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Posted: Thursday February 19, 2009 12:59PM; Updated: Thursday February 19, 2009 4:39PM
Seth Davis Seth Davis >
COLLEGE BASKETBALL MAILBAG

Readers weigh in with fix-it ideas for the NCAA tournament, more

Story Highlights

Ideas to fix the NCAA tournament focus on changing the play-in game

Illini fans were furious with Illinois' exclusion from the ballot

More on Gary Williams and Maryland and honoring Skip Prosser

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Illinois' woes on the road kept them off of the one hoop thinkers' AP ballot.
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Seth Davis's Mailbag
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
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The passionate Hoop Thinkers who visit this space are certainly not short on ideas on how to improve the greatest spectacle in American sports, the NCAA tournament. On Tuesday, I wrote that I was vehemently against the idea of expanding the tournament, and I'm happy to report that I did not receive a single e-mail from a reader disagreeing with my position. The people have spoken -- at least to me.

I did, however, get several ideas on how to improve the format. The best idea came from this reader:

One question I have not heard a real answer to is why the opening-round (read "play-in") game is played between the bottom two automatic bid teams instead of the last two at-large teams in. Wouldn't the latter setup be better for all parties? The game would be a much bigger TV and attendance draw if it featured, say, Kentucky and Georgetown, or even South Carolina and Michigan. The more important benefit would be that teams from minor conferences who have dreamed of winning their leagues just to get beat by 40 by Carolina on a big, national stage would not have to go through one more team to see that fulfilled.
-- Casey Hart, Cambridge, Mass.

First of all, a little history. Prior to the 2000-01 season, the Western Athletic Conference split into two leagues, the WAC and the Mountain West. That meant that instead of having 30 leagues that would earn automatic bids to the tournament, there were now 31. Add that to the 34 at-large bids already in place, and you have a 65-team field.

What to do? Well, you could do the logical thing and trim the at-large field from 34 to 33, but that would mean taking money out of the pockets of one of the major conferences. You know that wasn't going to happen. So the NCAA's answer, as usual, was to screw the little guys. Thus, the NCAA's membership -- not the men's basketball committee, but the schools themselves -- voted to create the opening round game. And instead of putting two BCS teams into the game, they went with the two lowest-rated automatic qualifiers.

The basketball committee has done everything it can to treat the opening-round game as part of the tournament, including their insistence that it be called an opening-round game instead of a "play-in" game, even though we all know that's exactly what it is. The teams in that game are paid the same "unit" that they would earn if they were already in the first round. Still, as Casey has pointed out, the upshot is that it has made it that much harder for two of the smaller conference teams to get their shots at the big boys.

So count me as on board with this idea. Either place the last two at-large teams into the opening-round game, or get rid of the game altogether and trim the at-large field to 33 teams.

What do you think about requiring teams to have at least a .500 record in their conference to be eligible for the NCAA tournament? This would eliminate the lesser teams in the major conferences but open it up for more mid-majors.
-- Brett Sexton, Westfield, Ind.

This suggestion is made often, but I'm opposed to it. The presence of the automatic qualifiers gives teams from less prestigious conferences a shot at making the tournament. If your goal beyond that is to select the best 34 teams, then you cannot have one blanket rule like this that applies to all conferences. We know that all conferences are not created equal. Also, we have to constantly keep in mind that because of the imbalanced schedules, all conferences' records are no longer equal either, even inside the same conference. You have to look at who teams have played to truly assess their tournament worthiness.

However, Brett's question underscores the fact that most fans want to see the committee grant more access to the mid-majors, not less. Their presence is the one feature of the NCAA tournament that makes it so different -- and so much better -- than any other American sporting event. I hope the grand poobahs keep that in mind whenever they consider altering the format of this wonderful event.

I am always amused to see how many e-mails I get regarding my weekly AP ballot. Even though everyone knows the poll is just a meaningless exercise, the fans take it seriously!

Much of the carping came from from Illinois fans, who skewered me for leaving their beloved Illini off my ballot completely. (They ended up being voted 16th by the coaches and 18th by the AP.)

I realize as much as the next guy that Illinois isn't a great team this year. That said, they have beaten Purdue twice (home and away), blew out Missouri on a neutral court and blew out Ohio State at home. Those teams are 13, 14 and 23 on your ballot. These teams are five and nine on your ballot. Minnesota game -- argh, but no worse than the Duke loss the next week.
-- Steve Sherwood, St. Louis, Mo.

The easy riposte here would be to point out that Illinois scored just 33 points in its loss to Penn State Wednesday night, but in all fairness Steve's e-mail (just like my ballot) was written before that game. Poll voting is obviously not an exact science. Sometimes I hew to results, sometimes I go purely by feel, but the key point to remember is that I try to vote in real time. My goal is to rank teams based on where I think they are at this very moment.

Like a lot of teams (especially in the Big Ten), Illinois has a hard time winning on the road. Yes, they won at Purdue, but that was back on Dec. 30. Since then, they have lost at Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota (where they scored just 36 points) and Wisconsin. Their two road wins in the league were at Northwestern (where they trailed by 14 and needed a bucket by Demetri McCamey with 2.9 seconds left to win by one) and at Indiana.

Meanwhile, the last six teams on my ballot were Xavier, Dayton, Gonzaga, Ohio State, LSU and West Virginia. You can make a case that Illinois is just as good as any of them, but it's hard to make a case that Illinois is absolutely, positively better than all of them. If the Illini win at Columbus on Saturday, they'll be back on my ballot next week. But as the loss to Penn State (at home!) showed, right now, they are just a pretty good team amongst many pretty good teams.

No doubt UCLA isn't the top 10 team some claimed they were, but you went way overboard this week with your UCLA/Arizona comparison. Here are some things to keep in mind. UCLA dismantled Arizona 83-60 a few weeks ago. Arizona is 2-6 on the road, with the only wins coming against the Oregon schools. UCLA is ahead of Arizona in the Pac-10 standings. In the last three weeks, UCLA has outscored its opponents, including two bubble teams (USC, Notre Dame) and an NCAA tourney lock (Cal) by an average of 12 points, even if you include the two losses this past weekend.
-- Ryan Rosenblatt, Los Angeles

Good points all, but again, I am trying to vote based on where I think teams are at this moment. Yes, the Bruins waxed Arizona on Jan. 15, but as the Wildcats' seven-game winning streak (including last Saturday's drubbing of UCLA) showed, they are vastly improved since then. Is Arizona's streak the result of playing lesser competition? Perhaps. The Wildcats' next three games are on the road against Arizona State, Washington State and Washington. If they lose, they'll be off my ballot. As to the other three teams Ryan cited, none of them were on my ballot, either.

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