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If It Ain’t Broke; Don’t Fix It: The NCAA Tournament E-mail

“March Madness” serves as the recognizable 2-word description for what is hands-down the premier sporting event in the month of March, the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. The entire tournament, from the 1st Round games, to the Final Four, creates a tremendous amount of interest for both casual and die-hard basketball fans. This is all for one very good reason – the tournament is EXCEEDINGLY entertaining. The 1st 2 days of the tournament may just be my favorite day to be a sports fan, as I can watch significant portions of anywhere between 4-16 highly competitive games in a glorious 12-13 hour span. The bone I have to pick is this – I cannot remember the last time I’ve heard so many suggestions to fix (huh?) the best event in sports!

I’m not talking about the Pro Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend, or the NHL…this is March Madness, the darling of office pool organizers and underdog lovers throughout our great country. Nobody NEEDS to fix it. The primary argument that I’ve heard a number of different incarnations of is that the NCAA Tournament is “flawed”, primarily due to the fact that the “best” 65 teams are not represented, and there is no objective way to choose these 65 teams. I would now like to eviscerate a couple of the primary suggestions I have heard to “fix” what is, arguably, the greatest event in sports.

Suggestion 1: Pick the 65 Best Teams

This suggestion essentially wants to eliminate automatic bids for conference tournament winners and just have 65 teams selected at-large. I have a few major problems with this:

1. What about Cinderella? – Isn’t this the MOST popular aspect of the NCAA tournament among casual sports fans? Watching a Belmont, San Diego, Davidson, Gonzaga, Richmond, George Mason, Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Princeton, etc. go toe-to-toe with, and sometimes defeat, a powerhouse basketball school. The opportunity to do this creates a better basketball atmosphere in the smaller conferences, and also makes for a much better NCAA tournament. Enjoyed watching Fennis Dembo light up UCLA? Lived and died with every shot hoping Belmont would upset mighty Duke? Granted smaller schools sometimes DO merit an at-large bid (Ex. Davidson, Drake, and Gonzaga this year). However, most mid-majors in the NCAA tournament are 13-16 seeds who are only there because they won their conference tournament. Bottom line, under this scenario, you’d have WAY less mid-major teams, less upsets and near-upsets, and more 1st Round snoozers that resemble “Big Monday” games you already watched in December. If you have no soul, picking the best 65 teams is probably your kind of tourney, otherwise, to paraphrase the great Bob Watson: “Let Them Play!”

2. They already DO that stupid! (sort of) – In my eyes, the NCAA is already choosing between 52 and 56 of the best teams. The 15 & 16 seeds are always from the weakest of the mid-major conferences, and oftentimes were not even the best team in their conference, pulling an upset at their conference tournament to secure a bid. I would also argue that this year’s #14’s were a rather weak bunch, though this is not always the case, demonstrated by plenty of 14 seeds beating 3 seeds over the years. This year’s #13 seeds, as in past years, were solid teams. San Diego and Siena both won their 1st Round match-ups; and Winthrop and Oral Roberts, despite bad tournament showings, had non-conference wins against teams like Miami (FL), Georgia Tech, Tulsa, and Oklahoma St. Replacing these 8-12 teams with teams from power conferences would do nothing but replace teams that generate interest with teams that wouldn’t. Part of the fun of the tournament is making household names, if only temporarily, of teams, players, and coaches from these smaller schools. These teams also tend to be senior-laden, hard-playing teams with good chemistry and solid coaching. To me a team like this, even if a bit short on talent, has a better chance of upsetting a high seed than a mediocre power conference team, as these teams tend to be young and/or lacking chemistry.

Suggestion 2: Let More Teams In!

This is an argument espoused by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, and others in the coaching world with infinitely less job security than Coach Boeheim. The general logic here is, rather than leave out 5-10 teams who MIGHT have deserved to be in the tournament, let in MANY more teams, so everyone remotely deserving is included. Coach Boeheim’s logic is basically that because playing in the post-season is what coaches are judged on, that more teams should get into the post-season, seeing that coach turnover is so high at the moment. A piece of evidence used to support this is that 48% of Division I college football teams played in a bowl game this past season, while only 20% of Division I college basketball teams made the post-season. A couple of major issues here:

1. Make the playoffs MORE like college FOOTBALL? What!?!?!?!?!?! – This seems like the ultimate in illogical thinking. Let’s take the most popular playoff format in college sports and change it so it bares a closer resemblance to the least popular playoff format in college sports. This is like taking a business re-known for its great customer service and saying: “we should make this place more like the DMV”. For those of you not from the great State of Rhode Island, our Department of Motor Vehicles is universally acknowledged as the 8th Layer of Hell. I would rather the NCAA Tournament continue to produce relevant, memorable games, such as this year’s San Diego vs UConn game. I clearly remember Brandon Johnson gutting out a severe injury, Rob Jones hitting clutch shots, and De’Jon Jackson pulling up for the game-winner. Predictably, I, like 99% of other sports fans, can’t even recall the teams who played in the completely irrelevant Poinsettia Bowl and the equally legendary PapaJohns.com Bowl. More like football? The answer is NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

2. My 2nd argument against this sort of hints at a point I made earlier. I have some shocking news about Syracuse, UMASS, Arizona St., and other bubble teams from this past year. THEY WOULDN’T HAVE WON THE TOURNAMENT! Could they have made a nice little run to the Sweet 16? Perhaps. But the bottom line is that the last 5-10 teams that are left out of the tournament are teams that wouldn’t have won anyway. It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest significant changes to a great tournament to accommodate teams that had an entire season to prove themselves relevant, and failed to do so. The coaches need to stop complaining, understand that they are in a volatile profession, and also acknowledge that a big source of the coaching turnover is coaches leaving for better positions. There is no tangible reason to include more teams, and this argument is merely made out of self-interest, championed by folks who work in a rather self-interested profession to begin with. Unacceptable!

Bottom-line here kids…nothing is perfect. I wouldn’t call the NCAA Tournament “flawed” because everything man-made is just as flawed as we are. There is no perfect ending to any season. All seasons must come to an end, and at the end of these seasons champions must be crowned. Injuries, off-days, bad weather, bad luck, these are not just things that impact every sports team; they are things that impact every person’s life. A sports fan refusing to accept anything less than “perfection” from a playoff system is as silly as someone expecting “perfection” from other people. The BCS is flawed because it is lousy and has major, identifiable errors that can be remedied. Better must be expected of a playoff system, much like a person, when this is the case. To continue this absurd comparison, the NCAA Tournament is a wonderful person who has bad taste in music, while the BCS is a problem alcoholic prone to abusing animals and swearing in front of small children. To conclude this orgy of analogy, the NCAA Tournament reminds me of a GREAT pizza. A great pizza should be eaten just the way you found it. So for those of you tempted to tweak with the format of the NCAA Tournament, I say put down the red pepper, grated cheese, and hot sauce...and don’t pick off a single pepperoni! Just leave it alone, and enjoy it just the way it is…wonderful.

 

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