A historically black university will have an opening round win on Thursday night’s prelude to March Madness, as Texas Southern University and North Carolina Central University will play in the ‘First Four’ round of the NCAA men’s basketball playoffs. But that win will come at the expense of another black college, and in given the history of HBCU basketball in this tournament and the tenor or racial politics in sports and beyond, the selection committee should have had more grace and insight than it showed with this seeding.
A 19-win MEAC champion NCCU team could be legitimately argued to post as a 15-seed. A sub-.500 Texas Southern team doesn’t get to escape the 16-seed line. Both teams have been perennial contenders in historically black conferences which have improved steadily over the last decade, and which have scored signature wins over power conference teams during the same period.
But facing each other to kick off March Madness is culturally offensive and financially shortsighted to HBCUs and the NCAA as it would be for two bottom-feeding teams from the Pac-12 or the SEC playing in the First Four.
Forget the underlying racial politics of two black coaches from two historically black athletic conferences facing each other in a contrived college basketball version of the Celebration Bowl; why would the selection committee limit the opportunity for Texas Southern and NCCU to both win into the field of 64, and thus giving both of their conferences a chance at more money coming in from tournament splits? The LIU-Brooklyn/Radford matchup on the other side of the First Four mini-bracket is as statistically unlikely to beat Villanova as the winner of NCCU-TSU is to defeat Xavier.
Why not split the difference and have the two HBCUs, which could have just as easily fit into the 16-slots of the East and West brackets respectively with wins, play independent of each other?
And why take your two biggest ‘One Shining Moment‘ conference brands to have one canceled out in the first game of the tournament? The MEAC and the SWAC have produced some of the tournament’s signature upsets, so why would the NCAA cut two chances for that opening round upset narrative in half with its only two participating HBCUs?
Maybe race doesn’t matter, it the committee’s charge is to evenly pair teams regardless of money, storylines, race, and other factors. That would make sense if the NCAA wasn’t positioning itself as a partner for improving Division I HBCUs in academic progress and graduation rates. The NCAA has given millions to help black colleges improve their academic and career development infrastructure for black colleges not just because it looks good to help struggling black schools and black people, but because it improves their brand to avoid ng giving HBCUs the death penalty for deficiencies in compliance.
Especially when bigger, whiter institutions avoid similar punishment for more egregious actions.
Of course, the HBCUs have a role in this outcome. They could win more games, build more competitive leagues, recruit better athletes, hire better coaches, or even leave Division I outright and compete in Division II, where HBCUs attract just as many fans are a million times more likely to win a national championship.
(And by the way, NCAA, don’t think we didn’t notice that Virginia State-Virginia Union seeding in the opening round of the Division II tournament, either).
But that doesn’t exempt the NCAA and the selection committee from doing the right thing for two conferences that carry the water for its mid-major branding in football and basketball, and which drive cheerful narratives about the can-do, anything can happen on a given night spirit of college sports.
There were alternatives for the selection committee which would’ve given a lot more dignity to two Division I conference champions. Syracuse has to play into the tournament as one of the ACC’s worst performers this year, and still doesn’t have to face the possibility of facing conference rival Duke until the Sweet 16, and if by some miracle advanced beyond that round, wouldn’t get to see historic rival Villanova until the Final Four.
The selection committee considers things like that when it completes the brackets. HBCUs, their coaches, and their fans deserve that kind of consideration; even if just for one round.