March Madness: A Brief History of the NCAA Tournament At-Large Bid

By 5:00 CT on Sunday, fans of the Washington, Drexel, Texas, South Florida, and Iona men’s basketball teams will have eaten their fill of keratin anxiously waiting to find out whether Greg Gumbel will call their team’s name.

The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Selection Show will end nearly two months of speculation about which teams have done enough to warrant an invitation to the Big Dance. During the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday experts such as our own Andy Bottoms apply their knowledge of the selection process and of the teams that can make a compelling case for an invitation to predict which teams will be in the field of 64.

Of course, the vast majority of Division I teams enter the month of March with the opportunity to clinch an NCAA Tourney bid, sparing their fans an afternoon of nail-biting. 31 of 32 conference champions (sorry Great West) get to play, regardless of what the Selection Committee thinks of them. 30 of these teams are conference tournament winners.

The other 37 invitations have given birth to the cottage Bracketology industry and the concept of the NCAA Tournament Bubble. Unlike professional leagues, which select “wild card” playoff teams based on win-loss record, the NCAA employees a ten-person committee to hand out invitations to its championship. The committee compares teams using several soft criteria, and teams that didn’t qualify automatically can’t be certain of their fate until the bracket comes out on Selection Sunday.

“Back in my day, you had to win your conference to play for a championship.”

The NCAA hasn’t always extended at-large invitations.

The NCAA basketball tournament debuted in 1939, and for the first twelve years teams qualified by winning one of eight district tournaments. The eight district winners would then compete for a national championship. In 1951, the NCAA expanded the field to 16 teams: ten conference winners and six independents. The rule at the time allowed for only one team per conference.

Kansas State and BYU compete in the West Regional of the 1951 NCAA Tournament.

It seems strange now to fill more than a third of the field with independents, but in 1951 42 Division I teams, including seven of the teams in the final AP Top 20 didn’t belong to a conference. By 1973, there were 72 independents, including national powers Notre Dame, Marquette, and Houston. (Back then the NCAA negotiated television deals for all of its schools, so there was less incentive for a school to join a conference. When schools won the right to do their own deals, they flocked to conferences because conferences were better positioned than individual schools to negotiate with TV networks.)

These independents garnered the first “at large” invitations, since they didn’t have a conference to win. But the NCAA couldn’t simply fill its bracket with the independent schools that had the best record or most impressive résumés. The NCAA had to compete for teams with the NIT, a tournament that was just as prestigious and considered by some to be a national championship in its own right. Many independents, including the Seton Hall team that went 30-2 in 1953, opted to go to New York for the NIT instead of to Iowa City or Stillwater, Oklahoma for the NCAAs. In the days before every game was broadcast on TV and/or the Internet, teams gained more exposure from playing in Madison Square Garden than they did by going elsewhere.

Lawyers for the NIT in a 2005 antitrust suit against the NCAA introduced evidence that, as early as 1957, the NCAA was bullying schools into playing in its tournament instead of the NIT. That case was settled out of court when the NCAA bought the NIT.

In 1953 the field increased to 22 teams: 17 conference winners and five independents. For the next 21 seasons the NCAA Tournament invited 22-25 teams, maintaining the rule that each conference could only send one representative. As the NCAA Tournament grew in prestige, top teams that didn’t win their conference grew unhappy about their exclusion. In 1970 South Carolina ended the season as the number six team in the country with a perfect 14-0 record in the ACC. But NC State won the ACC Tournament, and South Carolina was denied a chance to play for a national championship. The following season, the other USC, Southern Cal, was one of the best teams in the country. But the Trojans had the misfortune of playing in the same conference as number-one UCLA, so they could not secure an NCAA Tournament invitation.

Because most conferences at the time didn’t have a tournament, teams often tied for a conference championship. But the one-bid-per-league rule forced conferences to send only one of their champions to the tournament.

The Introduction of the At-Large Bid

In 1974, to pacify second-place (and tied-for-first-place) teams and to further damage the NIT, the NCAA introduced the Collegiate Commissioners Association Tournament. The first CCAT invited eight second-place finishers including Indiana (the eventual winner) and USC (the eventual runner-up).

The CCAT lasted only two seasons because, in 1975, the NCAA expanded to 32 teams and finally allowed more than one team per conference. That year, Indiana and Michigan represented the Big Ten; Kentucky and Alabama represented the SEC; Kansas and Kansas State represented the Big 8; and Louisville and New Mexico State represented the Missouri Valley.

Despite the addition of the at-large conference teams, from 1975 through 1984 all of the champions were conference winners or independents. (In 1983 North Carolina State finished fourth in the ACC but won the ACC Tournament, clinching the automatic bid.) Finally in 1985 Villanova, an at-large team that tied for third in the Big East and didn’t win the conference tournament, won the national championship over conference rival Georgetown. Other notable at-large teams to win the title include Kansas in 1988, Michigan in 1989, Arizona in 1997, and Syracuse in 2003.

Villanova made the most of its at-large bid in 1985, upsetting Georgetown to win a national championship.

As more conferences joined Division I or formed among independents (such as the Big East and Metro conferences), the NCAA field increased. In 1979, the first year in which teams were seeded, 40 teams made the tournament. The following year the NCAA invited 48 teams. The field increased to 52 in 1983 then 53 in 1984 before settling on 64 in 1985.

By the 1990s the NCAA Tournament had stabilized. The 64-team field each year included 30 conference winners and 34 at-large teams. But things got messy in 1999 when eight schools left the WAC to form the Mountain West Conference. Awarding an automatic bid to the new conference would take away an at-large bid. And, for some reason, conferences and school presidents insisted that there be 34 at-large invitations. (They were less concerned about the women’s tournament, which eliminated an at-large bid and stuck at 64.) To stay at 34, the NCAA added an Opening Round game between two of five 16 seeds.

Last year the NCAA added three more at-large invitations. But two of these new at-large teams must play a First Four game on Tuesday or Wednesday before joining the conventional 64-team bracket.

A Subjective Endeavor

Selecting non-conference winners has always been a subjective endeavor. There is no hard criteria for determining which teams make the field and which do not. As any college basketball fan knows well, the Selection Committee considers factors such as won-loss record, quality wins, bad losses, strength of schedule, and record in road and neutral games.

Northwestern: at the mercy of the always unpredictable Selection Committee (Photo by Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press)

The NCAA introduced the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in 1981 to give the Selection Committee a tool for selecting at-large teams and seeding the field. The RPI formula is (0.25 • a team’s winning percentage) + (0.5 • a team’s opponents’ winning percentage) + (0.25 • a team’s opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage). In 2004 the NCAA adjusted the formula, giving more weight to road games. (A road game counts as 1.4 games; a neutral-site game counts as 1 game; a home game counts as 0.6 games.)

As the 2006 Missouri State Bears could tell you, teams don’t earn NCAA Tourney invitations based on RPI alone. That team finished the season ranked 21st in the RPI but had to settle for the NIT. The Bears were the highest-ranked team ever in the RPI not to play in the NCAA Tournament. By contrast New Mexico made the field in 1999 despite being ranked 74th in the RPI.

The RPI is less a tool for judging teams than it is a tool for judging the quality of a team’s wins and losses. Teams get credit for wins against the top 50 teams and suffer for losses against teams ranked 200 or worse.

RPI ratings were an enigma to teams and fans alike until 1992, when The Collegiate Basketball News and The RPI Report published them and the NCAA provided data to member schools.

So while you’re doing irreparable damage to your cuticles waiting to find out whether Northwestern or Seton Hall or Oral Roberts will be playing on truTV next week, you can distract yourself by reflecting on the long, rich history of at-large NCAA Tournament bids.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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