I love brackets.
Put anything in bracket form, and I’ll spend time picking winners. My students at SUNY Oswego have had a food bracket the past two years (you can find this year’s at @FoodBracketOz), and I spend a lot of time thinking about this. The Avett Brothers Facebook fan group I’m a member of has an annual song bracket each March, and not only do I love it, I’m running it this year.
So yes. I love Selection Sunday.
The NCAA Tournament is the best event in sports. For me, one of the best things about the tournament is that it means different things to different teams. For a Binghamton University, for a St. Bonaventure University, just making the field is epic. Hearing your name on Selection Sunday, seeing your name in the brackets on Monday morning, for smaller programs (and a lot of mid-majors), that’s the equivalent of Kentucky or North Carolina making the Final Four.
That’s why St. Bonaventure’s snub last year hit me (and so many alums) so hard. It’s not that there wasn’t a case to be made for Bona’s exclusion (there’s a pretty compelling one). It’s the feeling that the school and its community was denied a special moment so that a big-time program like Syracuse could get another bid.
That snub, and this time of year in general, always get me thinking about at-large bids. What’s the purpose of an at-large bid? According to the NCAA, “The committee selects the 36 best teams to fill the at-large berths.” But there’s argument to be had – and it's one we have every year at this time — about what “best team” means.
I took the question to Twitter (insert boilerplate caveat that Twitter polls aren’t even close to scientific):
Revised NCAA poll. The purpose of at-large bids are to:— Brian Moritz (@bpmoritz) March 10, 2017
So, we’re after the best teams. Simple, right?
If grad school taught me anything, it’s that you need to clearly define what we mean by “best.” Because you can argue that the best teams are the ones that had the best seasons. This is the St. Bonaventure argument last year — you look at the results, the RPI, and you see one of the best 36 teams in the country. But you can also argue that the best teams are the ones who play and beat better competition, ones that have the potential to win the NCAA Tournament (which is the point, right?). This is the Syracuse argument last year — Syracuse was a better team and deserved a spot.
To me, this notion that we are picking the best teams reflects an implict (and possibly explicit) bias in favor of the power conferences. Because it is easy to argue that, say, a sixth-place team in the ACC is better than a second-place team in the Atlantic 10. And if that’s the case, the major conference schools are always going to get the at-large bids.
And that’s disappointing. Because it turns the NCAA Tournament into college football, where only three conferences matter.
It’s takes away so much of the joy of the NCAA Tournament — a small or mid-major school earning a bid by their play throughout the season, a moment that really matters to that school and community (way more so than it does to fans of an SEC school waiting for spring football) — and replaces it with cold, hard, business decisions that benefit CBS, Turner, ESPN and the power conferences (and their media friends).
And that takes the joy out of March Madness, and of the brackets.