Another NCAA tournament is upon us and there is excitement and anticipation for 64 colleges and universities … wait, make that 68. What should we make of the First Four? Why do we subject these mid-major conference champions (and ourselves) to these hanging chads at the edge of our brackets? Imagine you are a member of the North Dakota State Bison. You win the Summit League tournament. You rush the floor. You kiss your girlfriend. You hug your mother. Your mind starts to dance with thoughts of squaring off with Duke or North Carolina. Maybe you’ll have to guard future NBA players like Zion Williamson or Cam Johnson. After all, when North Dakota State made the tournament in 2015, they tested their mettle against 2 seed Gonzaga. In 2014, your school knocked off 5th seeded Oklahoma. In 2009, your school got to play blue-blooded Kansas.
Not this time. Not you. You’re headed to godforsaken Dayton, Ohio to play NC Central. Your dreams may very well die in Dayton, never really tasting the sweet nectar of March Madness. If not yours, then you can murder the fantasies of the NC Central Eagles. What a trophy for your case, to knock off the NC Central Eagles. Will anyone rush the floor in Dayton when you join the field of 64?
Even 11th-seeded Temple is headed to Dayton. Are they really so different from say, fellow 11 seed Northeastern? Northeastern finished the regular season 2nd in the Colonial Athletic Conference. They lost at Syracuse by 23. We can all enjoy the Cinderella stories, but let’s not pretend we don’t pick and choose how our fairy tales end. If you think you have the answers, the committee will just change the questions. But all of this will soon be lost in the madness of March and the opulence of April.
Can you imagine if we were trying to pitch the tournament today? Who is the genius that would roll out the Power Point presentation of a 68-team tournament?
“Yeah, I know it’s not justifiable, but follow me, we’re going to fly a team from North Carolina, one from North Dakota, one from Pennsylvania and one more from Arizona … all to Dayton, Ohio. I promise, it makes sense. I have a system … that I’ve made up … that I follow some of the time … to rationalize the matchups I want.”
We don’t dwell on it because the product is too good, the drama too rich. Why stick up for NC Central when all eyes will end up in Minneapolis on some combination of ACC, SEC or Big Ten teams with a longshot mixed in so we can all bask in the glow of another glut of tournament upsets. I’ll be right there with you. In three days, I’ll be far more invested in the SportsTalk Bracket Challenge than whether it was Fairleigh Dickinson or Northeast Missouri State that played in Dayton. But, for their sake, let’s remember it’s not madness, it’s machinery.
By the way, NC Central defeated Norfolk State to win its third consecutive MEAC tournament championship. The feat was accomplished at the Norfolk Scope (a neutral site, wink-wink). Last season, NC Central fell in the First Four to Texas Southern. Meanwhile, UMBC got its shot at top-seeded Virginia and won 74-54, the first 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed. I doubt NC Central could have pulled the same feat. But I’ll wager they would have given it everything they had. And if we’re not giving them that shot, then let’s remove the automatic bids, altogether. When we start to manipulate the system is when we make Cinderella more commodity than character. Dayton’s First Four has more in common with Sleeping Beauty, anyway. Be sure to wake her, along with the rest of us, when the real tournament starts.