The First Four is about to have its moment.
This year, near the end of a season defined largely by the inability of teams to separate themselves from the field, the idea of the First Four seems more relevant and needed than ever before.
Plenty of people — myself included — would rather live in a world in which we just have a 64-team bracket. That was the Mona Lisa of brackets. Nothing needed to be changed with 64. A 48-team field involved a partial first round, with some teams needing to win more games than others to advance to the Final Four and win it all. A 32-team field was and is too small. A 64-team field — four regions of 16 teams — was juuuuuuust right. It was the perfectly-cooked porridge even Goldilocks could enjoy.
The move to 65 teams was stupid. The move to 68 felt unnecessary, but it was understandable.
This year, the idea of having 68 teams — with four bubble teams joining the 16 seeds in Dayton for a couple of basketball battles — feels right. It’s a season meant for playing extra games, for testing flawed teams in the Ohio city which loves college basketball in all its forms and flavors.
Reality is a cold and unforgiving thing, and plot twists can make reality sting even more. Such was the case Monday night, when Green Bay (shown above) defeated Valparaiso in Detroit in the Horizon League semifinals. Valpo is now precariously perched on the bubble in a growing at-large pool. The Crusaders are joined by Wichita State and Monmouth as the most formidable mid-majors under consideration for an at-large bid.
Given the movement that’s about to take place among the power-conference members of the bubble brotherhood, it is hard to imagine all three teams — Wichita, Monmouth, Valpo — getting into the field. This will be especially true if certain bubble teams from the power leagues pull off the upsets which will enable them to crack the field of 68. Wichita, Monmouth and Valpo all know they’re at the mercy of results over the next several days. Then the Selection Committee will choose.
With the First Four in place, it’s a perfect opportunity for the Selection Committee to make this event useful.
It hasn’t always done so in past years, including last year.
The act of putting Dayton (above) into the 2015 First Four gave the Flyers a home game against Boise State. This represented a waste of the First Four device, because this is supposed to be a basketball laboratory, a measurement of how teams fare in a neutral-court setting, an unfamiliar environment. Dayton deserved to make the field, but it should have been pushed into the round of 64. The Flyers shouldn’t have been put in the position of having to play a home game in the Big Dance.
In previous years, the First Four has been the scene of “mid-on-mid crime,” when mid-majors are forced to play each other. Just one example was Saint Mary’s beating Middle Tennessee in 2013. Another example: BYU versus Iona in 2012. BYU might not have the history or stature of a mid-major, but the West Coast Conference is what one would generally refer to as a mid-major league.
The First Four, whenever possible, should match mid-majors against high-majors. The First Four should match teams from different sides of the college basketball tracks. The bubble-team half of the event — as opposed to the 16-seed half of the proceedings — should be designed to see “how the other half lives.” Not taking advantage of this is a great waste.
This year, the Selection Committee has a great chance to get it right.
The unifying element of bubble teams is that their resumes are vague. For every strength, there’s a weakness. For every point of clarity, there’s a point of uncertainty, by and large. What’s conspicuous about many of the bubble teams in this year’s field is that they come with some unusually large oddities.
Wichita State has the injuries to its backcourt early in the season.
Monmouth has the huge pile of road wins and an ambitious non-conference schedule… but against teams which turned into pumpkins (UCLA, Georgetown).
Valparaiso lost to only one conference opponent during the Horizon League regular season (Wright State). That’s unusual, and a great feat by the Crusaders to beat everyone else before falling to Green Bay in the Horizon semis.
Then consider a high-major team such as Oregon State. The Beavers won a game (versus Washington) in which a last-second shot — shown in the picture above — should not have counted. Let’s say Oregon State beats Arizona State but loses to California in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Beavers would be right on the cut line. Given the controversy surrounding their win over Washington, the First Four would be a natural place to put the Beavers.
Consider Michigan, a team ravaged by injuries (again) this season. If the Wolverines beat Northwestern and lose to Indiana, they might very well not get in. IF they are to get in, however, the First Four would be their landing spot.
Wichita State-Oregon State.
Those shouldn’t necessarily BE the First Four’s bubble matchups, but they definitely represent the thought process and the end product the First Four should seek to create.