July 08, 2006


More Madness?

As you may or may not have heard, the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches, the governing body for the college hoops coaches) recently proposed expanding the NCAA tournament to 128 teams. Their main motive was essentially that, because the tournament is a barometer of success, more teams into the tournament means less coaches get fired. And I know what you're thinking right now - this would be a terrible idea. If you do think this, you're in agreement with most of America - just about everybody I heard believed this was not a good idea. And I agree with them. But not for the reasons that most people have. Here are some of the flaws people have been suggesting that would actually not be as big of an issue as you might think:

-There's not enough time to play all these extra games.

Although you are doubling the number of games being played total, you are only adding one extra game per team. It would not be very hard to add the extra games in - move Selection Sunday up to Friday (you would also have to push the major conference tournaments back a day or two), play the new first round on Sunday and Monday, and then proceed with the tournament as it is now. Some people might think that the two days to travel and prepare are not enough, but that's what the play-in game teams have to do under the current system.

-There's not enough space to play these games at.

Come on, do you really think that all the arenas around the country (i.e. the Pepsi Arena Times Union Center) would mind hosting these games? If you broke up the bracket into eight teams per arena, the arena would host four games (two on Sunday, two on Monday), and a big-name school - a top-4 seed - would be in the group. And if space really was a problem, you could break up the bracket in the same way and host the games at the school of the top-4 seed - sure, it would be a massive home-court advantage, but are any of those teams going to lose anyways? And don't forget that the top teams already end up playing close to home in the early rounds under the current system...

-Kids will miss too much school.

Do you really think the NCAA really cares about this? The top teams are already missing almost three weeks of school; it's unlikely that adding an extra game would really impact their GPAs much. And the smaller schools would be playing on Sunday or Monday - they would miss at most a day or two. Academics has never really been a priority for the NCAA (not saying it's right, just saying it's true), so this would not be a real argument against expansion...

-The regular season will become meaningless.

If you haven't realized this by now, the regular season is already pretty meaningless. If you're a big name school (Duke, Kentucky, etc.), you can play your third-stringers all season and still get into the Big Dance. If you're any school in a power conference, you can get in with a .500 record or if you play well in your conference tournament. And if you're a really small school, you need to win your conference tournament anyways or you won't get in no matter what. The regular season at this point is only meaningful for a handful of mid-major schools who have fared well in the past (schools like Southern Illinois).

-No first-round games will be competitive.

This is a reasonable objection. Using the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, not the college in Troy) numbers from last season, Siena would have made the tournament as a 32-seed, along with powerhouses such as Drexel or Northern Illinois. But the landscape of college basketball is changing. Because more of the top players are going to the NBA after only one year of college, parity is much more rampant in the NCAA. When the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, people probably thought that a 16-seed would never have a chance of beating a 1-seed, and that double-digit seeds would never make it to the Final Four. Well, last year we got the latter from George Mason (who barely even made it into the tournament), and we almost witnessed the former when Albany played 30 great minutes against UConn. Is it likely that some 32-seed ever beats a 1-seed, or that a 17-seed would make the Final Four? Of course not. But it could happen.

Why, then, would this idea be crippling to the future of NCAA basketball? There is one reason why March Madness would never be the same after expanding to 128 teams:

It's all about the bracket.

In my opinion, one of the most alluring things about March Madness is that someone like my mom or my sister (or the secretary in your office) can fill out a bracket with virtually no sports knowledge, and still have almost as good a chance of winning the pool as you or me. My mom can fill out a bracket as it stands right now; she knows which teams have a good history, which teams have dog mascots, etc. But if you double the number of games she has to pick, it becomes a massive challenge. Would she really have any idea who to pick in a Northern Illinois-Western Michigan 15-18 seed game? I don't think so. And if you diminish the presence of the bracket at all, you're diminishing the number of viewers and casual fans who are interested in the tournament and it loses its presence on the national radar.

Ultimately, the NCAA
decided against expanding the tournament, which is a wise decision (for once) by the NCAA. What I would not be opposed to is adding a mini-tournament beforehand, say with eight bubble teams competing for four spots. This way there is less debate about who should be in (and the selection committee has less power), and the play-in game as it stands now could be abolished. (And while I'm here, the play-in game is one of the cruelest things in sports - when you win your conference tournament as a small school, you should earn the right to line up next to five All-Americans, and see how long you can hang with them before they blow you out of the gym. Not so with the play-in game). This pre-tournament would be held on Tuesday, and it would be treated like the play-in game today - it would not count on the bracket.

World Cup predictions for this weekend:

Consolation game: Germany vs Portugal

I think Germany's home-field advantage wears out a little bit now that they're no longer in the tournament, and Portugal is the better team. Plus, if the match goes to penalties, I can't see Portugal losing - the goalie was amazing vs England. Portugal is the pick.

Championship game: Italy vs France

I'll probably be rooting for France - they seem to remind me of the '00 Yankees (a bunch of greats who are on their last legs, but still playing at a pretty high level). But I can't pick against Italy right now; they're playing incredibly well. Italy to win, 1-nil.

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