COLUMN: Illogical play-in hindered Trojans

When the Trojans’ run in the NCAA tourney ended on Sunday, I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed — not in the team, but in its seeding.

The majority of NCAA seeding is a complete mystery. It’s fairly obvious that the top four teams should take the No. 1 seeds and the rest should work its way down from there. But how did three Pac-12 teams finish in the top 10 of the postseason AP poll only to end up with No. 2 and No. 3 seeds? How did an SMU team ranked at No. 11 somehow fall nine slots for tournament seedings?

And, most importantly, how did USC end up scrabbling for a spot in a First Four game despite notching a school-best 26 wins in a conference as competitive as the Pac-12? Clear answers are few and far between, but one thing is obvious: The Trojans’ seeding directly affected their ability to perform in the postseason.

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the most optimistic fan when it came to USC’s postseason prospects. I grew up on Kansas basketball, so I’ve grown accustomed to a high caliber of expectations for how my team will progress in the Big Dance. But as the tourney neared, I was baffled by the nationwide scrutiny of the Trojans’ ability to even make the bracket.

The Pac-12 might not be the toughest conference in the NCAA, but it’s not a walk in the park, either. Getting banged up by teams like Arizona is nothing to be ashamed of, and the fact that USC hung with Oregon and took down UCLA speaks to the talent that the young squad has to offer. Yet somehow, a few road beatings and a couple of unfortunate losses to lesser teams like Arizona State left the Trojans on the edge of that precarious bubble.

The national view of the
Pac-12 is a different tangent that can be argued at length another day. But the way that USC was treated in particular in the postseason is impossible to understand. 

When the final bracket is decided, the First Four games are selected. These four games are played between the final eight teams to make the Big Dance, with the winners continuing onto the Round of 64. In theory, this part of the play-in system makes sense — it allows the bottom tier of talent to duke it out on an even playing field, giving lower-ranked teams the opportunity to fight for their spot in the tournament.

That would seem completely equitable if these First Four games were fighting for 16-seeds, therefore establishing the bottom of the bracket. But in 2016, the NCAA split the First Four so that two teams fight for a
16-seed, while the other two fight for an 11-seed.

Why? Yeah, I don’t have an answer to that one. But the result is that two mid-ranked teams won’t even make it into the round of 64, while two lesser teams’ tickets are automatically punched. It’s not fair, and it quite simply doesn’t make sense.

The matchup between Providence and USC illustrated exactly why this new system is ridiculous. In the NCAA rankings provided alongside the seedings, USC was ranked No. 45 while Providence was ranked
No. 42. If the bracket followed a simple top-down ranking system, that would’ve placed both teams in 11-seed or 12-seed positions, right in the middle of the first-round action.

Instead, the teams were forced to play-in for their spot in the first round. Both teams suffered as a result — Providence, due to its loss, was robbed of making back-to-back appearances in the Round of 64, while USC was forced to play three games in the span of five days.

In those five days, the Trojans proved their grit, overcoming a 17-point deficit to roar back against Providence before toppling SMU to advance to the second round of the tourney. The starting five and the bench stepped up to play some of the Trojans’ best basketball, with every player from freshman Nick Rakocevic to junior veteran Jordan McLaughlin carving an impactful performance into their postseason play.

But by the time the Trojans reached Baylor on their fifth day of dancing, it was clear that there was only so much fight left in them. They were, quite simply, exhausted. And although they went down swinging, the team had run out of gas by the end of their close matchup against the No. 3 seed.

The game was only decided by 4 points — an impressive feat for a team that remained unranked for the majority of the season facing off against a former AP No. 1 squad. Some loyal fans might even argue that a few different calls by the referees could have given the Trojans the win.

The bottom line, however, is that USC simply didn’t have the energy to push itself through the final minutes of Sunday’s game. But if it had, Trojan fans may have seen a conceivable path to the Final Four, with four of the East bracket’s top-five seeds eliminated (including Baylor).

A spot in the First Four is not necessarily a death sentence for teams. At least one First Four team has made it to the Round of 32 since it was first introduced in 2011, including the Virginia Commonwealth squad that scrapped its way to the Final Four that year. Being the underdog certainly has its perks, and that was clear even for USC in the team’s first two games of the tourney.

But the toil of playing three games in that short period of time clearly takes its toll on the First Four teams. None of those teams remains in the tournament, despite impressive showings from Rhode Island and USC. And although the 16-seeds were clearly overmatched — UC Davis, for instance, took a 100-62 beating in the first round from Kansas — the 11-seeds that played in put up fights that showed flashes of postseason brilliance that weren’t given a proper chance to flourish.

The play-in round makes sense when based on ranking. But the NCAA’s decision to split the seeding this way is only hurting teams that have already earned their place in the tourney.

It’s hard to predict how any team will fare in the postseason (just ask Villanova). But if it weren’t for this year’s seeding in the First Four, our Trojans might still be dancing.

Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs on Wednesdays.

1 reply
  1. Steve
    Steve says:

    Interesting perspective Julia. Agree with your views on the NCAA seeding logic. Never made any sense at all. Play in teams should all be fighting for the 16th slot. My opinion. But getting to the Baylor game. I did not see fatigue as a big issue. Of course it was harder on SC to recover vs. Baylor given the span of games and time they each experienced a different hand dealt. But watching the game the Trojans did not appear to be tired at all. They lived and died by 3’s and in the end the 3’s were rushed and perhaps not even needed with 2 mins to go and the game still very close and competitive. SC never quit and for that Im very impressed with Enfield and staff as they were ready. With a strong recruiting class and a little luck and thus loyalty from our NBA candidates we may be very strong next year. Fight On!

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