There's Something Wrong with the NCAA Tournament: Just Ask Siena (or Arizona)

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There's Something Wrong with the NCAA Tournament: Just Ask Siena (or Arizona)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The NCAA tournament is a near perfect sporting event. The only real argument made against the design of the tourney—that the field should be expanded to include more teams—is a faulty one.

The fact No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2's, and that a No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1, speaks to the mathematical perfection of the 64-team field. It stretches the field to a perfect point on the edge of believability and leaves that one question just hanging out there, the question of if and when, maybe someday, a No. 16 will turn the trick.

The mere consideration of such a possibility is one of the many small storylines that combine to make the NCAA tournament endlessly fascinating and intriguing to the sports fan.

To go just one step further would be to cross the line into absurdity. Imagine a one seed going up against a No. 18 seed and what that No. 18 seed might look like. Not much intrigue there.

And besides, when we factor the conference tournaments into the equation, the fact is that the tournament already gives every Division-I team in the nation a chance to qualify. When it comes to the size of the field, then, the tournament is perfectly constructed.

The only real problem with the tournament, and one that receives surprisingly little comment or attention, is the seeding process. Granted, it’s a problem that doesn’t really impact the enjoyment we get out of the tournament as fans. But it’s a problem that detracts from the inherent fairness to the teams and the players involved.

The problem is that the tournament is not re-seeded after each round, and because of this, certain higher seeded teams receive significantly tougher draws than teams seeded much lower than them.

As a result of this flaw in design, teams are not sufficiently rewarded for the “body of work” they have built during the season. In fact, they are often punished for it.

The most glaring example of this is the case of the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds who are automatically slotted in to face the top seed in their region in the second round. Take a private poll of expectant tourney coaches on selection Sunday, ask them if they’d rather be a No. 8 seed or a No. 10 seed and I’ll bet a dollar they’ll take the 10 slot.

They very likely might even prefer to be a No. 11, No. 12 or even a No. 13 seed rather than an eight or nine. This doesn’t speak well to the idea that higher seeding is supposed to reward the season’s achievements.

Let’s take the Siena Saints as a case in point in this year’s tournament.

Siena dominated their league and played a tough enough non-conference schedule to earn a No. 9 seed, not to mention a No. 20 ranking in the RPI. In comparison, a team like Arizona took the backdoor into the tournament, sneaking into a No. 12 seed to go along with their RPI rating of 62.

Now let’s compare the two draws. Arizona draws No. 5 seed Utah, certainly no worse a matchup, and some might say a better one, than Siena’s matchup with No. 8 Ohio State. The real kicker comes in the second round, however, where Arizona lucks out and gets No. 13 Cleveland State while Siena faces Louisville, the top seed in the tournament.

Even if Arizona had faced No. 4 Wake Forest, they would have had an easier matchup than Siena. Either way, as a No. 12, Arizona was fortunate enough to benefit from an upset in their section of the bracket.

No. 8 and 9 seeds cannot expect such benefits. It is a virtual inevitability that they will face one of the top four teams in the nation. The bottom line here is that Arizona is going to the Sweet 16 not because they’re a better team than Siena—they’re not.

They’re going because they had much more beneficial seeding...as a No. 12 seed.

It should come as no surprise that a No. 12 seed advances to the Sweet Sixteen while the No. 8's and 9's go home early. Statistically speaking, this is the rule, not the exception.

In the modern history of the 64-team tournament, since 1985, a grand total of nine No. 8 seeds have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. No. 9 seeds fare even worse- only three No. 9 seeds have made it to the Sweet Sixteen. In 24 years.

Meanwhile, there have been 16 No. 12 seeds that made it to the second weekend. No. 12 seeds have a 16-15 second round record overall. No. 9 seeds are 3-49 in the same time period. In essence, a No. 12 seed has a better draw than a No. 8 and an infinitely better draw than a No. 9.

No. 10 seeds, for that matter, have enjoyed a virtual orgy of success compared to No. 8's and 9's, with 18 Sweet Sixteen appearances. (No. 11 seeds have 11 appearances, just a bit less than No. 8's and double the No. 9's).

Statistically speaking, then, the No. 10 through 12 seeds are far more advantageous than the No. 8 and 9 seeds in terms of a team's chances for advancing past the second round.

Even a No. 13 seed has a better chance of making the Sweet Sixteen, with four Sweet Sixteen appearances against three for the No. 9's. No. 14 seeds have gotten there twice.

So, basically, a No. 9 seed is roughly the equivalent of a No. 13 or No. 14 slot in terms of one's chances of making it to the second weekend.

The No. 9 seed, in essence, is the Fredo Corleone of the NCAA tournament, getting kissed on the forehead by big brother Michael and being told, "Fredo, you broke my heart!" 

It's a death sentence.

And don't think this is lost on the players. Prior to the seeding announcements, Siena's Ryan Rossiter told the Albany Times Union that he and his teammates were "checking it out" and hoping for a more advantageous seed. 

So the players were hoping for a No. 10 through No. 12 seed as opposed to a No. 9? Doesn't seem right, does it?

Because it's not.

Of course, the argument could be made that Siena has nothing to complain about at all. The point of the tournament is to determine the national champion and, to win it all, you’re gonna have to go up against the big boys eventually. So what’s the difference?

Siena, like Arizona, was never a real contender to win the whole thing. But there is a difference. Just ask the players. Arizona won’t win it all, they may not even get past their next game, but they’re going to the Sweet 16. They’re getting a heavy dose of the spotlight.They’re getting exposure to the nation. They’re going back to their campus as heroes for a week of adulation and anticipation that they’ll remember for their rest of their lives.

For a team like Arizona, and God knows even more so for Siena, going to the Sweet 16 is a goal in and of itself. It’s a big deal. Not for the fans. For the young men who play the game. Siena earned the right to have an easier path to that goal than Arizona. 

Now, the average fan is probably recoiling from this suggestion on one basis alone. The bracket. The almighty bracket. Won’t re-seeding after each round put an end to the convenience of seeing the potential matchups in advance as we fill out our brackets? What in God’s name will become of our office pools?

Okay, admittedly, it complicates things a bit. But we can make some adjustments here in the interests of the student-athletes who actually play the games. Can’t we? Just pick your first round winners and that will dictate your second round matchups based on re-seeding and then pick those games, etc., etc.

We’ll have to make some adjustments to the way our bracket sheets are constructed but, c’mon, we can figure it out.

And besides, in the traditional 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring format, the average pool basically comes down to who you picked for the Final Four, the Final Game, and who you have winning it all.

Re-seeding won’t change that basic reality. You’re still picking one team from each bracket to go to the Final Four and you will sink or swim accordingly.

The next problem we face is how we organize the locations and the schedules for the first two rounds. Under the current system multiple sites are used within each region. This becomes problematic once we start re-seeding.

You can’t have Louisville playing in Dayton and Cleveland State playing in Miami and then expect Cleveland State to travel to Dayton for a round two matchup. No problem. We just have single sites for each region in the first two rounds.

This raises a new issue, which is the fact that we can’t play eight games in one day at one venue. And if we divide the games over two days, then we’re forcing some teams to play on back to back days in round two.

Okay, fine. So here’s what we do. We start the tournament a day early, a Wednesday rather than a Thursday. On Wednesday, the top four seeds in each region play against their respective opponents.

Sixteen games, four in each region, just like we do it now. On Thursday, the five through No. 8 seeds in each region play against their respective opponents. Friday is an off day. We re-seed.

On Saturday, the top two remaining seeds in each region play against their slotted opponents. On Sunday the bottom two remaining seeds in each region play against their slotted opponents. Voila. We have our Sweet 16. Re-seed again, set your matchups, and play ‘em the following week as we do now.

No need for re-seeding in the Elite Eight, it's just the last two teams standing in each region. Re-seeding is optional once we get to the Final Four.

We can re-seed or we can just do it like we do it now with the winners of certain regions set up in a predetermined matchup with the winner of another certain region. This might restore some comfort and familiarity to the bracketeers.

Applying my system to this year’s Midwest region, we see that the top three seeds advanced to the second round along with No. 8 Siena, No. 10 USC, No. 11 Dayton, No. 12 Arizona, and No. 13 Cleveland State.

So now, in my second round, we have matchups of Louisville-Cleveland State; Michigan State-Arizona; Kansas-Dayton; and Siena-USC. Just as intriguing and considerably fairer than the current system.

Let Arizona earn their way into the Sweet 16 by going up against the two seed and give Siena a game against USC, by no means easy but certainly a fairer draw than Louisville.

If you’re worried about the number of days off involved for each team, under my plan, with the Louisville and Mich State games on Saturday and the Kansas and Siena games on Sunday, every team ends up playing on two days rest, except for Kansas, who gets three and Arizona who gets only one.

Once again, if someone’s gonna get the short end of the stick, shouldn’t it be the No. 12 seed rather than the No. 8 seed?

At the end of the day, of course, it’s going to be a tough sell. No real benefits for the fans here, the television networks, or the level of drama and intrigue that the tournament presents.

Who really cares whether Arizona’s Chase Budinger or Siena’s Kenny Hasbrouck gets the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of going to the Sweet 16?

Answer: They do. If anyone out there, preferably within the NCAA, really cares about what’s right and fair for the student-athlete, if we really care about rewarding hard work and achievement, then it’s time to re-seed the field after each round.

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