Sunday, April 10, 2005

Essay: The Haves and Have-nots of College Basketball

Since yet another NCAA Tournament has passed without any true mid-major team getting past a regional final, isn't it time to separate the men from the boys? The NCAA should follow the same path with men's basketball that it did with Division I football back in 1978, when it was split into the sub-classifications of I-A and I-AA.

For a quick history lesson, NCAA members were classified as Divisions I, II, and III beginning in 1973 -- prior to that, it was simply known as major college and college division. But in 1978, seeing the true disparity of competition, Division I was split into two classifications for football only. The split didn't really mean anything for the major schools, but for the schools newly classified as I-AA it was a shot in the arm and paved the way for its current playoff system.

Of course, the logistics of such a thing might be a mess for the NCAA, and the overall affects might actually be more harmful to mid-major schools and conferences, but it is indeed an interesting thought. I have argued for years that the NCAA Tournament is by far the most exciting sporting event we have, and it certainly doesn't seem to have any major problems, but why not make it even more competitive? Why not formally split the Division I field into the haves and have-nots and create a second NCAA Tournament for the latter?

The once-illustrious National Invitation Tournament serves the purpose of a second postseason tournament for 40 teams which fail to get NCAA bids. But like the NCAA Tournament, however, those invitations seem to go in bunches to representatives of the power conferences. It would be nice if the NIT selected deserving mid-major teams, but the NIT seems to prefer schools that might draw a national television audience and bigger crowds. An NCAA Tournament for mid-majors (or I-AA basketball tournament) could follow the same route as the NIT currently does in playing all games at campus sites until the semifinals, which could be held anywhere the NCAA might have interest.

Among the 31 conferences of Division I men's hoops, 19 received only one NCAA bid this year, and that number could easily be 21 or 22 in any given season. Excluding the play-in game, the combined record of these 19 single-bid conferences this year was 4-18, with only Wisconsin-Milwaukee winning more than once. Don't get me wrong, no one loves tournament upsets and true Cinderella's more than me, but it's just not realistic for fans to believe that their small college team has a shot. Oh sure, we've seen plenty of colossal upsets and those will happen every year, but it takes four wins in two weeks to reach the Final Four and even the best teams from smaller conferences don't have the depth or luck to do that.

To remember a true mid-major program stringing enough wins together to reach the Final Four, one has to go all the way back to 1979, well before the term mid-major was used and when the smaller field meant fewer games to get there. 1979 was also the same year in which the NCAA seeded teams for the first time, and two mid-majors, or small colleges, reached the Final Four that year. One of those - Missouri Valley member Indiana State led by Larry Bird - was clearly an anomaly, having ended the season undefeated and ranked number one despite its small conference status; the other - Penn of the Ivy League - was indeed a true mid-major

Of the 104 Final Four slots since 1980, a grand total of 13 have been filled by teams from outside the six major Division I conferences - the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-10, and Big XII (including the former Southwest and Big Eight Conferences which formed the Big XII in 1996). Five of those 13 slots were filled by Louisville, formerly of the Metro and currently of Conference-USA, and another three by UNLV, formerly of the Big West and currently of the Mountain West Conference. The remaining five slots were filled by Marquette in 2003 (C-USA), Utah in 1998 (Western Athletic at the time, now Mountain West), Massachusetts in 1996 (Atlantic-10), Cincinnati in 1992 (Great Midwest at the time - a forerunner of C-USA), and Memphis in 1985 (Metro at the time - also a forerunner of C-USA). With the possible exception of the great UNLV teams of 1987, 1990 and 1991, representatives of the Big West at the time, none of those respective leagues were considered mid-major or small college at the time.

So if the correct argument is made that Division I men's hoops is made up of 9-12 major conferences, who generally receive multiple bids, and 19-21 mid-major conferences, who regularly get a lone bid, the split seems clear already without too much of a thought process as to where the exact line is drawn. Matter of fact, this proposed split wouldn't be much different than the current alignment of D-I football, which features 11 I-A conferences and 15 I-AA conferences, with a handful of independents in each.

Considering the path that Division I-A football is going down now, with the continued expansion of conferences into super conferences, are we really that far away from drastic changes of the NCAA landscape? Considering, also, that the 65 schools of football's I-A power leagues (plus Notre Dame) basically operate in a division separate from the other 53 schools when championships are decided and the big money is divvied out, how far are we from those super conferences either forming a new classification or seceding from the NCAA altogether? If the latter takes place, as it was rumored to (or threatened) a few years back, the NCAA Tournament as we know it today will no longer exist.