VCU, The Bubble, and NCAA Tournament Expansion

Virginia Commonwealth’s run to the Final Four doesn’t validate the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decision to include the Rams in the field, just as UAB’s poor showing doesn’t prove they were a bad choice. The discussion about which teams belong in the field and those teams’ performance once the Tourney begins are two separate things.

If you felt VCU had done enough before Selection Sunday to warrant a spot in the field—and more than other teams that were left out—then fine; and if not, OK. What they’ve accomplished so far is irrelevant. I’m guessing the committee members are taking some satisfaction in VCU’s run, though.

Given its appearance in the “First Four,” the play-in games to get into the original opening round of the Tournament, we know that VCU was one of the last four teams in. We can’t be certain they were one of the last three and therefore would not have qualified under previous years’ 65-team format, but it’s a very safe bet. If VCU found itself with the same profile compared to the rest of the field last year, it almost certainly would have been in the NIT.

And who knows, maybe in a 65-team Tournament Clemson doesn’t have to play an extra game and then travel halfway across the country for an early tip 36 hours later, perhaps allowing the Tigers to go on a run. Maybe Southern Cal gets in without having to face VCU in a play-in game and they take the same path the Rams did to reach Houston. These teams can’t complain because they did at least control their own destiny. The point is, adding more teams certainly doesn’t increase the chances of a magic run like VCU’s.

As I noted in my Final Four preview, this was a positive consequence of expansion but still doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for college basketball.

A Final Four banner will be hanging here next season. (Credit: Mentes)

The annual arguments over the last few teams to get bids can get exhausting. My thought has always been that any team that finds itself on the bubble had plenty of opportunities to secure a place in the field, especially if it is from a power conference. The teams themselves should never be criticized on Selection Sunday—they don’t have to apologize for receiving invites—and sometimes the committee backlash is a bit harsh.

But VCU has reminded us what George Mason highlighted in 2006: those last few spots do matter. We assume none of those teams have a shot at the national championship, but can we really believe that anymore? VCU is a small underdog against Butler and would be projected to have a better chance in the finals than it supposedly did against Purdue or Kansas.

Getting into the Tournament matters. Advancing to the Sweet 16 matters. A Final Four appearance is obviously extremely special. These are the types of things that have effects on recruiting, merchandise sales, applications to the school, and coaching decisions (as far as hirings, firings, and raises).

VCU’s run is why Seth Greenberg is livid every year. Virginia Tech has never had a Final Four caliber team, but no bubble team—VCU included—is ever considered a threat to advance that far. We have examples that show us it is possible though: The team that very well might have been the last team in the field has reached the Final Four twice in the last six years. So yes, the post-Selection Show bubble talk can get excessive because, let’s face it, it’s a subjective process and all decisions are final, but it is important.

One thought on “VCU, The Bubble, and NCAA Tournament Expansion”

  1. I agree that the discussion about which teams belong in the field and those teams’ performance once the Tourney begins are two separate things. However, I think that adding more at-large teams does increase the chances of a magic run like VCU’s because at-large teams are more likely to be legit than a team that wins its conference tournament. I would agree with you if tournament expansion was about adding three more automatic qualifiers from lower profile conferences.My Final Four prediction: Butler defeats Kentucky in a thriller.

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