Hampton University will try catching lightning in a bottle again tonight, 14 years after the last time the Pirates won a game and advanced to the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
But in 2001, Hampton wasn't subject to the nonsense known as the play-in game, or as the NCAA now calls it, the First Four round of the tournament. Before 2001, seeding in the NCAA was easy: for any Division I school, win your conference tourney and you’re in. No matter how small, a conference title meant an automatic bid in the round of 64 and more importantly, a share of the TV money that came with it. The absence of the play-in game is what allowed one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament, when, 18 years ago, MEAC conference champion Coppin State smashed #2 seed South Carolina in what was then the first round of the tournament, 78-65.
Since then, the play-in game -- better yet, the First Four farce-- has been a burden for small conference schools, especially HBCUs, who now win their conference title game only to have to play one more game for the right to make it to the round of 64. Then, after traveling one extra time and playing one extra game, they’re fed to a powerhouse #1 or #2 seed, with predictable results.
Want to know just how ridiculous the First-Four farce is? Since the play-in games were instituted in 2001, nine of the 20 teams to appear in those games were schools from the HBCU conferences, the MEAC and the SWAC. That’s more than any other conference. And of those play-in appearances, the black schools’ record is an overall 2-7.
The NCAA, of course, defends this chicanery. In fact, it doesn't even call them play-in games officially, arguing that the First Four is actually a round of the NCAA tournament, not a game that teams have to play just to make it in. It says that it's actually better for schools like Hampton this way, because they get a share of the TV money whether or not they lose in the opening round. But conveniently, it’s a game that the Kentuckys, Gonzagas and Wisconsins of the world never have to survive to make it to the real big dance. Only the HBCU conference champs and schools from a few other small conferences have that burden. One of the primary reasons that the play-in round exists is to save big conference schools the potential embarrassment of losing on national TV, the way the Gamecocks folded to Coppin’s Eagles in ‘97, or MIssouri buckled to Norfolk State in ‘12, or Iowa State crashed and burned to Hampton’s Pirates in ‘01.
Those victories are rare for HBCU programs because they are always outgunned by schools playing with NBA-bound athletes and athletic budgets that are sometimes as large as the entire operating budgets of schools like Hampton. But as Hampton has proven before, rare doesn't mean impossible.
It’s time for the NCAA to end the First Four farce and give HBCUs the shot at Cinderella glory they've earned.