Jay Bilas is not only the best color commentator covering college basketball games, he may the be single best talking head in all of sports.
Well, for starters, he has one of the most sound basketball minds you’ll ever come across. Simply put, he knows the game. But Bilas is also a lawyer, which means that he is not only smart and articulate when making a point on TV, he’s just as effective when he puts down the microphone and picks up the keyboard. In other words, the man can write, and never is that law degree more evident than when he decides to rail against [insert latest NCAA travesty here].
And on Thursday, Bilas set his sights on the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bids:
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.
He’s got a point.
The NCAA Tournament is our sport’s national championship which, theoretically, means that it should include the nation’s top 64 or 68 teams. Currently, it does not, allowing for whatever low-major schools that get hot for a three-game stretch in early March to earn an at-large bid by winning their conference tournament. Bilas wants to eliminate those automatic bids because it is unfair to the 38th best at-large team who, for the most part, is going to be better and more competitive than the overwhelming majority of league champions coming out of conferences like the MEAC, the SWAC or the Southland.
Who will be a tougher out for a team like Syracuse or Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament: Mississippi Valley State or Minnesota? UT-Arlington or Arizona?
Honestly, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. Making that kind of change to the NCAA Tournament would, theoretically, make it a better product, earning more money for advertisers and tournament hosts while giving folks like you and me something better to watch on TV. We may even see a 16 seed beat a 1 seed with that format.
But if you are going to make that change, you have to first change the structure of Division I basketball. Namely, you would have to get rid of those conferences sitting at the bottom of the power structure. You want to eliminate the SWAC champion from getting an automatic bid, then eliminate the SWAC from Division I. Its that simple.
I’ll be honest with you: I get just as excited about Championship Week as I do the NCAA Tournament. The league tournaments — whether its the Big East or the Big West — are incredible theater, and there isn’t a spectacle in our sport that is much more intense or riveting than watching two teams scratching and clawing for 40 minutes to try and live out the dream of making the NCAA Tournament.
Would eliminating automatic bids make the NCAA Tournament a better product?
But you would be hurting college basketball as a whole.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.