Sports Outside the Beltway

Let the Madness Commence

Play-in game fever, baby! Dick Vitale has been sedated. Dayton is rocking. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tips off tonight. Niagara and Florida A&M do battle in the opening game of the tournament. The winner gets to become fodder for top seeded Kansas in the West Bracket.

For the sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth ranked teams in the tournament, March Madness is not the boon it is cracked up to be.

“If we’re the 65th best team in this tournament this year, that surprises me,” Florida A&M coach Mike Gillespie said Monday of his Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champions. “I don’t think that’s possible.”

Niagara, meanwhile, took its cue from coach Joe Mihalich, who said Sunday night: “Let me be diplomatic here: I’m confused.”

“We feel disrespected,” Niagara forward Charron Fisher said. “I’m sure you’ll be able to see when we play on Tuesday how disrespected we feel.”

Unlike other games that make the NCAA’s one of the most dramatic spectacles in sport, the play-in game features the two most evenly matched competitors in the eyes of the tournament bracketologists. The winner is almost certainly guaranteed to be shown the door with their next game. No sixteenth seed has ever beaten a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Unlike the beloved anything goes eight-nine games, where the winner is one at the regionals and two primed to take on a top seed looking ahead to the Sweet Sixteen, the play-in game marks the beginning of the end. Sure, some teams lose in the first round, but only two teams have to play in order to lose in the first round.

Because lesser conferences typically populate the play-in game, the schools who miss out on the full feel of an NCAA tournament are the schools that have fewer shots to get there, anyway. Both Niagara and Florida A&M are appearing in their second NCAA tournament. Florida A&M made it for the first time in 2004, when they won the play-in game. Niagara’s original appearance was in 2005, as a 14 seed.

The automatic qualifiers should get spots in the regionals. Even if they lose their opening round game, they have earned the right to play in the tournament. The NCAA dubbed “opening round game” should be the territory of the lowest ranked at large teams, not the automatic qualifiers from small conferences.

Built on the idea that an extra night of programming for CBS plus a little drama can’t be a bad thing, the NCAA has used the play in game to its advantage. But don’t tell the kids at Niagara and Florida A&M to be happy to be there. They aren’t. They earned a place in the tournament, not the “opening round game.”

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