The NCAA First Four: The Catch-22 of low mid-majors like the NEC

On Tuesday night, the NCAA tournament officially began with the first two games of what the NCAA likes to call it the ‘First Four’. Mount St. Mary’s, the NEC representative with its 16-16 overall record, were one of the eight participants in this year’s ‘First Four’.

After coming back from an ice cold 21-2 start to take the lead, the Mount couldn’t hold on and were the first team eliminated from the NCAA tournament with a 71-64 loss to Albany of the America East Conference. The joy of being NCAA tournament participants lasted just a cruel 50 hours.

After the loss, Gregg Doyle of CBS Sports put out this great piece on why the First Four is basically a series of play-in games and that it is an “insult” to call it anything but. In the article, he wrote about how the Mount was being robbed of the full tournament experience since these games are being played outside of the main 64-team bracket that gets underway on Thursday and Friday. How the Mount gets snubbed of the full attention that playing in the full tournament comes with and that although the NCAA try their best to make it feel like an NCAA tournament experience, it really is just a glorified play-in game to play in the actual NCAA tourney.

While I full-heartedly agree with Doyle that these games are really glorified play-in games the NCAA wants to play up to fans and folks so they can legitimize the reasons why they accepted a 14-year, $10.8 billion television deal from CBS and Turner Sports (home of TBS, TNT and the channel you check out just in March, truTV) and with that expanded the 64-team field to 68 teams in April of 2010, there is a little more to it for schools in conferences like the NEC, America East, Big West and the SWAC and like everything else it comes down to what else, money.

In an article that Nicole Auerbach of USA Today wrote prior to this year’s NCAA tournament, she wrote on the other side of the First Four debate. Why teams and schools and their administration would rather play in a First Four than go straight into the 64-team field and be matched up with a 1-seed for their first game knowing their is very little chance of winning. The reason behind it, the possibility of taking home what is for both the school and the conference, something quite valuable. Something called a unit.

What is a unit? A unit is share of the winnings that goes to every winning school and conference for every win that team gets during the NCAA tournament. A unit is worth according to Auerbach’s article, $1.5 million (spread over six years). For a school and a conference like the NEC, this is big-time money.

Since the NCAA expanded from the 64-team field back in 2001 when they went to 65 teams and then to 68 teams in 2011, the NEC has played in the play-in games four times. Monmouth (2006) and Mount St. Mary’s (2008) won their play-in games and got to advance to play one-seeds. LIU Brooklyn (2013) and not Mount St. Mary’s (2014) lost in the ‘First Four’ games and didn’t get past day one. Both times they were the first team eliminated from the field.

It’s a tough catch-22 for schools in conferences like the NEC, America East and others that are usually candidates for being slotted into the 16-seed from a one-bid conference. You would like to see your team who earned the right to play in the main field and get the glory and attention that comes with it, having the entire nation focused in on your school and your conference. Yet, that carrot the NCAA puts out there of a unit share for every winner in the entire 68-team field, makes going to the First Four bearable, especially if you win.

That is the rub though. You have to win for it to feel like your school and your conference got something out of it. Albany and the America East benefited greatly from winning on Tuesday against Mount St. Mary’s. They got a game on national television, in the confines of the NCAA tournament and they WON! They take home an extra share and get further exposing as they move on to face the number one team in the nation at the moment in the Florida Gators. For the loser, they just go home. No more money, no more games, no further exposure. Done.

It is tough. But for a pair of 16-seeds from low majors, that is annual reality. It is the gamble that some coaches and administrators don’t mind taking because the rewards can be huge. But it is gamble, like anything else, when you gamble there are huge rewards and there are huge losses.

The NEC for two years in a row now have been sent to Dayton looking to reap a reward for going to this glorified play-in game and twice have come out of it with getting a short time in the spotlight and then getting nothing more.

I still feel the NEC’s time will come when they will win a game or two in the NCAA tournament, I do believe that. Yet, it is always a demoralizing feeling when you know your team’s season is over in a winnable game in something called a ‘First Four’ and you’re basically not really even a part of that unless they mean first four out.

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