Texas Southern and Norfolk State will carry the banner for historically black colleges and universities in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
And just like in previous seasons, the champions of the MEAC and SWAC will start their journey in the First Four.
Norfolk State will take on Appalachian State and Texas Southern will be pitted against Mount Saint Mary’s.
While just making it this deep into March is often cause for celebration for many programs that advance to the field of 68, the opening round games, however, have been criticized as sort of a scarlet letter for Black colleges.
When the NCAA expanded the field to 65 in 2001 with a single opening round game before transitioning to the current four-team format in 2011, there has only been one season in the last 20 years in which a Black college team hasn’t appeared.
Many observers have come to the conclusion that the NCAA Tournament selection committee has disproportionately placed Black college teams in these less desirable games only cements the relative inferiority of the conferences they represent.
But current SWAC Commissioner and Division I Men’s Basketball Committee member Charles McClelland doesn’t see it that way.
All the teams, he says, are judged fairly and are seeded based on overall record, the strength of schedule, and advanced individual team and conference metrics such as NET rating.
“Every team from one through 68 are looked at through the same matrix,” McClelland told HBCU Sports in a phone interview Wednesday. “There are several matrices that we look at.”
Those aspects include Quadrant teams and Quadrant wins. The highest-ranked teams in the tournament usually fall in the Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 tiers. This is where schools 1-75 are ranked. Quadrants 3 and 4 make up teams that are categorized 76-241 and beyond are ranked.
This is where the First Four participants normally find themselves.
“Conversely, when you start talking about the First Four, the majority do not have Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 wins,” said McClelland. “You then start looking at Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 losses.”
Norfolk State this season went 1-4 versus Quadrant 3 opponents and 12-7 against Quadrant 4 competition.
Texas Southern fared slightly better going 1-3 versus Quadrant 3 opponents and 14-5 versus Quadrant 4 opponents.
A (scheduling) philosophy within HBCU basketball programs
If the MEAC and SWAC want to attain better seeds and avoid the First Four, schools representing those leagues need more quality wins, particularly in the Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 range, McClelland said.
But that is often difficult for Black colleges that load up regular-season schedules with road games against Power 5 opponents as a way to generate much-needed revenue.
It is why McClelland has suggested schools schedule smartly moving forward through a system that would discourage teams ranked in the 200 to 300 range from agreeing to play the very best schools in the country.
Those outcomes “bring the entire conference down,” he said.
“It comes down to a philosophy within the Black colleges. Are you going to go out and get all of the money? Or are you going to try to put together a schedule that will allow winning?” said McClelland.
The inherent inequity with respect to resources has fostered the idea that automatic qualifiers that win conference tournaments should not be in the so-called “play-in game.” Instead, at-large teams — or the “last four in” types — need to be relegated there.
Texas Southern and Norfolk State — despite winning conference titles — are ranked 229 and 200, respectively by KenPom.
The last four teams to make the field for this year are Michigan State, UCLA, Wichita State, and Drake. Those teams combined to have an average KenPom ranking of 57.2.
‘Opportunity for us to get an additional unit’
Such a mandate would not promote equity at all. Doing so would essentially compromise the way in which the NCAA tournament selection committee determines how all 68 teams are seeded.
“It goes against the philosophy of this tournament to start rewarding teams that represent a resume that does not give that opportunity,” said McClelland.
The SWAC commissioner said it would be better for HBCUs to play in the First Four against similarly ranked opponents than to compete against a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and have very little chance at advancing.
The more games that a team plays in the NCAA Tournament, the more money it can potentially garner.
A portion of those dollars is given back to each Division I conference in distributions via the Basketball Performance Fund called “units.” Units are allocated based on the number of games each conference plays in the tournament.
Just appearing in the tournament, a school receives one unit for its conference. A win means another game and therefore another payout.
The data plays out like this: HBCUs since the expanded tournament has won five times in 17 opening-round games. All of them went on to lose in the round of 64. Black college teams that earn a No. 15 seed or better have advanced to the second round of 32 just four times over the years, including Norfolk State in 2012.
“The First Four for us provides an opportunity for a national spotlight and an opportunity for us to get an additional unit,” said McClelland. “As commissioner, I am 100 percent satisfied where Texas Southern is based on our matrix based upon who’ve they played and how they’ve won compared to everyone else.”
The overarching solution in the end for those who might be aggrieved about HBCUs consistently deployed to the First Four is for individual schools and conferences as a whole to markedly improve.
“It’s about their ability to go out and get good games and win those games,” McClelland said.