Culbreath: ‘First Four’ games are lame start to March MadnessWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re full swing into the NCAA Tournament right now, and if your luck is anything like mine, your office pool bracket hasn’t fallen to pieces … yet. No, that’ll likely happen on Sunday, when a team you had going to the Elite Eight suddenly comes up cold.
You know when your bracket doesn’t fall apart, though? On Tuesday or Wednesday, in the “First Four” games. In fact, those four games matter so little that they don’t even count in most bracket pools. They’re throwaways. So why does the NCAA insist on pretending they matter?
It started back in 2001 with the play-in game, a matchup between two teams who would then get the No. 16 seed and play the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. To the outside world, it looked like an opportunity to spotlight some teams and act as a soft open for the tourney.
It felt like the NCAA was using the extra space to shuffle off some automatic qualifying teams so that they could get more teams from spotlight conferences in the tournament proper. But nobody complained about it too hard, until the NCAA discussed expanding the tournament to 96 teams. The massive pushback on that idea caused the Association to dial it down to adding a few more teams.
The good part about the expansion was that the four games weren’t all for 16 seeds. In fact, they’ll mix it up with a 12 or even an 11. South Florida took out Cal in 2012 for an 11 seed, and used that to beat Temple in the next round (a win I called, thank you very much). They would eventually fall to the Ohio Bobcats.
The problem I have with these games is that nobody’s really watching, and those who do don’t get to see great basketball. This year, Tuesday’s game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty University was beaten in the ratings by an NIT game.
Granted, it was tournament-snubbed Kentucky getting beaten by Robert Morris, and it was on ESPN (with the First Four game being played on truTV, which goes to show you what CBS thinks of these games). Wednesday’s games were overshadowed by the Miami Heat overcoming a 27-point deficit in Cleveland to beat the Cavaliers by 3. The new program director at 1370 WSPD, Scott Sands, spent some time down in Dayton, and he tells me that the games aren’t even a big deal in the Gem City.
The NCAA Tournament proper features two types of games in the first four days: David versus Goliath (and we all root for David), or a great game between two really good teams looking to prove themselves as a contender. When the smoke clears, we’re usually looking at a few strong teams, one middle-of-the-road team from a power conference that worked its way through a weak region and a mid-major that wins the hearts and minds of the country (only to be dashed in the next week).
The First Four games, meanwhile, seem to be a clearinghouse of teams that played their way in by way of a conference tournament title, while not doing a whole lot during the regular season. They’re in because, well, they have to be. I wouldn’t take that away from them, but putting them in the First Four means they’re usually going to end up as someone else’s sacrificial lamb.
On a purely personal front, I don’t like that the First Four has ultimately changed the name of the rest of the tournament’s rounds, making the first round suddenly the second, and the second round the third. March Madness doesn’t begin until you have basketball games starting at noon and ending at 10 p.m., and forcing the second round nomenclature down our throats reminds us of the snoozefests earlier in the week. We don’t like to think about those games, much like we don’t like to think about the CIT or the CBI.
We all love the tournament. Even people who really don’t like basketball watch the first four days. Heck, I actually took this Thursday and Friday off so I could watch the games from my couch in glorious high definition. But the First Four simply isn’t catching anyone’s attention. The NCAA needs to shut it down, kick out the middle-of-the-road schools in major conferences, and allow the teams that earned their way into the tournament a chance to play in the tournament proper.
Matt “Shaggy” Culbreath is sports director at 1370 WSPD. Email him at email@example.com.