The First Four has become a showcase for HBCUs

DAYTON — At around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, Prairie View A&M coach Byron Smith took his seat on the dais for his team’s postgame press conference. To his right, seniors Dennis Jones and Gary Blackston. To his left, the moderator.

The four looked out at a sea of 42 empty seats and just two reporters. Two reporters out of 240 credentialed media at the First Four wanted to hear from the team that lost the first game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Smith gave a brief opening statement, then one reporter asked the players one question, and they were dismissed. The same reporter asked Smith two questions before the coach walked off the stage, his head down and the only sound coming from ambient crowd noise filtering in from the arena bowl a few feet away.

Prairie View had its two hours on the national stage, but as soon as the final buzzer sounded in an 82-76 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, the Panthers faded back into obscurity.

They’ll lose Blackston, Jones, and fellow seniors Iwin Ellis and Taishaun Johnson next year, meaning they’ll also lose 46 percent of their scoring. They likely won’t be favored to repeat in the SWAC, meaning this could be the least we hear from the historically black college (HBCU) from Prairie View, Texas for quite some time.

We will, however, probably see the SWAC champion right back in Dayton next year.

The SWAC is one of two Division I conferences comprised entirely of HBCUs (the MEAC is the other), and both routinely rank among the worst men’s basketball leagues in the country. Consequently, the conference champions are often sent to Dayton to play in the First Four, which is reserved for the worst four automatic qualifiers and worst four at-large teams each year.

Since the First Four was added to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, at least one HBCU has been sent there every season. From 2011 to 2017, it was either the MEAC or SWAC champion. The last two years, it has been both.

For many HBCUs, the problem comes down to a lack of resources. Prairie View A&M athletic director Fred Washington explained that his school is defined as a Limited Resource Institution (LRI), which means it ranks in the bottom 15 percent in Division I athletics spending.

He says that one area where his duties differ significantly from ADs at other universities is the lack of depth to his staff. For example, while some schools have academic advisors or tutors dedicated specifically to one team or sport, advisors at Prairie View are spread thin, meaning they cannot offer the same type of specialized academic help that others can, even at the mid-major level. Naturally, this also means less money to spend on facilities and athletics staff, putting LRIs at a competitive disadvantage. And yet, Washington points out that fans still expect the same level of on-court success that other universities can achieve.

When USA Today published reported athletic finances from 2016-17, it showed that out of 230 schools to report data, nine of the bottom 12 in athletic revenue were from HBCUs.

It’s a problem that feeds itself. HBCUs are not competitive in men’s basketball and football — the two major revenue sports — relative to their peers, and so they do not make as much money in television deals or through fan support. SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland explains that part of his job is making sure he can secure additional sponsorships — while squeezing every last dollar he can out of existing partnerships — in order to bridge the gap between his schools and other mid-majors.

It doesn’t help, he says, that each SWAC school is a public university, meaning they are state-funded, but they are not the flagship university for the state. So they do not take priority.

It’s part of the reason he seemed thrilled to have Prairie View A&M in Dayton.

Fans may view being relegated to the First Four as an insult. National media that only swoops into the college basketball world as conference play heats up may brush it off as not a true tournament site.

The reality is more complicated than that, particularly for the 16-seeds, and even more so for HBCUs.

There’s a financial aspect that makes athletic directors and conference commissioners particularly drawn to Dayton. Simply put, the more games that a team plays in the NCAA Tournament, the more money it makes.

A portion of the money that the NCAA makes from the tournament is given back to each Division I conference in distributions via the Basketball Performance Fund that it calls “units.” Units are allocated based on the number of games each conference plays in the tournament, excluding the first game for the automatic qualifier and the national championship game. The automatic qualifier earns the equivalent of one unit, however, out of something called the Equal Conference Fund, which functions the same way as the Basketball Performance Fund.

So merely by appearing in the tournament, a school receives one unit for its conference. A win means another game and therefore another unit. The value of a unit changes year to year but will be $280,300 in 2019. And those units are good for six years.

So, for example, UMBC’s two tournament games played last year means two units for the America East per season over the next six years. That comes out to over $3 million. Plus all the units they compile in the meantime. Conferences then distribute payouts to their schools based on their bylaws.

Therein lies the advantage to playing in Dayton: a virtual coin flip game against an equally matched opponent that could result in doubling a conference’s payout.

“Any time you have the opportunity to play on national TV, where if you win you get the extra unit and move on, I’d rather play in that game than to get a regular 16-seed and go play Duke and Kentucky straight out of the gate,” McClelland said.

The First Four also offers something that other tournament sites cannot: a solo position in the spotlight. Prairie View A&M’s game against Fairleigh Dickinson was the first in the NCAA Tournament, airing at 6:40 p.m. ET on TruTV. With no other games going on, the Panthers had center stage. For North Carolina Central, it was the next night, at the same time.

“Oftentimes basketball is considered the front porch to allow others to come in and see the different programs and the type of education and law degrees that we have to offer as well,” NC Central coach Levelle Moton said. “So, we’re doing it for the totality of the university.”

Washington saw the benefits to the increased exposure even before the game was played.

“I don’t think we can buy the level of marketing that we are getting out of competition at this level,” he said. “In Houston alone there are six or seven organized watch parties, and on campus there’s an organized watch party. That doesn’t even touch the remote areas where we have alumni.”

The computers say that, at least this year, the two HBCU participants were the worst in the field. Prairie View A&M ranked 209th in KenPom, ahead of only NC Central, which was 303rd. No metric is perfect, but based on what the committee had available, sending Prairie View and NC Central to Dayton was probably the right call. Still, Moton sees an inherent disadvantage for schools at NC Central’s level in compiling a resume.

NC Central played eight road games this season before conference play began, going 0-8. That included losses at Clemson, Cincinnati, George Mason, and Saint Louis — all teams that operate at a significantly higher level. In return for going on the road and losing by double-digits to NCAA powerhouses, NC Central gets a check from the hosting university. These are called “guarantee games” and are a necessity for nearly most low-major schools, especially for HBCUs.

Prairie View did not play a home game against a Division I opponent this season until Jan. 12. It came into that game just 2-11 with a season-opening win at Santa Clara and one at home to NAIA Hutson-Tilloston. To the Panthers’ credit, they did not get run off the court in many games. They lost by just 11 at Baylor and Georgia Tech, by eight at UNC Greensboro, and by 16 at Murray State.

Nevertheless, their team sheet included six quadrant three losses (five of them came in the non-conference) and one loss in quadrant four (a guarantee game at East Carolina). Their loss at Texas Southern was their only conference game that did not qualify as a quadrant four contest, so they had just a few realistic opportunities to gain any win that would set it apart from other 15 or 16 seeds.

Moton acknowledged that under the current system, there isn’t much that could be done about that, either on the team side, or with how the committee evaluates — though he did say he hoped committee members would be more open-minded about HBCUs in the future. He also had another suggestion: to make the First Four an event that only features the final eight at-large teams, rather than a mix of at-large and automatic qualifiers.

“Let them come here because they get an opportunity to buy games and they get an opportunity to have a little more utopia, a little more privilege in what they’re doing,” he said.

That idea might benefit coaches and players because it would give the smaller schools an immediate opportunity to knock off a power conference school rather than first requiring a win against another team that operates far off the national radar. Convincing commissioners and athletic directors that it’s worth forfeiting a tournament unit, however, may be more difficult.

Though both the SWAC and MEAC left Dayton with losses, they each got the spotlight. They got fair matchups and good games. Prairie View A&M came out of the gate against FDU and forced nine turnovers in the first 10 minutes, showing the world its trademark high-energy defense. It even built a pair of 13-point leads before the Knights came storming back. As for North Carolina Central, it lost a First Four game for the third year in a row, this one coming despite holding a five-point lead with 5:23 to go.

So the SWAC and the MEAC are done for the year and the work begins anew for each program as they look to get back to the NCAA Tournament. If you don’t see them in Dayton in 2020, it’ll probably be another pair of HBCUs.


Information from: Mid Major Madness, https://www.midmajormadness.com

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