Ever since Murray State tumbled unexpectedly to Tennessee State, the bubble talk began to swirl around the Racers. Suddenly, a team that previously was undefeated and ranked in the top 10 of the polls might need to walk a tightrope in the conference tournament just to make the NCAA tournament field. To me, this is silly. Silly not because the Racers are tournament locks in my mind but because they belong in the field and their exclusion would point directly to a serious flaw in the way we decide the national championship.
Murray State is clearly one of the 68 best teams in the nation and has proved as much in the course of its nonconference schedule with wins against Memphis, Southern Miss, Dayton and UAB. The Racers sit at No. 55 in the RPI, No. 46 in ESPN's BPI and an even loftier No. 29 in my Bilas Index. This team is good and belongs in the bracket. That it might miss the NCAA tournament altogether illustrates the problematic nature of the automatic bid and how it hurts, not helps, competitive programs outside of the major conferences.
In fact, the more I consider how the automatic bid affects the fairness of the NCAA tournament, the more I am convinced that automatic bids should be eliminated altogether.
If we can have a selection committee that is trusted to select the best 37 teams, that same committee certainly could be trusted to select the best 64 teams to compete for the national championship. There would still be debate, as there always is, about the 64th- and 65th-best teams in the nation, but it's better to have the debate at that level than to exclude the 38th-best team in the nation in favor of, say, the 199th-best team, as we do with automatic bids.
With no automatic bids, every team is essentially an independent for which scheduling and its performance against that schedule are amplified. Every team, big and small, has the same chance to be considered among the best teams in the country. And if we have the best 64 teams, we will have the best mid-majors or non-"power six" teams and a much more competitive NCAA tournament.
I expect this proposal will draw a cry of how this is unfair to the little guys and how "Bilas just wants to eliminate the mid-majors from the field and get more middling majors in." That is nonsense, albeit nonsense that has been embraced by the president of the NCAA, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that some critics don't want the VCU Rams or Butler Bulldogs in the Final Four or don't care about Boise State. Respectfully, that is without legitimate foundation and is exactly the kind of lame argument the NCAA often pushes back against when aimed its way.
If you think about it, the elimination of automatic bids would help a number of mid-majors gain access to the tournament field instead of being left on the doorstep after losing in their conference tournaments.
Taking last year as an example, if the best 64 teams were included without automatic bids, we still would have had VCU and Butler in the field, but we also would have had teams such as Wichita State and Missouri State. In short, we would have the best of the non-power-six conference teams instead of far too many teams that are not qualified to compete for the national championship. And, if we eliminate automatic bids, we also eliminate the chance for middling majors to steal a bid in their conference tournament that might otherwise have gone to a qualified mid-major. Everybody wins, at least everybody who wants the best teams to compete for the national championship.
For those who still believe eliminating automatic bids would favor the major conference powers, consider this: The leagues outside the power six make up almost 80 percent of Division I and more than 50 percent of the NCAA tournament field. The power six conferences (or BCS conferences: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) account for approximately 20 percent of Division I, just less than 50 percent of the NCAA tournament field and more than 70 percent of all NCAA tournament wins. And, since 1991, 100 percent of NCAA champions.
Part of the reason for that top-heavy success is because we're often placing traffic cones in front of the nation's best teams in the first round rather than a legitimate challenge. If we're going to bestow a national title to the team that survives the March gantlet, it should actually be a gantlet. The teams that annually constitute the No. 16 seeds pose no challenge to No. 1 seeds, as clearly seen by the fact that no men's No. 16 has upset a No. 1. Start taking the best 64 teams in the nation, however, and I'm willing to bet that would change drastically. Using the teams in the latest Bilas Index as an example, rather than facing the winner of the SWAC or America East, the Kentucky Wildcats could have to prove themselves against Saint Joseph's, Stanford or Pittsburgh.
That leads to the next argument opponents of my proposal are likely to lean on: Eliminating the automatic bids will eliminate some of the great upset storylines from future tournaments and negatively affect the viewer experience. Again, I think that's flawed thinking.
Teams that are capable of pulling big upsets and making deep runs will be in this field. VCU, Butler, Gonzaga, Davidson from 2008, those teams would have been in any field composed of the nation's top 64 teams. We're not excluding dark horses, just lame ones. As for viewer experience, look at that hypothetical first-round No. 1/16 matchup above. On the first day of the tournament, would you rather see Kentucky-Pittsburgh or Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State? These would be better, more competitive games in pursuit of a national title. How is that not more compelling television?
But the biggest reason I would advocate the elimination of automatic bids is a simple one: fairness.
It seems silly to argue that any Division I team should be given a competitive break simply because of a league affiliation or that all leagues are essentially the same and therefore should each have a spot in the national championship process.
Look at the Olympics. Do you see Trinidad and Tobago getting an automatic qualification into the final heat of the 100 meters? No, every sprinter must earn his or her place on the starting blocks. Would we do this for academics? Would we reserve a spot in Phi Beta Kappa for C-level students just because they attended smaller institutions?
In my mind, there is no problem with awarding NCAA tournament spots based solely on merit. The elimination of automatic bids would have no effect on true competition. For those who argue that it would affect the players on the MEAC or SWAC champions unfairly, that ignores the unfair impact on the players of far better teams such as Wichita State, Missouri State, Colorado and Harvard -- all of whom were left out last season. Are we to believe that proponents of student-athlete fairness and competition are fine with unfair impact on select athletes instead of one standard for all who choose to compete in Division I?
Clearly the elephant in the room with regard to the elimination of automatic bids is money. Selecting the best 64 teams could very well have an effect on the revenue pocketed by conferences and conference officials, and that is significant. It might compromise the popularity of Championship Week, conference tournaments and the surrounding revenues those events generate. But that is the only factor that argues in favor of the status quo.
If you want to argue that the men's basketball national championship tournament should be carried out in the fairest way possible, I believe you have to argue for the elimination of automatic bids. And if you would care to argue for their continued existence in the NCAA tournament, well, you had better be prepared to admit that the only thing that matters about this event and its execution is the money the current incarnation generates.