OPINION: Tourney before the tourney

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Tanner Castora

When it comes to college athletics, I swear the word I hear most is some form of the word “fair.” “These college athletes should be paid, it’s not fair!”

The college football playoff leaves out conference champions every year, it’s not fair!”

“The NCAA tournament has a field of 68 teams. It’s the best and fairest way to find a true champion!”

Well is it?

Let me be clear, I love March Madness. It is the best multi-week sporting event ever created, and I do believe it’s the best way to determine a champion in college basketball. That said, I know it’s not a perfect system.

Every single year — and I do mean every single year — some team that probably should have been in the tournament gets left out, which causes a huge uproar from the media. Most of the time, that team is one of the “little guys.”

Maybe the biggest knock on the NCAA tournament Committee over the years has been the way it has rewarded mediocrity over excellence. What exactly does that mean, you ask? Time and time again, the committee chose to put a very average “Power 5” school into the field of 68 over a mid-major school that had an excellent season.

Just two years ago, Vanderbilt was somehow named a nine-seed after posting an overall record of 19-15 and a conference record of just 10-8. That same year, Illinois State didn’t receive an invitation after finishing the season with an overall record of 27-6 and a conference record of 17-1.

Now, I know some of you will try to justify this by saying things like, “‘Power 5’ schools are simply superior to these fluky mid-major programs.” If you are one of those people, I raise you this.

Last year, Oklahoma State went 19-14, with its resume including a win over Florida State — a team that ended up advancing to the Elite Eight — and two wins over a Kansas team in the Final Four. Even with those three impressive wins, the Cowboys team was not invited to the tournament. But here’s the issue: the Oklahoma Sooners — the Cowboys’ hated rivals — were invited to the NCAA tournament after going 18-13. OK, what’s the big deal, you ask? Drum roll, please…

Oklahoma State defeated Oklahoma not once, but twice last year.

Excuse me?

The fact that these scenarios continue to happen time and time again is a clear indication that changes need to be made. Here’s my humble and simple suggestion: a mini tournament that takes place before the NCAA tournament. A tourney before the tourney, if you will.

Take the top eight “bubble teams,” and make a mini bracket. The games are played on back-to-back nights in Madison Square Garden with the final two teams standing earning the last two spots in the field of 68 as part of the “First Four” games.

Who the hell wouldn’t watch that? It’s more money for the NCAA and universities, more fun for the players and more entertainment for the fans. Now instead of debating Vanderbilt and Illinois State, it can be settled on the hardwood.

Fair enough?

Tanner Castora is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].