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First Four game gives Montana State, Big Sky Conference path to long-awaited pay day

Matt Logie
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Montana State huddle
Posted at 1:52 PM, Mar 19, 2024

BILLINGS — It's no secret that the NCAA men's basketball tournament has been a big hurdle for the Big Sky Conference.

The Big Sky, a low/mid-major and a one-bid league, has toiled in tourney anonymity for the better part of two decades. The last time the conference won a game at the Big Dance was in 2006 when Montana, a 12 seed, knocked off fifth-seeded Nevada 87-79 in a first-round game in Salt Lake City.

Since then it's been one long dry spell. But this year presents a unique and potentially lucrative opportunity.

For the first time, the Big Sky's automatic tournament qualifier — it's Montana State for the third straight year — will play in a First Four game. The Bobcats will face fellow 16 seed Grambling State, champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, on Wednesday at 4:40 p.m. (MDT) in Dayton, Ohio.

The winner will advance to play top-seeded Purdue as a No. 16 seed Friday in Indianapolis.

Unequivocally, the First Four placement gives MSU and the Big Sky its best opportunity. History lesson: The league has only won three times in the NCAA tournament since the bracket expanded to 64 (and now 68) teams in 1985.

"I'll tell you this," Montana State athletic director Leon Costello told MTN Sports, "if you're going to be a 16, in my opinion you want to play in Dayton. It gives you and the conference a chance to win a game against an opponent that's very similar. Gives you a little confidence to go play a No. 1. So I don't mind this at all."

Any victory in the NCAA tournament is a big deal, and in more ways than the sheer thrill for the players, coaches and fans. Monetarily, it can be huge.

As Costello helped explain, the money distribution from the NCAA's nearly $9 billion media rights deal with Turner Sports — for not only earning an automatic bid but also winning a game (or games) — is broken down in two ways:

  • 1) Each tourney game counts as a unit. For having an automatic bid, the Big Sky receives roughly $1.7 million annually. The conference then has discretion on how it will divide and distribute that money to its basketball-playing members. The Big Sky will retain the first $300,000 to go toward its annual operating budget, and then the remaining balance will be doled out evenly between each of the 10 schools and the conference office.
  • 2) If the Bobcats win on Wednesday, they would then acquire another unit for the league, worth around $2 million and paid out over six years by virtue of making it to a second tournament game. The Big Sky would then give half of one-sixth of that unit to Montana State for the first year of distribution — roughly $165,000 — and then the other nine basketball-playing schools, plus the conference, would divide the other half among themselves. The Big Sky would get roughly $330,000 of that unit in the first year. Over the subsequent five years, distribution would be split evenly between all 10 schools and the league.

It's a bit complex, but as you can see the payout can be significant — especially for a one-bid conference that can stack multiple wins on top of each other.
But even one victory is something the Big Sky, which typically falls in the 14- or 15-seed range, hasn't been able to accomplish in what feels like forever. The league is starving for it. Since 1985, just Weber State as a 14 seed in both 1995 and 1999 and Montana as a 12 in 2006 have done it.

So Wednesday's game has big implications.

"It's been a minute," said Dan Satter, deputy commissioner of the Big Sky Conference. "In recent history it's an untapped revenue stream. And to know that there's a six-year horizon where it benefits everyone, it certainly would go to help the budget in a lot of ways.

"The costs in college athletics aren't decreasing. We have a lot of competitive aspirations, not just in football but in basketball and all of our Olympic sports. The extra revenue would be welcomed by all."

The Bobcats enter Wednesday's matchup with Grambling State (20-14) fresh off winning the Big Sky Conference tourney title for the third straight season. MSU ran past arch-nemesis Montana 85-70 in the championship game last Wednesday. It was just the second time the Cats and Griz have played in the league title contest, with the first occurring in 1986.

But Montana State isn't a conventional Big Sky automatic qualifier. Under first-year coach Matt Logie, the Cats won just 14 regular-season games and entered the league tournament as the No. 5 seed. They reeled off wins against Weber State, Sacramento State and Montana to win the title.

Based on their No. 208 NET ranking and other results from conferences across the country, MSU was slotted into a First Four game. (NET, an acronym for NCAA Elevation Tool, is a mechanism used to seed teams for the bracket.)

The First Four debuted in 2011 when the NCAA tourney expanded from 64 to 68 teams. So this is new tournament territory for the Big Sky.

"I'm very hopeful," Costello said. "Here's the thing: After going through a (Big Sky) tournament run like that, how can you not be hopeful? And to be honest, we're confident. The team is in a really great spot and I think that showed.

"You just hope that they can continue that magic from Boise and continue it starting on Wednesday — and hopefully after that as well."

The Bobcats and the Big Sky Conference hope to finally clear that NCAA tournament hurdle. And earn a long-awaited pay day in the process.