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Play-in games dilute Madness quality

Albany beats St. Mary’s in a first-round matchup no one cares about. (AP Photo)
Albany beats St. Mary’s in a first-round matchup no one cares about.
(AP Photo)

Nothing in sports compares to March Madness, which consists of the top 68 teams in men’s college basketball competing in a single elimination tournament for one thing: the chip. It’s one of my favorite sporting events of the year, and it’s almost perfect — almost. My one big problem with the NCAA Tournament is the “first round,” the play-in games.

In 2001, the tournament expanded from 64 to 65 teams and it expanded to 68 games in 2011. This means there are four play-in games before the real games start — or what the NCAA calls the “second round” — in an attempt to add legitimacy to these bogus play-in games.

The NCAA tournament would actually be perfect if it was 64 teams instead of 68. No one cares about these play-in games except for the people associated with the eight teams playing. It is pretty unfortunate some of these games couldn’t be “real” tournament games because some have been pretty solid games that had the potential to be on par with the exciting games in the “real” first round, but they won’t get much attention. The sole purpose of the NCAA continuing to expand the tournament is to get more “Big Dogs” (major conference teams) into the Big Dance. Who cares if the Big Ten gets an eighth bid or the Big 12 gets a seventh bid, but more major conference teams in the tournament means more money because these teams usually have larger followings and endowments associated with them.

Two play-in games have the bottom four “at-large teams” (usually No. 11 or No. 12 seeds) squaring off and the second two have the bottom four automatic qualifiers (No. 16 seeds) facing each other. My problem is not as much with the “at-large” play-in games because it basically means there is less debate about the “bubble,” even though I’m still not a fan of them.

My problem is more so with the bottom four automatic qualifiers having to play in a play-in game. If you are an automatic qualifier, it means you have won your conference tournament and deserve a chance to play in the real NCAA Tournament. These No. 16 seeds are usually small schools that a majority of the country has never heard of. The NCAA is a chance they’ve earned to gain more notoriety (and money) for their school.  Two of these teams will never get that chance, because they’re not playing in a game that the nation cares about or is watching.

Even though a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the tournament, it is destined to happen one day. Each of these teams has already earned its right to play for that chance at history. They shouldn’t need to play in another silly game. However, win or lose, these No. 16 seeds have the chance to gain a lot of new fans because No. 1 seeds are usually big name schools like Arizona or Florida with big time players so there will be a lot of eyes on their games.

March Madness would be the perfect tournament with only 64 teams.  No one cares about the play-in games. Most of the major online bracket challenges don’t even require you to pick the winners of those games. The major sports networks don’t start really covering and talking about the tournament until after the play-in games.  The expansion of the NCAA Tournament is just another mindless money grab by the NCAA.  I don’t think it’s possible for the sports world to not be excited about March Madness, but I also think that the sports world will never get excited for the play-in games.



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