Friday, March 9, 2012

NCAA Tournament - Assorted Thoughts

Since I have now run through four separate groups of teams and my opinions on their chances in the NCAA tournament,  I thought I might spend some time today talking about conference tournaments, possible changes to the Big Dance, etc.  The college athletics landscape is undergoing a major shake-up right now, probably its biggest ever, and it will be interesting to see how that affects the way the tournament is run and played. Let's start with possible expansion.

Tournament expansion - The tournament expanded last year from 65 to 68 teams, and of course the proponents of expansion felt validated when Virginia Commonwealth (one of the last four at-large teams to make the bracket) rolled from the suddenly glorified play-in round all the way to the Final Four, where they finally lost to fellow mid-major darling Butler.  But does that really validate expansion?  VCU got that far because last year's overall talent pool was pretty weak (although they did beat a Kansas team with at least three future first-round draft picks), and last year's Final Four wound up being eminently forgettable.  The original plan was to expand the bracket to include 96 teams, a plan favored by TV execs (more ad revenue), the NCAA (more money from an event that essentially makes up their entire revenue), and the coaches (more opportunities to make the tournament and boost their resumes.  But this would have been too much to stomach at once, and so they sought to remove the stigma of the play-in game by creating three more.  What they should have done, of course, is get rid of the play-in game (created when the unwieldy 16-team Western Athletic Conference split in two in 1999 and the bigwigs did not want to decrease the at-large pool) entirely.  If the objective is to crown a champion and make sure it's one of the best possible teams, enlarging the bracket only creates more opportunities for the best teams to lose, while watering down the quality of the teams participating.  For example, in a 96-team tournament there would be SIXTY-FIVE at-large bids.  Just using the current Ratings Percentage Index as a baseline, that would mean that a team like 97th-ranked Georgia would probably merit inclusion (since several of the automatic bids would be ranked below the top 96 of the RPI), never mind that the Bulldogs are 15-16 overall this year and finished second from the bottom of a weak SEC with a 5-11 record.  Clearly, Georgia does not deserve to play for a national championship; their overall body of work screams that in pretty much every way.  Yet an expanded tournament would conceivably include them.  Please, NCAA, let's not reward mediocrity.

Format changes - Another idea getting tossed around the NCAA offices is that of eliminating the automatic bids, and simply having a committee decide which 68 (or 96, or whatever) teams to include.  There might be some more pushback on this because it would eliminate conference tournaments and the revenue that they generate (more on this in a bit), but it is still a viable option.  In my mind, it would turn what is currently the best event in the American sports landscape and turn it essentially into a bigger version of the BCS.  The small-conference teams would never have their moment in the sun, hurting recruiting and squeezing the number of viable teams for a tournament (since high-major teams don't like to schedule lower-profile schools unless they either have nationally recognized cachet - such as Gonzaga, Davidson, or Butler - or they're an almost automatic win).  That would get rid of a lot of the drama of Cinderella teams knocking off big-name schools, and thus a lot of casual interest in the tournament that helps drive ratings; I mean, would you get more excited about middling ACC team Miami (19-11, 54th in the RPI) advancing to the Sweet 16 with an upset over, say, Georgetown, or NEC champion Long Island University (25-8, 80th) pulling the same trick?  Almost all casual viewers would be more interested in LIU rather than Miami; it is the known versus the unknown, and even if both upsets could be considered equal in terms of relative team ability, Miami's wouldn't FEEL like an upset.  And so Long Island, a good team but not one that any self-respecting big-six program would dare to schedule (their only such game came at Big Ten bottom-feeder Penn State in November), would be denied any chance of glory against the big boys.  Without that carrot of potentially playing in the Big Dance, many of the recruits who drive LIU's success would likely opt to play somewhere where they could win something more meaningful than a league perpetually stuck in no-man's land and only offered up as fodder for more glamorous programs to feast on in November and December.  Even if the interest mostly fades after the fact, we like it when the Long Islands and Lehighs and Weber States of the world slay the bigger giants occasionally, and substituting Miami or Illinois or Oregon for those schools would eliminate much of the drama that makes the tournament's first weekend the best and most chaotic four days in sports.

Conference tournaments - Let me state that I absolutely love the conference tournaments and the entirety of Championship Week.  Sometimes it leads to a struggling team catching fire and winning four games in four days, as this year's Sun Belt champion (15-18 Western Kentucky) did.  Sometimes it leads to a good team persevering in overtime to make their first ever NCAA tournament (27-7 South Dakota State of the Summit League).  And occasionally, it leads to memorable games between great rivals in major conferences that keep you spellbound in front of your television (of course, with Syracuse moving to the ACC, the games of this particular rivalry will soon be no more).  Conference tournaments give the lesser teams in the league something to shoot for beyond playing out the string, and as Connecticut showed last year, can serve as a springboard to bigger things.  Tournaments are one last chance for teams on the NCAA bubble to make it or break it (unfortunately, Northwestern probably fumbled away their chances at their first-ever bid yesterday with a loss to Minnesota).  They mean three to five days of fans from every school in the league converging on one town and creating a fantastic atmosphere (since, for two thirds of the Division I conferences, it's the only chance they'll have at making the Big Dance).  Without conference tournaments, we would have a lot less entertainment in the two weekends leading up to the revealing of the bracket, and thirty towns that host those tournaments (the Ivy League being the only one without) would go without all of the tourism revenue that they currently rake in from those long weekends.  They're a part of March Madness, and hopefully they will remain so.

That's all for today, and with a triathlon and a volleyball tournament this weekend, the next update here will come after the bracket is revealed.  Coming Monday; a look at various teams, players, and coaches you should be excited to watch starting Thursday (well, Tuesday).  And of course, there will be predictions. Stay tuned!