Watching the NCAA tourney's move to 96 teams…

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Watching the NCAA tourney's move to 96 teams…
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As the Final Four tips off this weekend with nary a big name playing on the court, the needed distraction to steal some headlines has been created by the NCAA themselves as the confirmation of a move to 96 teams in the NCAA tournament has brought much controversy to Indianapolis.

So what are we to make of the 96-team field?  Is it a money grab as most analysts postulate?  Is it a move to get the tourney in the hands of ESPN?  None of that part of the equation really matters to the average fan.  What does matter is what this beloved tournament will look like in the future, next year by some estimates, 2014 by others.

The 96-team tournament would take the top 32 seeds and give them a bye in what would now be called the “Opening Round.”  If you’re thinking about how that term sounds familiar, you’re right!  That’s what the game played between the two lowest seeded teams is called now.  Only in this year’s tournament, it gave Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop the opportunity to lose to Duke in Round One.

Under this new configuration, the tournament would start on the same day, a Thursday, with Selection Sunday preceding the opening round games on Thursday and Friday. 

(TANGENT: Is anybody else  just a little stunned by how many proper nouns the NCAA tournament throws at us these days?  Selection Sunday, Final Four, March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Dick Vitale.  It’s a veritable nightmare to write about.  Then you have to think about whether you capitalize and how to format things like seeds.  Is it 1st seeded Kansas, first seeded Kansas, first-seeded Kansas, First-Seeded Kansas or Ninth-Seeded Norhtern Iowa?  Clearly, the last one is correct.  But really, after writing a half-dozen or so articles on the tourney this spring, I am dumbfounded by the grammatical issues I encounter weekly.  The NCAA needs to publish a style guide.)

The Opening Round would whittle 64 teams down to 32 and they would then play the teams with byes on Saturday and Sunday to see who advances to Round Two.  Here’s where the tourney gets those days back that most analysts were sure would turn into an extra weekend.  The games for Round Two would be played the next Tuesday and Wednesday, deciding what schools will make up the Sweet Sixteen.

The tournament then plays out the rest of the way as usual.  The second Thursday and Friday would whittle squads down to the Elite Eight, with Final Four teams earning berths on Saturday Sunday.  Then the national semifinals and championship game would be played on Saturday and Monday as they are in the days to come.

In theory, this sounds like it would work.  We’d get teams in that would normally be on the bubble.  The committee would be able to make sure that perennial invitees likes North Carolina and Connecticut would most always be included (they would surely make this year’s field were it 96 teams strong).  Perhaps more mid-major conferences would have multiple teams in the Big Dance (there’s another proper noun…I think).  It gives the network who bids the highest for broadcast rights more games and adds two more nights of primetime sports programming.

But for every positive I can see, there are two negatives that pop up immediately.  The Opening Round would feature 64 teams that are outside of the top 25 at the end of the year.  Those lucky 32 would presumably be the biggest stories of the year in the NCAA and the 64 leftovers would be the way the tourney would kick off.  Those would be the days people call in sick to work or lower productivity if they absolutely have to be at their jobs.  The marquee players from the best teams would have the Opening Round off and that would hurt the tournament as it would lead to match-ups that –while they may be competitive and entertaining– would feature middle of the road teams from big conferences and the second or third entries from mid-majors, without a spotlight game in sight.

Put it this way: if the 96-team tourney were instituted, the ten best teams in action on the first two days of the tournament would be the 9 and 10 seeds.  This year that would have been Northern Iowa, Wake Forest, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Missouri, St. Mary’s and Florida.  It’s hard to imagine CBS riding those big name schools to stellar ratings in the first two days of the tourney.

What of the teams with the byes?  For those schools, they would be inactive for at least five days, and in most cases more.  They would have exactly five days off if their conference played its championship game on Selection Sunday, which only a handful still do, assuming the school got to the final game in their respective tourney.  Most schools would be on their butts for a week or more, leaving them vulnerable.  In the Big East Tournament this year, three of the four schools that had byes fell in the first game they played.  It’s feasible to think that the teams with byes in a 96-school NCAA tournament field would fall to the same misfortune.  If that’s the case, we could see more instances of top-ranked schools (i.e. Kansas) doing nothing to boost ratings and interest deep into the tournament.

Additionally, Championship Week (proper noun alert!) would lose a lot of its meaning.  Teams like Minnesota who made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, would probably enter Championship Week as a lock to be included in the 96-team guest list.  Teams that enter the week with a chance to make a run in big conferences would probably be close to .500, which is just pathetic and nauseating.  I really don’t want to end up talking about a bad Michigan team being on the bubble as the Big Ten tourney begins because they are 14-16.  A few wins puts them over .500 and maybe gets the committee’s attention.  Do we want that?

In terms of actual gameplay, a team that started from the bottom 64 teams without an Opening Round bye, would end up playing three games in six days in order to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  That means a Northern Iowa’s path would be that much harder, effectively stacking the deck against Cinderella.  Those darling teams are what makes this tournament great.  If UNI ended up playing Kansas with an extra game of fatigue on their legs, it’d make the task that much more difficult on them to pull the upset.  If it had happened this year, KU might have had just enough to hold off Ali Farokhmanesh and company.

Finally, let’s look at what college athletics is at its heart.  Student athletes are pupils first and those who matriculate are there to attend an academic institution over a basketball game.  While the tournament itself is a great cultural event and a rallying point on many campuses across the United States, adding games to two-thirds of the tourney field and playing games on Tuesday and Wednesdays in addition to Thursday through Sunday would send the wrong message.  Many of these schools are steeped in academic tradition and may have reservations about allowing their student athletes to participate in the tournament.  Several schools do not hold spring break or have it at varying times, so that fix is not viable. 

On those same lines, imagine the mass exodus of college students who would leave campus to attend the games and the push the schools’ administrations and athletic departments would provide to get butts in seats and have support be thrown toward the pride of their schools.

Furthermore, it would be very shady of the NCAA to add games on those days of play while they are also sticking to their argument that the Bowl Championship Series in college football should not be abandoned for a playoff because of the academic consequences therein.  Pretty hypocritical if you ask me.

TANGENT: Here’s a bonus reason why this move is insane.  Do you really want to see seeds in the twenties?  Do we want to hear Jay Bilas say, “Arizona State was really hoping for a seed in the teens, but instead they will have to settle for a 21 seed and an Opening Round matchup against Notre Dame” or Clark Kellogg break down the upset picks in the 13-20 matchup as opposted to the 5-12.  Ughh.  Kill me now.

I think that ultimately this is a bad thing, but the Big Dance will still be the Big Dance.  It will still have mystique, but it just won’t look the same, kind of like Cindy Crawford.  We will all still love it and we will all run to watch.

When it’s all said and done, college basketball fans need to realize that 96 is coming, whether we like it or not.  It’s a good thing there was something to talk about besides Hoosiers in Indianapolis this week, though.  It may have saved the Final Four.  At least we’re talking about something besides the lack of a first team All-American, the three number one seeds that didn’t make it or the cakewalk most of these schools had in getting to the Final Four.


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