Monday, March 16, 2009

LTG 03-15-09: Jay Bilas, elitist five-head

(Published in the Omaha CityWeekly during the week of 03-15-09)

Yes, it’s true. March Madness can even affect your faithful Law-Talking Guy. So this week, in honor of the upcoming tournament, allow me to engage in a little lawyer-on-lawyer basketball conflict.

On ESPN.com, Jay Bilas, noted college basketball analyst, attorney, and Duke graduate, opined that the automatic bid rule should be removed from the process of selecting the 65 teams who participate in the men’s Division I college basketball tournament. For those unfamiliar with the process, 31 of the 65 teams in the tournament receive an automatic bid from their respective conferences, usually by winning a conference tournament at the end of the season. The remaining 34 bids are awarded by a committee tasked to choose the best remaining 34 teams in the country.

Of course, every year there is controversy about which teams were selected as one of the 34 at-large teams, and which ones were left out. Bilas argues that the controversy could be alleviated by eliminating the 31 automatic bids and having all 65 teams selected by a committee.

The basis of Bilas’ argument is that the automatic bid recipients are not necessarily the most “deserving” teams to receive an invitation to the tournament. Many of the automatic bids go to schools from very small conferences, and those conference champions have not assembled the body of work throughout the season to be competitive with schools from larger conferences. Therefore, Bilas argues, we should force all those schools to “earn” their way into the tournament.

Before proceeding to disagree vehemently with Bilas, however, I should note a personal bias. As a Creighton fan, I tend to favor schools from smaller conferences over mid-level schools from larger conferences. Having said that, this year Creighton did not get an invitation to the tournament in large part because teams such as Mississippi State and Cleveland State received automatic bids, stealing spots that most likely would have gone to the Bluejays. So I think I can speak with some degree of moral clarity on the issue.

The primary problem with Bilas’ argument is that it is based on a faulty premise. If we adopt Bilas’ premise, the tournament would be even more dominated by large-conference teams than it is now. Because there are so many teams in Division I college basketball, it would be impossible for everyone to play everyone else. Therefore, one of the primary tools to pick between teams is their strength of schedule. If two teams have equal records, it is more likely the team that played the tougher schedule will get the tournament invitation.

It’s a solid premise, but the devil is in the details. Large-conference teams will always have an advantage in strength of schedule based on the conference in which they play. Smaller-conference teams have to play tougher teams in their non-conference schedule to make up the difference. And the larger-conference teams have no incentive to schedule small-conference teams with any degree of fairness. A team like Creighton will never get a large-conference team to play the Bluejays unless Creighton agrees to give the large-conference team an unfair advantage, such as only playing at the large-conference team’s home gym, or playing once in Omaha and three times at the large-conference team’s gym, or being required to wear wooden shoes.

Bilas also argues that the automatic bid process hasn’t helped small-conference teams get better. He raises, in true lawyer fashion, the straw-man argument of the Hampton Pirates, who beat a two-seeded Iowa State team in a huge upset, but have done nothing since then.

I know, can you believe Iowa State was a two-seed at one point?

But Bilas conveniently ignores the smaller-conference schools that have gotten better – a lot better – over the last few years. Look at teams like Butler, or Gonzaga, that are teams from small-conference schools that have been able to increase their exposure – and therefore their recruiting ability – due to their regular entry into the tournament. Creighton’s gaudy attendance records come in large part from their ability in the past few years to get the national attention and exposure that comes from an automatic bid. For heaven’s sake, Memphis was last year’s national runner-up, a team that has built up their exposure and recruiting in no small part because of the automatic bid they are able to earn from their conference.

College football has figured out a way to keep a system in place that protects the large-conference schools and prevents small-conference schools from having any meaningful access to competing at the highest level. That’s bad for college football, but it’s very good for the large-conference schools, as it protects both their image and their revenue sources.

In college basketball, the scales are tilted already in favor of the large-conference teams, but at least the small-conference schools have a chance to compete. If we are going to consider rule changes, we should be looking to make the system more fair – like changing the rules to require large-conference schools to give small-conference schools a fair chance to play regular season games, or at least give small-conference schools credit for attempting to schedule those games.

Bilas’ proposal to eliminate the automatic bid tilts the process further in favor of the large-conference schools. It therefore makes the process less fair, not more. There is no one who doesn’t get a check from a large-conference school that thinks college football does things right in determining their champion. Why would we want to make college basketball more like the failed system of college football? I know you get a good education from Duke, but that’s pretty dumb.

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