One moment, Rice men’s basketball was celebrating its best season in over a decade. The next, it was lost. Last week, former Rice men’s basketball head coach Mike Rhoades took the job as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, leaving Rice looking for a new coach and speculating about potential transfers. It would make sense to feel betrayed. But it would be wrong to be angry at Rhoades for taking the job at VCU, because the NCAA is structured such that VCU presents him with his only chance at national success.
The NCAA basketball landscape is built to favor the rich and demean of the rest. A 68-team postseason basketball tournament sounds egalitarian, but in truth, it is far from it. Of the 32 conferences represented in the 2017 NCAA tournament, only nine received more than one bid. Schools from these nine conferences took up 45 of the 68 spots. For conferences outside of those lucky nine leagues, only the postseason conference tournament champion qualified for the NCAA tournament because by rule, conference champions receive automatic bids.
One of those unlucky conferences is Conference USA. C-USA tournament champion Middle Tennessee State University was the league’s only representative in the NCAA tournament. Shockingly, despite going 30-4 in the regular season and knocking off multiple big-name opponents, the Blue Raiders received a No. 12 seed in the tournament. Given that the lowest seeded at-large team (non-conference champion) in the tournament was a No. 11 seed, this meant that had MTSU lost the conference tournament, it would not have been selected for the NCAA Tournament despite having a nearly perfect season.
Rhoades saw this. Everybody in C-USA saw this. And it was a slap in the face. By seeding MTSU 12th, the selection committee for the NCAA tournament sent the message that no matter how good a season a team in C-USA has, it will not make the NCAA tournament unless it wins the crapshoot that is the conference tournament. Never mind that C-USA teams have won their opening game in the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons. The conference, apparently, is simply is not talented or competitive enough for the committee to respect its teams.
If the committee continues to treat C-USA like this, there will never be a program in the conference that can sustain success. Not when an entire season depends on winning three consecutive games one weekend in March. If Middle Tennessee had run into a hot shooting opponent or a streaking team in the conference tournament, its once-in-a-generation season would have ended without a tournament berth. Rhoades recognized the absurdity of that.
The only potential savior for C-USA would be an expansion of the tournament, and even that would not solve every problem. If the tournament is expanded to 96 teams, which is a proposal that is gaining increasing popularity in college basketball circles, more mid-major conferences will send teams to the tournament through at-large berths. The week before he left for VCU, Rhoades said to KPRC2 that he wished the NCAA would expand the tournament so more mid-major “Cinderella” teams would have chances to win.
“In my opinion we need more teams,” Rhoades said. “There’s a lot more teams in Division I and there are a lot more schools putting money into building their basketball programs. Having a Cinderella team, those upsets are good for college basketball.”
Rhoades now coaches at VCU, a school in a conference, the Atlantic 10, that sent three teams to this year’s tournament including VCU. The Rams have made the NCAA tournament seven years in a row because they do not have to rely on winning the conference tournament to qualify. In fact, VCU has only won the Atlantic 10 tournament two of those seven years. Rhoades can now be confident that if his team succeeds in November, December, January and February, it will have a chance to compete for a national title regardless of what happens the first or second week of March.
That was never going to be the case at Rice. For the foreseeable future, the Owls will have to win the conference tournament if they want to play in the NCAA tournament. It is not a formula for sustaining success. Rhoades knew he could never build a program that competed on a national stage, because the NCAA selection committee made it clear he could not. He did the best thing for his career. He made the decision any rational and informed coach would make.
He left for the same reason the previous two C-USA coaches of the year left. Opportunity is elsewhere, not in C-USA and not in any of the 22 other one-bid conferences. Every mid-major school knows. So don’t blame Rhoades for leaving. Blame the NCAA for forcing him out.