McFeely: To First Four or not to First Four, that is the question

As Bison await NCAA fate, it's up for debate whether it's better for them to have play-in game or go directly to field of 64
North Dakota State men's basketball players celebrate Tuesday night's Summit League Tournament championship at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.    Dick Carlson / Inertia
North Dakota State men's basketball players celebrate Tuesday night's Summit League Tournament championship at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia Dick Carlson / Inertia

Fargo

There seems little doubt North Dakota State's basketball team will be a 16 seed for the NCAA tournament. That is the lowest possible seeding for the 68-team field set to be announced Sunday, reserved for the teams with the least-impressive resumes from the weakest conferences.

While the Bison's Summit League tournament championship that earned them an automatic berth in the NCAAs was impressive and exhilarating because it was so unexpected, the reality is NDSU will enter the Big Dance as one of the bottom handful of teams in the field. The Bison's NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking, a key tool the selection committee uses to choose and seed teams, was 222nd out of 353 Division I teams as of Thursday, March 14.

Of all the schools that earned automatic bids by winning their conference tournaments as of Thursday, the Bison were the lowest ranked. There will likely be a team or two yet to gain an automatic bid that will have a lower NET ranking, but not enough to bump up the Bison to a 15 seed. Then again, it's the NCAA. So never say never.

The only real question for the Bison, it seems, is whether they will be one of four 16 seeds sent to Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday or Wednesday next week to play in the so-called First Four round, or if they'd be one of two 16 seeds put directly into the final 64.

(Mike McFeely talked with The Athletic bracketologist Brian Bennett about why Bennett believes NDSU will be one of the First Four teams in the NCAA tournament. You can listen in the podcast below.)

Confused? Yeah, so is everybody else, including some of the hoop heads burning up their laptops at NDSU trying to figure out what in the name of Bill Raftery is going to happen. In the Bison's three previous NCAA appearances, they've not played a First Four game. NDSU was a 14 seed in 2009 (before the advent of the First Four), a 12 seed in 2014 and a 15 seed in 2015.

The First Four is an NCAA brainchild instituted in 2011 that expanded the tournament field to 68 from the longstanding 64. The games are contested between teams holding the four lowest seeded automatic bids and the four lowest seeded at-large bids. It was a way for the NCAA to get more major-conference at-large teams in the field while still allowing lower conferences to get their auto bids. It was also a way to have four additional nationally televised games worked into the TV contract and have four sold-out games in Dayton, allowing the NCAA to milk even more money from its cash cow.

Some believe NDSU is almost guaranteed to be placed in the First Four because of their low NET ranking.

Others believe the Bison could sneak out of the early-week games and be placed directly into a regional site.

And there is this question: Which would NDSU prefer? A First Four matchup would be a good chance to win an NCAA tournament game before a likely pounding by a No. 1 seed, while going directly to play a top seed would make for a smoother week and a guaranteed spot in the final 64.

"Obviously we're really excited to be in the tournament and a part of March Madness," Bison coach Dave Richman said when asked which scenario he prefers. "We'll be looking forward to going wherever the selection committee sends us and competing against whomever we're seeded against."

Yawn. It'd be fun if just once Richman said something like, "BRING ON THE TAR HEELS!"

"To me, there's positives and negatives to both," NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said. "I think those first games used to be viewed as sort of a negative, like the last teams in and maybe they didn't deserve it. But now I think people view it was an opportunity to have the stage to yourself and have a winnable game before you move on to play one of the top teams. I can see it both ways."

The coach and AD didn't have an inkling of the Bison's selection fate. When dealing with the NCAA selection committee, it truly is a crapshoot for lower-seeded teams. But many others have opinions of where NDSU might end up and who they might play.

Brian Bennett, bracketologist for The Athletic web site, is convinced the Bison will be part of the First Four based on their NET ranking. His belief is NDSU will play Fairleigh Dickinson of the Northeast Conference in Dayton. Bennett's other 16-seed matchup in Dayton is Prairie View A&M of the Southwestern Athletic Conference playing Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is strictly predictive because those leagues finish their tournaments Saturday.

"I don't know how much the NCAA selection committee is going to adhere exactly to those NET rankings, but if they go just by those numbers they are definitely going to have a hard time putting North Dakota State outside the First Four," Bennett said.

Bennett pointed to the Bison's 16-15 record against Division I competition as a major mark against them. Given NDSU's low ranking, other metrics used in the NET rankings obviously don't bode well, either.

This is the first year the NCAA is using NET, developed to replace the outdated Rating Percentage Index (RPI) as a more accurate way of analyzing teams. NET, according to the NCAA, uses "game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses" to rank teams. Most college basketball experts expect the NCAA to rely heavily on NET, if only because the organization came up with the formula.

"I think if it's like the RPI, it will be pretty important," Bennett said.

CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm also has NDSU in Dayton, but he has the Bison playing Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Others have NDSU ranked higher. Joe Lunardi of ESPN predicts NDSU will be sent directly to the field of 64, matching up as a 16 seed against 1 seed North Carolina in the Midwest Regional in Columbia, S.C.

The web site bracketmatrix.com also has the Bison outside the bottom four teams. It has NDSU ranked 64th, ahead of Iona, Fairleigh Dickinson, Norfolk State and Prairie View A&M. And, if the Southland Conference champion is neither Sam Houston State nor Abilene Christian, the Bison would move up a spot in bracketmatrix.com's rankings.

"I vacillate between the two scenarios," Summit League commissioner Tom Douple said. "If you get in the First Four, you have a better percentage shot of winning a tournament game. But I don't know that I have a preference. I'm just excited to see who they're going to play."

A game in Dayton would also mean a better chance of NDSU getting a bigger cut of the NCAA's cash. The Summit League distributes about $100,000 to each member per year from the money it receives from the NCAA basketball tournament. The school that receives the automatic bid receives an additional $35,000, plus it would receive $35,000 from each game it won in the tournament.

Bennett is still not a fan of the First Four.

"I don't like it because I think if you win your conference you should be in the real field," he said. "You ought to be rewarded, playing on a Thursday or Friday in a 16 vs. 1 game and not playing another 16 seed. Now, there is some advantage to playing in the 16 vs. 16 game. It'd be a lot easier game to win than playing a Kentucky or a Duke or whatever. You do get an NCAA tournament victory out of it, you do get the money out of it, and that can help an athletic department or a conference. So that is something."