The NCAA Tournament Play-In Game, designed to reward one of two 16th seeded small school conference champions with a win, can also be interpreted as a slap in the face. After the formation of another conference left the NCAA with 65 entries into the tournament, the NCAA elected not to scrap one of the at-large bids, but to make the two lowest schools play a neutral-site game two days before the start of the tournament to determine which team got to face the top #1 seed.
In effect, the NCAA tells two small conference champions that giving another spot to a middling power conference team is more important than allowing both champions to experience playing the actual NCAA Tournament, and that the two teams must scrap like dogs in a fieldhouse in Dayton, OH for the right to get force fed to the #1 team in the country.
There are three arguments for the Play-In game:
It allows one of the small schools the chance to win a tournament game. Granted, if both teams played #1 seeds as 16 seeds, both would probably lose, and badly. No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed in Men’s Division I NCAA Tournament history, and only a handful of 16 seeds in the last 20+ years have even come close. Meanwhile, having two of the 16 seeds play it out in Dayton gives one of them a chance to salvage some dignity with a postseason win before their likely loss on Thursday.
It improves the level of competition in the main tournament by supplanting one of the smaller schools with a better at-large team. Two of the smallest schools play it out in Dayton, one disappears and the other gets fed to the Minotaur. In return, a middling but competitive power conference team, or a worthy mid-major team, gets a 12 seed and strengthens the tournament field.
It decreases the chance of soiling the tournament field by letting in a conference champ with a losing record. As recently as last year with 20-loss Coppin State, we’ve seen lesser teams make surprising runs in their conference tournament to steal the conference’s tournament bid. Sometimes these teams have losing records, and nothing weakens the credibility of a championship tournament like one of the representatives sporting a sub-.500 record. However, usually only one of the 16 seeds holds a weak record, and putting that team in the Play-In Game gives the NCAA a chance to clean that team off the books by having them face a better 16 seed. Typically, the losing team’s run ends in Dayton and the other 16 seed, typically sporting a winning record, moves ahead to the tournament.
Marginally speaking, the difference in overall competition with an extra at-large team is negligible. Teams that win the play-in game typically gain little consolation from the victory, especially after the subsequent blowout loss to the #1 seed two days later. But one can make an argument that the Thursday field of 64 ought not to include a team with a losing record.
Here’s a suggestion: Keep the play-in game, but don’t necessarily match up the 16 seeds. If any conference champion has a losing record, then sure, have that losing team play another 16 seed in Dayton, with the winner facing the #1 seed. But if all conference champions have a winning record, then have the play-in game feature the last two at-large teams. The winner gets the #12 seed, and a chance to play the strongest #5 seed in the field on Thursday. And the folks in Dayton get the added bonus of seeing power conference teams or a quality mid-major… rather than two random small conference teams.
Sure, the #5 seed gets a bit of an advantage in facing a team that had to play an extra game. But conference champs often have to play extra games to get in: they had to win a tournament. And conference champs compose about half of the field, many of which are the lowest seeds, since those consist of weaker conference champs that wouldn't have otherwise qualified.
So the top 3-4 seeds already face this advantage of playing a team that had to win 3-4 games over the last few days to get in. The 5 seed would simply possess a similar advantage. Keep in mind that most at-large play-in winners would not come off of a full slate of conference tournament games, as they didn’t win their conference tournaments. This play-in would likely feature teams that took 1st or 2nd round conference tournament exits.
If anything, small conference schools ought to get the chance to experience the real NCAA Tournament… rather than have to earn their way in just days after allegedly earning their way in by winning their conference tournament.