What Should the NCAA Do With Its Four Little PiGs?Posted by rtmsf on May 4th, 2010
This has been discussed repeatedly since the late April announcement that the NCAA Tournament would be moving to a 68-team design beginning in 2011, but we’ve yet to come across a piece that outlines all of the iterations that the new four-PiG format might take. Hashing it out on the phone with The Kiff (a longstanding member of the Cult of 64) last weekend, we ultimately settled on two major bones of contention — who gets to play in the four play-in games, and how do you structure it so as to maximize interest, revenue and bracketing? We’ll discuss each of these questions in turn, but first, it’s interesting to read a quote from one prominent member of the NCAA Selection Committee for insights as to what may or may not be on the table here. Laing Kennedy, the Kent State athletic director who will finish up a five-year term as a member of the NCAA Selection Committee, has this to say about it:
Going from 65 to 68 means four first-round games. Our committee, when we meet in May, will look at some models on how to bracket that. For example, you can have two afternoon and two night games in Dayton, or two games at two different sites. But the big question to be decided by the committee is which teams should play those play-in games, and how the winners will be seeded into the field. Speaking individually, I would look at the last eight, and rewarding the AQs [automatic qualifiers]. Those would be highly competitive first games. But those are things we have to look at in May.
Additionally, Greg Shaheen, the NCAA Senior Executive VP who got lit up by the media in the week leading up to the Final Four, said during a radio interview with Doug Gottlieb recently that all options are on the table with respect to logistics but one of the primary considerations of the committee in structuring the new games will be to remove some of the stigma from them. A noble endeavor, indeed.
With the hope that reasonable minds ultimately will prevail, here are our thoughts on the matter.
Who Plays In It?
This is the part most fans care about, and with good reason — they want to know whether as standard practice they can continue to ignore PiG Tuesday. As it currently stands, roughly 99.9% of America* fails to so much as recognize that there is a Tuesday night game ostensibly involving NCAA Tournament opponents. Only the truly anal among us wait until Wednesday to fill out our bracket on the ridiculous off chance that the winner of the PiG is the “right” matchup to give its corresponding #1 team trouble (and you know who you are). So let’s cut right to it. For the last ten seasons, there have been only four groups of people who care about this game.
* unscientific sampling of the three guys walking around the office hallway
#16A’s fans, players and families.
#16B’s fans, players and families.
Overly nervous fans of the corresponding #1 seed waiting on an opponent for Friday’s #1/#16 game.
The good citizens of Dayton, Ohio, who keep attending this thing year after year.
Just about six weeks ago, we saw this played out in real time as the “Opening Round” of the NCAA Tournament between Arkansas-Pine Bluff-Winthrop competed directly with the first round of the NIT and several interesting matchups that included UConn-Northeastern, UNC-William & Mary, Texas Tech-Seton Hall and NC State-South Florida. From that night’s ESPN coverage to the trending Twitter topics and later to the Nielsen ratings, it was painfully clear that on this mid-March evening, the NIT games were the preferred matchups for college hoops fans. As anyone working at 700 West Washington Street in Indianapolis is surely aware, that should NEVER happen. Even on its worst night, for an NCAA Tournament game to be overshadowed by another basketball-related sporting event in March should be an impossible achievement, and yet on that particular evening it was not.
And therein lies the problem. Most people, even hardcore college hoops fans like us, don’t consider the Tuesday night PiG to be a legitimate part of the NCAA Tournament. It involves the two worst-rated teams in the field, which means nobody knows anything about them; and it has zero impact on our brackets, which means there’s no corresponding reason to care to learn about them either. So the question for the NCAA becomes: how do you legitimize it? How do you remove that stigma that Shaheen mentioned as problematic? How do you make people care about the (now) four play-in games on Tuesday so that random NIT games involving struggling national powers don’t take priority over NCAA games on the sports page? Here are the two viable alternatives as we see them.
Status Quo (x4)
Keeping things as they are now where the #16s play the ’other’ #16s (or possibly #17s in the new scheme) wouldn’t seem to do much to enhance the legitimacy of the PiGs, but there is precedent for this. From 1978 to 1985, the NCAA Tournament doubled in size from 32 to 64 teams (can you imagine the outcry in today’s environment??). There were several fits and starts along the way as it expanded a little more almost every year in-between, but suffice it to say that in 1983, the NCAA invited 52 teams to the ball with the final eight automatic qualifiers slotted as #12 seeds into four play-in games (or the “preliminary round” as they called it then). In 1984, there were five play-in games with an additional #11 seed added to the mix. In both of these years, all of the play-in games were played on the Tuesday prior to the first round games, and the teams were sent to PiG sites of Philadelphia’s Palestra or Dayton’s UD Arena depending on relative proximity to the school(s) involved. The winners advanced to play #5 seeds in the true “first round,” with the one exception of the #11 seed (Northeastern) in 1984 who played a #6 seed in that round.
In that era, the NCAA Tournament was still in the process of becoming the huge event that it has now become, and we doubt that there was as much consideration given to how to best market and promote the play-in games other than to get them over with and move on to the main event. As we outline below, we believe such thinking today by the NCAA would be shortsighted, but if the organization decides to move in the direction of simply expanding the existing model from one game involving two #16 seeds to four games, then we should anticipate a #1 seed becoming a first round upset victim within the next 5-10 years. The reason for this is simple: if we assume that the expansion of the NCAA Tournament by three teams will allow three more at-large bids each year (probably on the #11-#13 seed lines), then three schools who were once on the #15-seed line prone to causing occasional problems for their respective #2 seeds (four Ws in the last twenty years) will now get a shot to take down a #1 seed instead. The difference in the quality of the lower #16s versus the higher #15s can be significant, and often there is little to no difference between a low #1 and a high #2. 2010 was a great example of that.
Depending on your perspective, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Northern Iowa’s major upset over #1 Kansas in the second round created an astonishing amount of buzz for this year’s Tournament and helped it reach its highest interest level from casual fans in a number of years. You’d have to believe that a #16 seed taking out a #1 seed in similar fashion could also be beneficial in that regard. But by and large, a decision to make all the #16 seeds play in the four PiGs would still render the opening Tuesday of the Tournament meaningless to most fans. Any potential positive effect would be put off until the first round games on Friday against the #1 seeds, and it’s unlikely that casual fans would understand the distinction anyway (“they all suck” is something we hear a lot). Simply adding three more games to the “round” won’t inspire people to pay more attention to those games; if anything, it may in fact serve as an annoying reminder that the NCAA expanded the Tournament. Therefore, if legitimacy of these four games is an outcome that the NCAA wants, expanding the status quo four times doesn’t get them there any more than it did in the mid-1980s. Fans will just have more games to not care about.
The Alternative: BubbleBuster Tuesday
For the ten or so days leading up to Selection Sunday, all we talk about are two things. Who the four #1 seeds will be, and how the bubble will shake out. Generally, the teams that end up slotted in the #3-#10 slots are all but forgotten during this period as the bubble accounts for enough chatter to fill up the airwaves throughout early March. This diarrhea of the mouth about an irregularly-shaped globule of transparent sheen reaches its natural crescendo on Selection Sunday in the hours leading up to the big unveiling, where Resume A vs. Resume B takes on a life of its own and everyone from Greg Gumbel to the family dog has a definite opinion on who is in and who is out. And then as soon as the brackets are trotted out, most of the discussion stops. Sure, there are always a couple of gadflies who won’t stop screaming about an omission or two, but for the most part everyone else moves on to analyzing #5/#12 matchups and forgets about the few teams that were left on the outside looking in.
Imagine, instead, if we kept that dialogue going. Rather than immediately jumping into Thursday and Friday first round game analysis, we keep the buzz percolating on the airwaves and ether about the very teams that we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about? In 2010, it would have been teams like Florida, Minnesota, UTEP, Utah State, Arizona State, Illinois, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State. For serious and casual fans alike, everyone would already be acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of these schools, and if the NCAA slots these eight teams into the BubbleBuster games on Tuesday, suddenly you have an eminently marketable day of games where everyone will already be intellectually and emotionally invested. So you thought all along that the Hokies were better than their resume showed? Great — they’ll have a chance to prove it against Minnesota. You believe Utah State had a weak schedule and bears no resemblance to a Tourney team? Wonderful — a loss against Arizona State would confirm your sentiment. How phenomenal would this set of games be to all lovers of March Madness?
Although buzz and fan interest alone is a great reason for creating a BubbleBuster day of games, there are other compelling reasons beyond that one. Surprisingly, it may even be in the participating schools’ best financial interest to lobby for this alternative. The reason? Starting in 2008, the schools that were slotted into the PiG were each given a full NCAA Tournament financial share as if they were part of the “real” Tournament, and additionally, the winner was given another full share for advancing to the next game! This means that whoever plays in the four PiGs and wins to advance to the field of 64 is in better financial position than a higher seed who goes one-and-done in their only game (e.g., a #8 seed who loses to the #9 seed). Whenever there are dollars involved, BCS schools tend to get what they want, and if schools like the above eight think they have a better shot to get an ‘easy’ win in a relatively down year, expect them to put forth maximum efforts to keep that opportunity away from the little guys.
As for legitimacy and destigmatization, BubbleBuster games would have an instant impact. Four winner-take-all games between teams everyone has gotten to know in recent weeks for the right to join the ‘real’ bracket? Sign us up, please. Given the limited number of games at the same time here (max: 2) and the general excitement that reaching finality on some of these inclusion arguments would inspire, it’s reasonable to believe that these games would outperform some of the first and second round matchups of the ensuing weekend in terms of national intrigue. Are you more likely to watch Florida-Virginia Tech or Duke-Arkansas-Pine Bluff? Exactly. Furthermore, as it is now, by Wednesday morning of NCAA Tourney week everyone has tired of the bracket analysis and is ready for some real games. A solution that plays four nationally interesting games on Tuesday night serves to whet the appetite and increases the attention of fans who are growing impatient for Thursday afternoon’s openers. The one catch to this plan is how to handle the ubiquitous brackets, but we’ll discuss that below.
How to Structure It?
The When & Where
Given travel time and the fact that NCAA Tournament teams will necessarily come from every part of the country, we think that the NCAA has to stick with Tuesday as the only plausible day for these four play-in games. If the NCAA stays with the eight worst auto-qualifiers as the entrants, then those teams are going to have plenty of time (and rest) to get to their game sites, whether Dayton and/or elsewhere. This could prove a little more difficult with the BubbleBuster option and teams who may have played games in conference tournaments up to and including Selection Sunday, but a Tuesday/Friday/Sunday track can be made reasonable in nearly all scenarios. Let’s break down the three primary possibilities.
Quadrupleheader in Dayton. Dayton has been a tremendous host of the PiG for the past ten seasons (and Shaheen recognized that with Gottlieb), and the NCAA isn’t about to give up on an annual sellout there. The question is whether they want to have four games there in the standard first/second round format (two early and two late) or try to duplicate that success in another anchor venue. The benefits are that Dayton is centrally located for 80% of teams, has a long history of experience in putting on this event and the local fans have proven that they will attend no matter who is playing. The drawbacks are that two games would have to be played in the afternoon, potentially cutting into ticket sales and TV ratings, and there could be some major travel disadvantages for teams that have to fly from the western third of the US and then back again within a span of three days.
Tuesday Night Doubleheaders (Dayton & Western Site). This is similar to what the NCAA Tournament did with its “preliminary round” games in 1983 and 1984 with half of the games in Philadelphia and the other half in Dayton. The setup could easily mimic what the regional semifinal round currently looks like, with games beginning at 7pm ET and staggered so that there’s a good chance for viewers to see all four endings during the evening. The prevailing question is where the NCAA would put the new site and whether it would be anchored in perpetuity like Dayton or if it might be rotated in the future among several interested cities. The best-case scenario envisions a second site in a western time zone city that loves its basketball and will support this event annually. We’re thinking that EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City or The Pit in Albuquerque would be great choices. This way both halves of the country would be covered with a relatively easy flight to the site and the NCAA could make efforts to slot the western teams and the eastern teams appropriately (we don’t have hard evidence of this, but it appears the NCAA tried to do this during the 1983 and 1984 tournaments). Given the precedent and the commonsense components of this option, we’d be surprised if they choose something else.
Tuesday & Wednesday Games at First Round Sites. A third but less likely option is simply that the NCAA would open the first round sites two days in advance and play an opening round game at those venues. This would cut down considerably on travel for every team, as the winning teams would already be where their next two rounds of games were scheduled. It would mimic what we’ve seen in some conference tournaments in recent years where there’s only one opening round game to start things off (the Pac-10 Tournament, for example, utilized such a game this year). But with first round venues changing every year, and the promise of a quadrupleheader and a doubleheader in coming days, will fans in those cities care to schlep out for a single game on Tuesday or Wednesday night? We suppose it ultimately depends on the matchups (see the legitimacy argument above), but we think that this strategy opens itself up to being the game to skip unless there are some other intriguing factors at play. The NCAA should want to see a packed arena full of fans and excitement for these opening round games, and we’re unconvinced that playing a single game at the venue two days prior to the rest of the games will furnish that desired result.
The next decision that must be made is where to slot the teams into the field of 64. Obviously, if the NCAA decides to stick with the status quo by replicating what they already do with the existing PiG, then the four winners are easily slotted opposite the four #1 seeds. Very facile, but also very boring. The more difficult question is how to handle eight at-large teams in the play-in games should the NCAA decide to go that route. We see two options here.
Standard Slotting. The easy way is to simply decide on a seed-line (for example, #12) and put the four winners into those spots opposite the #5 seeds. The problem with this strategy is painfully obvious: the last eight at-large teams are not all #12 seeds. Some, such as Florida and Minnesota in the 2010 Tournament, were higher seeds (#10 and #11, respectively), while others such as Virginia Tech or Mississippi State likely would have been lower (#13s or #14s). Some years the pool of final eight at-larges could draw from as high as the #9-seed line or as low as the #14-seed line. Is it fair for a standard #5 seed to potentially have to face a #12 seed that could be over- or underseeded by two or even three seed lines (depending on the given pool) simply for the sake of symmetry?
Selective Slotting. A second option would be to make best efforts to slot the play-in games according to the seed of the favorite. Assuming a standard S-curve among the last eight at-large teams in 2010, this would have meant that #10 Florida would have matched up with #13/#14 Virginia Tech in its opening round game with the winner moving on to face the #7 seed, BYU. #12 UTEP would have played another #12, Arizona State, for the honor of facing #5 Butler in the first round. And so on. This setup would require a bit more work for the committee each year, but it would ultimately be much fairer than a fallacious situation where all the last at-large entrants are treated as equals. The problem here is that if the lower-seeded team wins its first round game (for example, Virginia Tech in the above scenario), then the Hokies would play an ‘easier’ team to get to the second round (#7 BYU) than if they’d been put into the #5/#12 matchup. Does that matter? After all, upsets happen in every round that create asymmetrical matchups. Only the NCAA knows. Normally we’d say that this will make things more complicated than need be, but the NCAA Selection Committee has actually managed the somewhat-insane pod system well enough over the last decade for us to be inclined to believe that they could handle this as well.
Most Importantly: The Bracket
One area of concern that the NCAA will clearly consider in private while never copping to it publicly is how the PiGs will impact the bracket games, by which we mean office bracket pools, and the like. For casual fans who drive much of the television ratings and buzz surrounding the Tournament, filling out and tracking a bracket online or in an office pool is what connects them to the games. If the committee ultimately decides that four play-in game winners will slot opposite #1 seeds, then our guess is that most bracket games will continue to ignore those four contests the same way they do now. This would be the simplest solution, but as we’ve described above, not necessarily the best. The difficulty will be if the NCAA decides instead to go with the BubbleBuster idea where the PiGs would involve recognizable teams that have realistic shots of defeating their first round opponents and beyond. How do you handle bracketing those games, and will the bracket competitions take those into account or not?
The best answer we can come up with is that the games will by necessity have to include the four PiGs now. If we assume that it’ll include eight at-larges and the games will begin at approximately 7pm on Tuesday evening, fans will have just over 48 hours (and two full office days) to fill out their brackets. This is almost half of what they had before (~90 hours), but we just cannot fathom that the games would presume the #10-#13 seeds would always lose in the first round. Through three decades of NCAA Tourney experience, we all know better than that. One possible compromise position would be to make the four PiGs ‘bonus’ games — if you get your picks in on time with those games filled out, you can earn up to a certain number of bonus points with each winner. If not, you can still wait until Thursday morning to submit your bracket for the field of 64 using standard scoring systems.
No matter the case, any new bracket game is going to be more complicated than before. How will it fit on a standard 8″x11″ sheet of paper? Either the limited white space where companies like to put their ads will need to be utilized more effectively, or maybe the convention will simply become circling the PiG winner on the appropriate seed line prior to writing in your remaining picks. Necessity is the mother of invention, so someone much more creative than us will figure out a way to make this work, and eventually all the lemmings will follow. Even holdouts like our crotchety mainstay, the Kiff, who sometimes still refers to Louie and Big John (think mid-80s Big East) as if they were still on the sidelines.