Pitt Should Be Headed Straight to the Real Show, Not Making a Pit Stop in Dayton
The insatiable drive for more tournament games has the unfortunate effect of leaving worthy teams out of the actual competition.
On Tuesday night, the Pitt men’s basketball team will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
At tip-off, we can all celebrate the return of meaningful March action for the Panthers; we can all watch what will surely be an electric, high-stakes matchup against Mississippi State, with that irresistible win-or-go-home severity in the air. I’m confident that the squad from Oakland will advance. Pitt, as you may have heard, has been pretty good this year, knocking off the likes of Northwestern, Miami and Virginia and finishing in a respectable tie for third in a stacked ACC.
So it’s absolutely ridiculous that they have to play in Dayton on Tuesday night to get a spot.
No longer content to pit a mere 64 teams against one another — as a reminder, that’s as many teams as there are in the NFL and NHL combined — the NCAA has, for the past couple of decades, experimented with ways to get another handful of schools in on the action.
Early in this experiment, teams would compete for selections as the 16th seed in a given region, essentially fighting for the honor of being demolished by a No. 1 seed in the first round. When these games were only contested for those low seeds, they never led to anything but a drubbing; from 2001-10, none of the so-called “First Four” competitors managed to survive past their opening game in the tournament proper.
Evidently unhappy with a game that existed to, for example, serve up the Niagara Purple Eagles for a 40-point pasting at the hands of Kansas, the NCAA in 2011 messed with the format. Some games still feature the lowest-ranked qualifying teams, but others — including the contest tomorrow night featuring Pitt and Mississippi State — feature at-large qualifiers.
If you don’t know what that last phrase means, don’t worry about it; college sports rankings are comprehensible only to robots, sports-show talking heads and certain very focused campus newspaper editors.
The point is that Pitt isn’t forced to play an extra qualifying game because they’re on the bubble of tournament qualification; they’re easily worthy of a spot, and are in fact competing with Mississippi State for a No. 11 seed. Both squads are in the low-middle of teams that won enough and played solid enough competition to make it into the tournament.
In other words, no fewer than 20 teams not as good as Pitt don’t have to bother with this bonus round nonsense — yet, due to an antiquated and labyrinthine selection system, Pitt could be bounced from the tournament before it actually begins.
The Panthers, who finished with a solid 22-11 record and defeated top-tier competition this season, could go home Tuesday night. Meanwhile, for example: The Vermont Catamounts, who earned their berth by winning the flimsy America East conference and beating the likes of UMass Lowell and Binghamton, will stroll straight into the big tournament.
That is, in a word, silly.
There’s plenty of silly to be found in the world of collegiate athletics, which has spent decades steadfastly resisting the urge to operate like a logical sports league in favor of continuing to function like an endless caravan of barnstorming clubs circa the Great War. Hopefully, Pitt will emerge victorious on Tuesday night — without sustaining any injuries in the process — and will get to the real tournament, where they always belonged, in a few days.
If they happen to lose, though, remember: They were good enough. They were qualified. And they’re out of the tournament for no good reason.
Hell, even if they win, I’m gonna change some nouns in this story and see if I can get it printed somewhere near the campus of Mississippi State. Because they were good enough, too. Instead, one of these worthy teams will be watching the tournament from an off-campus apartment.