The NCAA is dead set on ruining the greatest sporting event currently played in this country. No matter how much moaning, griping or throwing up of hands we do, the decision has been made and the pristine mountains of March Madness are about to be strip-mined for the almighty dollar. The press conference called by the NCAA on Thursday was simply an attempt to grease the skids on the inevitable inclusion of 32 mediocre to bad teams into next year’s edition of the Big Dance. Yes, the NCAA claimed that “no decision has been made” and that they are “looking at all options”, but those are simply public faces to the actual situation which is “the tournament is expanding, deal with it.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that this is simply an NCAA money grab and is being done not for the students’ benefit or the fans’ interest, but rather for dollars into the NCAA institutions’ coffers. That rationale alone however, does not in and of itself make the decision a bad one. When the NCAA expanded from 32 to 48 and 48 to 64, (I will leave out the absurd move to 65), both decisions were driven by money, not the quality of the product. Yet luckily for the fans, the Tournament as a whole benefitted. With the increase of Division I teams in college basketball and the proliferation of conferences, the new combination of automatic qualifies and at-large bids produced a great combination of teams with a real chance for a national championship and the spunky dreamers hoping for their one shot at glory. In short, it went from a good to a great event.
However this move to 96, while still based on the same “greed is good” mentality, will have the side effect of truly doing harm to the great event. Zach McCrite, a radio host friend of mine, took the time a few weeks ago to bracket out what the 2010 96-team NCAA Tournament might have looked like. Take a look at it for a second and then come back. Horrifying isn’t it? Look at some of the teams added to the field:
There are of course others. But look at some of those names. Was there ever a moment in which you thought Sidney Lowe’s group of underachieving Wolfpack, Norm “My team is so bad I got fired” Roberts’ St John’s team or the “Our best coaches left long ago” Tulsa bunch needed to be part of the festivities. I mean if you watched Minnesota or UTEP’s performance, it is hard to make the case that Texas Tech would have somehow added anything but mind-numbingly bad basketball to the event. And if Northwestern was in, well Mike Wilbon’s smugness alone would be enough to ruin the festivities.
But its not just the fact that the event wont be bettered by the 32 extra teams, it is the fact that it will actually be worsened. The first round of the NCAA Tournament is special. There are great David vs Goliath matchups between small conference champions and major program powers, traditional toss-up games between 8-9 seeds and the inevitable 5 vs 12 or 4 vs 13 upset. Every slot of games has excitement and all the teams get to take the stage.
Now look at the 96 team event. The top 32 teams all get byes. That means when the tournament starts, no Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, Ohio State, etc. Instead take just one region (the Midwest) this year and here are the opening round matchups in 2010:
Kent State vs South Florida
Northern Iowa vs Winthrop
New Mexico State vs Stony Brook
Illinois vs Troy
San Diego State vs UC Santa Barbara
Arizona State vs Weber State
Georgia Tech vs Lehigh
Wichita State vs Texas Tech
LOOK AT THAT! Is even one of those games mildly entertaining? Can you imagine taking time off work, with your kids or even mowing your lawn, to watch any of them? That lineup would take what I consider to be two of the best days in sports, and turn them into a snooze factory that even Greg Anthony and Seth Davis cannot watch. Unless the NCAA’s goal is trying to boost the nation’s collective work output for those two days, nothing good can come of that.
And it actually gets worse than that. The 96 team tournament will actually make it harder for the best teams to win it all. Take the situation for the #1 seeds. For the past 20 years, being a #1 seed has mattered. It gave you a matchup with a #16 seed and essentially a free pass to round 2 for your hard work during the regular season. What happens with a 96 team tournament? Well initially, there is no benefit in the first round, because the top 32 teams get a bye, meaning that Texas gets the same reward for its dismal regular season as Kansas. Then when a game does actually have to be played, a #1 seed gets a different type of #16 seed. In fact, in our mock 2010 bracket, Syracuse would open the tournament with North Carolina and Duke would play Connecticut. There you go Jim Boeheim, congrats on that top seed and instead of Vermont to start the Tournament, enjoy North Carolina’s 8 McDonalds All Americans as your first-round reward. If a team that was as consistently awful as UNC’s merry bunch of underachievers can even make the Tournament, much less have a shot at a #1 seed in Round One, for teams in major conferences the regular season becomes as long, tedious and worthless as an “Around the Horn” marathon.
Of course the NCAA does not care about any of this. They are much more concerned with making the case that a football playoff will not work because of “missed class”, while simultaneously setting up a system for basketball in which teams are forced to miss 7-10 days of class in a row under the new set-up. Pointing out the hypocrisy is important, but ultimately irrelevant. In the battle of money vs academics, academics will lose every time.
But my concern is even greater than a missed sociology class. The NCAA Tournament is the best sporting event in America and its first two days can’t be topped for continuous excitement by any other event. The NCAA is seeking to take away the beauty of Robert Morris taking Villanova to the wall, Ohio shocking Georgetown or Old Dominion over Notre Dame and replace it with matchups in mediocrity such as Mississippi State vs Quinniapac, Dayton vs Northeastern and Ole Miss vs Illinois State. Can’t-miss television becomes as forgettable as the play-in game, bracket pools become unruly and unmanageable and the event as a whole takes a severe hit. Maybe the NCAA believes that the extra revenue makes it all worth it and other problems will fade into the woodwork. Possibly. But what is much more likely is that the change to 96 teams dilutes the product to such a degree that the NCAA in the process of tinkering with the one truly valuable and nearly perfect commodity college basketball has, the NCAA destroys what makes it great.