Had the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams last year, Mississippi State almost certainly would have been in one of two opening-round games pitting the last four at-large teams against one-another. Instead the Bulldogs were perhaps the most deserving at-large hopeful left out of the field of 65 and had to settle for a dreaded NIT berth.
"We definitely would have liked a play-in game last year," Johnson said Monday by phone. "We'd beaten two NCAA tournament teams in the SEC tournament and almost beat Kentucky, so not hearing our names called was a huge disappointment. I'd rather play to get in than end the season like we did."
Not everyone in college basketball circles is as pleased as Johnson about the newly released hybrid format for the NCAA tournament, but the prevailing notion among coaches and administrators is that it's a good compromise.
Those at low-major schools are pleased the last four at-large teams will square off in two of the opening-round games because it halves the number of play-in participants from nation's lowest-ranked conferences. Those at higher-ranked programs can overlook the injustice of participating in opening-round games because they recognize more TV viewers will tune in to see an intriguing matchup of at-large teams instead of one pitting the likes of Lehigh and Arkansas Pine Bluff.
"With the new bracket essentially featuring four additional at-large teams, the committee determined it was appropriate to have the teams play in the first round," said UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, selection committee chair for the 2009-10 academic year. "We believe this format provides an extraordinary opportunity for the championship's first-round games to be quality match-ups as March Madness begins."
The proper format for the NCAA tournament's opening round has been hotly debated since the Mountain West splintered from the WAC in 2001. At that time, the NCAA opted to add a play-in game between the two worst automatic qualifiers in the field in order to keep the number of at-large bids at 34 and ensure the number of major-conference teams in the field didn't drop.For programs who had to play an opening-round game to earn the right to become first-round fodder for a No. 1 seed, the biggest challenge was often preventing a letdown from players disappointed by a matchup with a little-known opponent. Morehead State could have been discouraged when its first NCAA tournament appearance in 25 years began with an opening-round game against Alabama State, but coach Donnie Tyndall managed to elevate the spirits of his young team.
"It wasn't going to be tolerated from myself or more my staff to let our players feel disappointed or slighted in any way," Tyndall recalled Monday. "We went into the game with an upbeat positive attitude that we were going to be the only game on TV and the only game in town that night and because of the way we approached that game, that was a large part of why we played so well."
Some of the most relieved coaches after Monday's announcement were those in conferences that have typically produced No. 14 and 15 seeds in the past. Those schools could have been opening-round candidates had the NCAA opted to make only the lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers candidates for the opening round, but instead they will likely continue to get a free pass to the round of 64.
Belmont pushed UCLA for a half in the first round in 2006 as a No. 15 seed and then came within an eyelash of upsetting Duke two years later, so coach Rick Byrd is well aware of how exciting March can be. Although he believes having four opening-round games will help lessen the stigma of participating in them, he also is relieved teams from the Atlantic Sun will still typically have strong enough profiles to avoid them.
"This gives us a better chance of being in the tournament proper, and that's what you want," Byrd said. "The stigma of being in the play-in game has been reduced, but if you don't advance on and get to play in the first round with all those other schools at the same site, that's an experience that a play-in game can't replicate. Walking off the floor and Duke's coming on the floor, those are things the teams and players at this level remember."
One conference whose teams are unlikely to avoid the opening-round game in the near future is the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which participated in five of the nine play-in games under the previous system.
Arkansas Pine Bluff's nationally televised opening-round victory over Winthrop in March actually boosted the conference's prestige, yet commissioner Duer Sharp said it's his goal for the SWAC to improve enough that teams can avoid play-in games. That means avoiding the lucrative guarantee games that balance SWAC institutions' budgets but damage their records and RPIs.
"The thing we want to focus on as a conference is how to improve our RPI so we're not a part of the opening round," Sharp said. "I don't think it's any secret that the one thing that really hurts us is the number of guarantee games we play. The NCAA is not goign to change its policies based on the SWAC, so we have to change the way we schedule based on the policy of the NCAA."
Like the teams in the SWAC, the goal for Mississippi State is to avoid the opening round altogether. Johnson might appreciate the option of the at-large play-in games, but he hopes the Bulldogs aren't sweating out Selection Sunday again next March.
"That's our whole thing this offseason," Johnson said. "We had a pretty good season, but it ended terribly because we didn't make the tournament. This year, all we're doing is trying to avoid letting that happen again."
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