benefits Top Teams the Most

Many are hailing the NCAA's decision to have a First Four which isn't just 4 play in games for the 16 slot visionary and great for the sport. We like the format but have to ask: is this actually just throwing a bone to the #1 and #2 seeds?

To review, under the new NCAA plan, 31 teams will automatically make the tournament and 37 teams get at large bids. To get to a 64-team bracket, they'll schedule four "First Four" games:
  • 2 potential 16 seeds will square off for the right to play the top 2 seeds overall.
  • The last 4 at large teams will compete in two games with the winners facing something like a #4 or #5 seed.
Prior to yesterday's announcement, everyone presumed the NCAAs would simply have 4 play in games and 8 automatic qualifiers from the worst 8 conferences would play in what were essentially "16/17" seeded games to determine who plays the #1 seeds. We see two real reasons for instead adopting the First Four format.

1. TV ratings. It goes without saying that a game like Oklahoma State--Iowa would draw better ratings than, say, Davidson--Monmouth. Frankly, I don't know anyone that watched the old play in game because who cared? Now with some berths against teams ripe for an upset on the line, people may car

2. It helps the top seeds. It's well-known that a #16 has never beaten a #1, and the 1/16 games are rarely close. It's also well known that a #15 seed had beaten a #2 five times and pretty much every year, one or two 15 seeds put the fear of god in a 2 seed. Some recent examples:

  • Villanova needs OT to beat Robert Morris (2010)
  • Cal State Northridge makes Memphis' life miserable for 35 minutes before Memphis pulls away late (2009)
  • Belmont almost knocks off Duke (2008)
  • Tennessee fends off Winthrop by 2 (2006)
  • UConn-Central Florida goes down to the wire (2005)
Why the disparity in results between 15 and 16 seeds? Well, every year there are 2-4 teams that enter the tournament that are truly poor. We're not saying that the SWAC and Southland shouldn't get automatic bids, but them and 1-2 other teams every year enter the tourney DOA. They're pushovers for the Kentuckys of the tournament whether or not they're in the play in games.

That said, the next level of the bottom rung teams has gotten much, much better over the past decade. As evidenced by the 15 seeds that have given the 2's a legit scare, those teams not only deserve to be in the tourney, they're a threat to win a game, especially if they catch a 1- or 2-seed with a flaw, on an off night or coached by Rick Barnes.

And by adding 3 more at large teams to the tourney, if you had 4 play in games, those old 15 seeds would now be 16 seeds. They would likely bulldoze the crappy bottom 3 teams and could give weak #1's a real scare or pull off the improbable upset. Even worse for big conferences, old #14 seeds, which already hold their own in the tourney (just ask Georgetown fans) would get bumped to #15 seeds and now get #2 seeds in the first round. We're not suggesting there would be a raft of upsets as a result of this shift but we think it would certainly happen more often than once every 5 years. And that is not a result the BCS conferences want. As has been said multiple times, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is for the upsets and little guys, but when you get to the Sweet 16 and beyond, you want the big name schools there.

So applaud the NCAA for not tinkering too much with the best tournament out there. Just remember that it's probably for self-protective reasons.

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