Why College Basketball's "Play-In" Game Should Be Abolished

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2010

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Michael Jenkins #11 of the Winthrop Eagles pushes the ball up court against the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic at Bank Atlantic Center December 29, 2007 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The so-called "Opening Round" game tonight saw Arkansas-Pine Bluff get by Winthrop 61-44. 

But it is not part of the NCAA tournament.

Oh, the NCAA and the powers that be will attempt to convince you otherwise, calling tonight’s game the “opening round.”  But most fans—and even most analysts—call it what it really is: a play-in game. 

And if you really want to get down to it, the game between the Eagles and the Golden Lions is the “You Don’t Belong” Game.

Last year, prior to the play-in game between Alabama State and Morehead State, ESPN radio host Dan Patrick ran a poll on his show.  While not scientific, 70 percent of his listeners responded that the play-in game was not the beginning of the tournament. 

That holds true this year.

It is nothing against Winthrop or UAPB, but the tournament does not start this evening.  Sure, in reality it begins tonight. 

But it is like the beginning of college football—sure, there are games between Tennessee-Martin and Austin Peay on the last Thursday in August, but for most fans, the season kicks off on the Saturday before Labor Day.

Look at how the tournament is structured in terms of brackets.  This year, there is not an extra spot for Winthrop and UAPB on most brackets. Typically, it will show one of the No. 1 seeds—in this case, Duke—and both teams separated by a slash (Winthrop/Ark-Pine Bluff).  And beyond compulsive gamblers, I doubt any office pool has people filling out brackets that contain the “opening round.”

Look at some of the brackets on various sports Web sites.  Here at Bleacher Report, it has the two teams grouped together; it is the same way at Yahoo! Sports.   Meanwhile, ESPN.com has a shameful blank for either the Eagles or Golden Lions—last year, it was “TBA."  CBSSports simply has “Op. Rd. Winner.”

And if it is the opening round, then why are both teams a 16th seed? Why isn’t one 16th and one 17th?  Well, that is because it is a damn play-in game!

I understand the reasoning for the play-in game.  The NCAA wanted to maintain the 34 at-large bids after the WAC downsized (the once mega-conference in terms of number of schools split in half, with a new conference—the Mountain West Conference—being formed out of most of the “better” teams).  Because the MWC would need an automatic bid, it would take away from the at-large pool. 

So, the NCAA expanded by one spot?  What?  The at-large bid that the MWC took would obviously go to the “last team in"—this year, it would have been Utah State or UTEP. 

I am trying to run various tournaments through my head, but is it not common for the last team in to be a mediocre team from a “power conference?"  The last two years the likely last team in—Arizona in 2009 and Villanova in 2008 —made a decent run.

Before that, it was Illinois; then Bradley; then UCLA; then UTEP.  With the exception of Bradley, who made the Elite Eight as a 13th seed, each of those teams lost in the first round.  So maybe ridding the tourney of that at-large bid would not be a bad idea—as it seems to go to a team from a power or good conference that only performs marginally well.

But here is what needs to be abolished—the play-in game.  Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff should be playing on either Thursday or Friday—not on Tuesday! 

So one less at-large bid!  Yes, it might take out a Utah State or a UTEP, but it could also take out an undeserving “power” school like Wake Forest or Minnesota.

Let’s be clear—I am not stating that Winthrop or UAPB would do anything in the tournament.  Both would be a 15th or 16th seed and would go home really quickly.  But both did what they were supposed to do to make it to the “Big Dance.”

Winthrop bounced back from a disappointing 2008-09 season to take home the Big South tournament title.  Arkansas-Pine Bluff also bounced back—but in that case, it was a very difficult 0-11 start to finish second in the SWAC before winning the conference title.  Thus, the Eagles and Golden Lions had to work harder and essentially do more to make it in.

On the other hand, Wake Forest and Minnesota just had to play average basketball overall to get into the tournament.  Wake Forest lost four of its last five regular season games—including to ACC bottom feeders NC State and an abnormal North Carolina team.  It was then embarrassed in the ACC tournament by 12th seed Miami.

Minnesota has losses to Portland, Northwestern, Indiana, and Michigan (twice).  The run in the Big Ten tournament was nice, but the Golden Gophers beat a Purdue team that is merely a shell of its former self with the absence of Robbie Hummel.

Get these teams out of there!

Another problem I have is that the teams in the play-in game do not seem like the worst teams.  Sometimes it is the teams with the worst records, but it does not always have the two “worst” teams. 

For example, this year, Arkansas-Pine Bluff might deserve to be in the play-in, but Winthrop is probably better than East Tennessee State or Lehigh—although, to be fair, these two teams have the lowest RPI among teams in the tournament.

Here is the biggest problem I have—as noted above, the play-in game is a slap in the face for both of those teams.  Yes, technically, one of those teams will get a tournament win on its resume—the only way a 16 seed will win, I guess—and it gets some national exposure. 

But it basically states that neither of these two teams belong in the tournament—they are only there because of that silly “automatic bid” thing.

If the NCAA must have the play-in game, then I think it needs to be tweaked.  And here is what can happen: If it has to be 65 teams, the play-in game should be between the last two teams in—i.e., at-large bids—and not automatic team bids unless there is an automatic bid team with a losing record. 

So Utah State and UTEP, enjoy your play-in game.

And, if it were last season, we would have seen Arizona and Wisconsin in the play-in game.  And thank God one of them would have been gone before people care about the actual tournament.

Or, because there has been talk of expansion, carry the play-in game one step further and expand the field to 68 teams.  And again, the play-in games are bubble teams. 

So, UAB, Wichita State, Illinois, and Virginia Tech could take on Utah State, UTEP, Minnesota, and Florida.  Let those teams earn their way in; Winthrop and UAPB earned their spot already through the automatic bid.

At least with this method, the play-in game could have more meaning—and perhaps be really considered the opening round!


This article is derived from a similar article that appeared at Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on March 17, 2009.