Last week Josh over at the NCAA’s Double-A Zone linked to an LA Times article illustrating the lack of success for bubble teams (seeds 9-12) in recent NCAA Tournaments. The premise is right – bubble teams create a lot of excitement during the homestretch of the regular season as teams jockey for the last few at-large bids, but they really matter very little when it comes down to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
But at that point, it’s not really about championships or even advancing very far. Winning games in the tournament is great, sure, but marginal teams outside the higher seeds care mostly about access – entry into the club.
That’s why people like Jim Boeheim are so vocal about expanding the tournament. It’s not that a Syracuse team at .500 in its conference is a legitimate national title contender. It’s that a bid to the tournament is the basic status symbol in college basketball. You hang banners, put it on your coaching resume, flaunt it in front of prospects, and make as big of a deal over it as you can. There is enormous media exposure at stake in everything from the games themselves to countless previews breaking down the brackets. Go far enough and it can transform a school, but just being a part of the process is enough for many schools.
In the eyes of fans, a bid to the NCAA Tournament is the baseline for a successful program. It’s relevance and legitimacy. The seed might not be what you’d like in a given season, but you’re still at least a part of the picture. Miss the tournament once, and it’s a problem. Miss it a few times, and it’s time to look for a new coach.
Football fans are familiar with this issue: playing in a BCS bowl is a big deal. A playoff would be an even bigger deal for those teams invited because those 8 or 16 teams would have access to the hype surrounding a national title chase. It’s not hard to see why bracket creep is so attractive to those on the outside of the club.