The March Madness tournament is back on this year, exciting fans of college basketball around the country, but the tournament has, of course, begun with a whimper again.
Every year the March Madness tournament pits 68 of the country’s best college basketball squads against each other in a series of battles based on skill, momentum and a dash of luck. The tournament technically starts on Tuesday, but the contest’s more casual fans don’t usually begin watching until Thursday. This is because of the play-in games.
The play-in games are a series of four games played on the Tuesday and Wednesday before all of the main games start on Thursday. Two of the games played are to decide which teams get to enter the tournament as 16-seeds, and the other two games are played to determine which teams get to enter as 11-seeds.
These games are often played between smaller schools looking for a chance to get into the tournament, but every now and then schools from the Power 5 conferences are included as well, and I think this is the biggest problem with the play-ins.
For those unaware, the Power 5 is a group of collegiate athletic conferences containing the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and ACC. I feel like this sort of defeats the purpose of trying to win your conference, or at least finishing close to the top to gain entry into the tournament.
I’m okay with the play-in games for the 16-seeds because, while it pits two tiny schools against each other, these games are still entertaining because the two schools want more than anything to be in the tournament and have a chance at replicating UMBC’s miracle win over 1-seed Virginia in 2018.
What I don’t enjoy about the play-in games are the games meant to decide the 11-seeds. These are usually schools from Power 5 conferences that didn’t win their conference, but still finished well enough during the season and in the conference tournament to secure a spot in the tournament. These games are a lot less entertaining to me because, again, it feels like they defeat the point of trying to win your conference, and these teams take up space for smaller schools that really need a chance to compete.
For example, this year’s 16-seed play-in games were SE Missouri St. vs. Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Fairleigh-Dickinson vs. Texas Southern, while the 11-seed play-ins were Pittsburgh vs. Mississippi State and Nevada vs. Arizona St. The teams in the 16-seed games all won their conference tournaments, which should guarantee them a spot in the tournament, but it doesn’t — another problem with the play-ins.
As for the teams in the 11-seed play-ins, none of them won a conference tournament. Pittsburgh didn’t even make it to the final four stage of their tournament, as they were trounced by 4-seed Duke 96-69 in a Round of 8 game.
It gets harder and harder to defend the play-in games when you have small schools that won their conference tournaments, desperately fighting for a well-deserved place in March Madness on one side, and borderline mediocre Power 5 teams taking up spots in favor of conference winners.
I’m honestly fine with keeping smaller schools seeded lower than Power 5 and mid-major schools, since they are usually not as skilled, but I think that the NCAA would benefit from getting rid of play-ins, guaranteeing spots to all 32 conference winners and then seeding extra Power 5 and mid-major teams accordingly.
The Division 2 tournament, which Ferris was just unfortunately eliminated from, does this and it still works with 64 teams. Their process is that the 23 conference winners all get an automatic bid to the tournament and the remaining 41 spots are filled in based on certain criteria, such as win percentage, schedule strength against other DII schools and records vs. ranked teams.
In conclusion, I love March Madness and wouldn’t write a piece complaining about one tiny part of it if I didn’t care immensely about the tournament. It’s always been something I’ve watched with my dad since I was a little kid, and it holds a special place in my heart because it was something we bonded over, but I do think that the play-in games are unnecessary and should be done away with.