Immediately after the revelation that UCLA had unexpectedly secured a spot in the NCAA tournament, conspiracy theories began to swirl.
Kendall Salter of The Island Packet wrote, "This selection stinks of TV ratings and market size." Kevin Brockway of the Gainesville Sun tweeted that the only explanation for UCLA's inclusion was the Los Angeles TV market. Former Kentucky guard Cameron Mills echoed those sentiments, adding that "this tourney is not about the best teams. It's about the most valuable."
The inclusion of a name-brand program like UCLA over lower-profile Colorado State, Temple or Murray State does create a perception problem, but the tinfoil hat crowd that insists this was a money grab by the NCAA is searching for malice where there is only stupidity. While UCLA probably hadn't accomplished enough to make the field and definitely hadn't accomplished enough to avoid the First Four, the inclusion of the Bruins was likely an honest mistake.
The easiest argument to shoot down is the idea that UCLA's presence in the NCAA tournament will lead to big TV ratings in Los Angeles or droves of fans from Southern California buying tickets. Anyone saying that doesn't understand college basketball's tenuous place in Los Angeles market.
Pauley Pavilion is half-empty for most UCLA home games and Bruins trail far behind the Lakers, Dodgers, Clippers, and USC football as a ratings draw. If only a few hundred UCLA fans bothered to make the four-hour drive to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament, don't expect many more to travel cross-country to Louisville for an opening-round NCAA tournament game.
The idea that CBS/Turner pushed for the inclusion of UCLA because its name will resonate with TV viewers nationally also isn't logical when you consider the opponent the Bruins drew and the channel the game is on.
If UCLA's inclusion is all about TV ratings, why pit the Bruins against a largely anonymous SMU team and bury the game on TruTV in a 3:10 p.m. EST time slot on a Thursday afternoon? You put UCLA on CBS — or at least TNT or TBS — if you think they have the clout to bring in viewers.
UCLA's name might create more interest in later rounds than a team like Colorado State or Temple would, but it's unlikely the Bruins advance very far. They're 4-12 away from Pauley Pavilion all season and they've beaten only four RPI top 100 teams. If the TV networks were trying to set up UCLA-Iowa State in the round of 32 or UCLA-Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, they went through an awful lot of trouble for two games that probably aren't happening.
The inclusion of UCLA was part of a bigger trend this year that also saw the committee elevate fellow power-conference programs Indiana and Texas into the field when many thought they were in jeopardy of missing the tournament or being relegated to the First Four. Combine that with committee chairman Scott Barnes' repeated references to the "eye test" when unsuccessfully trying to explain UCLA's presence in the field, and that quickly created a perception problem.
The reality though is that Indiana and Texas probably both belonged in the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers had a strong enough collection of wins to merit their No. 10 seed despite their late-season struggles and leaving out the Longhorns would have been a crime considering they're No. 19 in the KenPom rankings and 12 of their 13 losses were against NCAA tournament teams.
Ultimately, UCLA's presence in the field is no different than when the committee inexplicably gave a bid to Air Force in 2006 or Middle Tennessee in 2013.
It's a mistake but an honest one.