The Cleveland State Vikings upset No.16 Butler tonight to earn an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, those Cleveland State Vikings.
Sure, Cleveland State finished the season with with 25 wins, including an upset of (then) No.13 Syracuse, but their tournament chances were done if it weren’t for Tuesday’s Horizon League Championship Game victory.
The fans loved Cleveland State’s title game victory. A mid-major team with minimal Tournament hopes earned an NCAA Tournament bid, a Conference Championship upset made the ESPN highlight reel, and another potential Cinderella team joined the NCAA Tournament pool. However, Cleveland State’s victory had one commonly overlooked consequence: another team’s NCAA Tournament bubble has popped.
Rivals’ most recent 65-Team Prediction has the following four teams as the last four out: San Diego State, St. Mary’s, Florida, and Creighton. All four teams have a better resume and more potential for tournament success than Cleveland State, but any of the four could end up watching the NCAA Tournament on television. Even worse, they could end up in the NIT…
The bottom line is that automatic bids rob the NCAA Tournament of hosting the most talented teams and the fiercest competition.
Here are the two main arguments in support of automatic NCAA bids and why each one is flawed.
1) If conference tournament champions weren’t given automatic NCAA Tournament bids, small-conference teams would have nothing to play for -This might be true, but it comes with playing in a less prestigious conference. Gonzaga (WCC), Butler (Horizon), Xavier (Atlantic 10), and BYU (MWC) are all small-conference teams who cracked last week’s top 25. If no automatic bids were given, these four teams would undoubtedly go dancing. Even if automatic tourney bids were taken away there are ways for small-conference teams to garner national attention (and consequently earn respect from the NCAA Selection Committee). In order to earn national attention, small-conference teams have to play power-conference teams in their non-conference schedule, beat at least some of these power-conference teams, and win all the games they’re supposed to. Taking away automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament would make it difficult for small-conference teams to make the tournament, but not impossible.
2) If conference tournament champions weren’t given automatic NCAA Tournament bids, the Tournament might not have any more “Cinderella” teams – Not true. In 1998, the Gonzaga Bulldogs lost the WCC conference championship game, and subsequently settled for an NIT Tournament appearance. In 1999, Gonzaga scheduled a number of high-profile teams (e.g. No.8 Kansas, No.15 Purdue, No.22 Washington), beat at least one of those teams (No.22 Washington), and built upon their previous season to earn national attention. They received a No.10 Seed in the NCAA Tournament, which showed that they were not considered a typical small-conference champion, and had they not won the WCC conference tournament it was assumed that an at-large bid was on its way. A team doesn’t have to be a nobody to be a “Cinderella,” all you have to be is an underdog. Davidson went to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and 2007, but in 2008 (their third straight appearance) they turned into a “Cinderella” team. The bottom line is that if a potential “Cinderella” team gains national attention through consistent success, they will earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament through their own merit (not through a hot streak of games which robs another deserving team of an NCAA Tourney appearance). From there, it’s up to small-conference teams to play their way to glory.
The bottom line is that automatic bids to NCAA Tournament give undeserving teams a chance at a National Championship while robbing teams who could otherwise compete. Chattanooga (Southern Conference) and Cleveland State (Horizon League) are two teams who have stolen NCAA bids away from more deserving teams so far this year.
Automatic bids provide underdog stories that fans enjoy, but make a tournament comprised of the most talented teams in the country an impossibility; and that is something that the NCAA needs to fix.