March Madness Has Lost Its Swag
By Joe ESQ (usually right)
The NCAA Basketball Tournament is by and large considered a great, if not the greatest, post-season format in all of sports. People point to is as an example when complaining about the college football bowl system. The President of the United States fills out a bracket every year, as do people at every office I’ve ever worked in. It has a catchy name, “March Madness”, and everyone knows what that means. We hear complaints about the BCS constantly, but nobody ever complains about the NCAA Tournament format. My question is, why? Is the NCAA Tournament really a great post-season format? As explained below, I don’t think it is.
Let me start by saying that, like a lot of people, I think the first weekend of the tournament is probably the best weekend in sports. People have said the opening Thursday and Friday are the least productive work days all year. I believe it. Not only do I sit in my office watching games from noon on, but I usually spent hours the previous day contemplating certain games/scenarios and filling out my bracket. I also make calls at work to friends to talk about matchups and games, instead of work. Perhaps I’m not the best employee, but I think that’s somewhat normal. It’s a great two days, and it’s impossible for any sports fan to ignore.
How much is that really worth though– a bunch on non-serious college basketball fans paying attention for four days? Does that justify all of the negatives discussed below? In my humble opinion, it does not.
Nobody tends to point these out, but some of them seem pretty important.
Supporters of the tournament will argue that it’s the most fair format– that the results are what matter; a true meritocracy. Win and you move on, lose and you go home. I understand that. The problem is, the fact that two unequal teams are on equal footing, playing one game that counts for everything, is itself unfair.
Take Missouri and Norfolk State. Missouri went 30-4 this year, playing an extremely difficult schedule. They beat Kansas. They beat a top-15 Baylor team 3 times. They beat tournament teams Texas and Iowa State multiple times. Out of conference, they won every game, beating teams from other large conferences. They beat Notre Dame out of the Big East; Illinois out of the Big Ten; Cal out of the Pac 12. Missouri had a great season. They were ranked in the top 5 in the country, and they deserved it.
Norfolk State went 25-9 despite playing a much easier schedule than Missouri. They didn’t beat even one top-25 team. They were never ranked, and never deserved to be ranked. Yet when the NCAA Tournament started, Norfolk State and Missouri were put in the EXACT SAME SITUATION. Missouri got no advantage whatsoever. The two teams would play on a neutral court, and the winner would have the same opponents in later rounds regardless of who won.
How is that fair? Why should a team that significantly outperformed another team over 30+ games be put in the exact same position of the team it outperformed? The fact that the inferior team won the game doesn’t make it fair because the fact that they were even in that situation is patently unfair.
2. Renders the Regular Season Irrelevant
See above. Not only that, but unlike professional sports, a great season doesn’t even give you home court advantage. While it gives you a higher seed, does that really mean anything? Lower seeds play more difficult later round games than higher seeds all the time, and regardless, how that lower seed matches up to its opponent may be worse. The fact is, for the best teams the regular season doesn’t matter. It only matters for those fighting to get into the tournament. In other words, the regular season of the 64-70th best teams matters. For the best 30 or so teams, it doesn’t. How does that make sense?
3. It Doesn’t Crown the Best Team Champion
Sometimes it does; often it doesn’t. Connecticut was not the best team in the country last year. It was the hottest, not the best. This does happen in other sports, but it happens less often in, for example, college football than it does in basketball. (In 2010, 2009, 2006, 2005, 2002, 2001, 2000 there was no question that the best team won the college football BCS Championship. While college basketball had a great run from 2005-2008, I don’t believe it’s success rate has been that high.)
4. It Doesn’t Produce the Best Games
Is it any coincidence that the best Final Four in recent memory took place in 2008, when the four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four? Those were great games involving great teams. Last year was the opposite. That was shit basketball. I’m a huge sports fan, and I couldn’t even watch it. Not only was it shit basketball, the fact that it took place deprived us of seeing the best teams going against each other. Unfortunately, more often than not, there’s at least one mediocre team playing during the final weekend.
5. Every Season Ends on a Negative Note/Great Seasons are Remembered as Failures
I graduated from undergrad and law school at the University of Florida. Most of my friends are Gator fans. The Gators overachieved this year. They were a good team that got all the way to the Elite Eight; second year in a row they did that. They provided plenty of good memories for fans and should be remembered positively. Unfortunately, that won’t happen. Most fans I know were bitching about the fact that they blew the last game. “Failures” they were called, and that’s what most people will remember them as. Same as last year’s team.
The same is true of a lot of other teams as well. Missouri had one of the best seasons in school history, but were “failures”. FSU was the same thing.
Look at a team like Louisiana-Lafayette in football this year. They had a great season. They won a big bowl game for them, a nail-biter against San Diego State that they won on a long field goal in the closing seconds. Their fans stormed the field. The players appeared to have a great time– a reward for a job well done. It was great to see, and that team will be remembered positively among its fans and followers. If this had been the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse would have mopped the floor with them in the second round, they would have walked off the floor dejected and embarrassed, and that loss would tarnish the great memory of the previous win for fans and players of that program.
Basketball is not football. Any team can lose one game if their shots aren’t going in and the others team’s are. That’s why series’ work better than individual games in basketball. Whether it’s two teams, four teams, or eight teams, the best teams should be playing for the title in series’. (If it’s only the best two teams as determined by the committee, they could play a best of seven series. It it’s four, they can play best of five. If eight, they could play the best of three.). This would give us the best matchups, would provide the most fairness to the teams involved, and would do a better job of crowning the best team as champion.
What would happen with the rest of the teams, you ask? There are two options.
Option One is bowl series’ (with best of three or five series’ taking place instead of games). This would be the same as the football bowl format. For example, UF and Indiana could meet at the Outback Series. They’d play a best of 3 in Tampa. The games would take place over the weekend. Fans could travel for them. The best team would be more likely to win, as three games provides a better sample size than one. The teams would get a just reward based on how they performed over the course of the season. Even with a loss, fans would remember the team as they deserve to be remembered, by the prestige of the bowl series and how they performed there.
Option Two is additional tournaments, similar to the altered NCAA Tournament described above. The NIT can be a 16 team tournament playing best of 3 series’. Living in Miami, I’ve been to multiple NIT games, and even though the national title isn’t at stake, people care and they’re fun to go to. This would only improve with better teams involved. There could be several similar tournaments like this. The fact that less teams were involved in the post-season would make conference tournaments more important, as they would be everything to some teams, instead of just means to get to a post-season. For gamblers, just as many games would be taking place, so there would be no problem on that front.
Under these formats, the system would be fair. We’d see the best games and the best team would more likely be crowned as champion. We’d also get just as many games to watch (because of series’ instead of individual games), and the intensity would be even greater at some because (like the bowl series described above) it would be filled with fans of two teams that were familiar with one another. The only loss would be that first weekend– non-fans would be less likely to pay attention for a four day period. Seems like a worthy trade-off to me.