The NCAA men’s college basketball tournaments begins this week, the field of 65 teams having been selected and seeded yesterday. This year, the conventional wisdom holds that the quality of the at-large teams selected to make up the numbers is poor, and that this argues against suggestions that the field be expanded to 96 teams in future years.
The conventional wisdom is correct. However, I would take it one step further. Every year the field is littered with mediocre at-large teams — squads that failed seriously to contend for their conference championship thereby proving that they don’t deserve to play for the national championship — and this argues for contracting the field to 32 teams, or some such number.
I’ll stipulate that monetary considerations preclude any contraction of the tournament, just as they probably preclude keeping the field at 65 much longer. I also realize that many fans believe the current tournament format is close to perfect.
But why do they believe this? Look at the brackets and tell how many of the first round games you would watch if they were played on a weekend in January. I wonder whether, even in the context of a national championship tournament, folks would watch many of these games if it weren’t for their participation in office pools.
By playing so many games, the NCAA and CBS guarantee that there will be a few exciting early round contests to talk up, amidst all of the blow-outs and ho-hum affairs. But it also tends to undermine the round of 16. This is the point where teams with legitimate claims for the national championship should start meeting in match-ups of genuine intrigue. However, early round upsets, when they occur, ruin such match-ups and tend to produce an excessive number of ho-hum games during the second week of the tournament.
To me, the NCAA tournament is the perfect reflection of our culture: it exalts excess and cheap thrills (close games generated by sheer volume), while catering to fan narcissism (the desire, though office pools, to have the tournament be about us). And it does so by lowering standards and diminishing the importance of performing at a high level on a consistent basis.
For these reasons, I predict that fans will learn to love the 96-team tourney if/when it arrives.
JOHN adds: Here in Minnesota, we have a schizophrenic basketball team that finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, but then made a good run through the Big Ten tournament, beating Penn St. by 21 and then top-fifteen Michigan State by five in overtime, followed by an astonishing 27-point win over sixth-ranked Purdue, culminating in the final of the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State, where we trailed by three at halftime and then collapsed to lose by 29. That may be that wildest turnaround in history within 24 hours–a 27-point win followed by a 29-point loss, both against ranked teams. It was, nevertheless, enough to get the Gophers into the tournament, where we will open against Xavier on Friday.
A crazy system? To be sure. But it’s pretty fun for us fans of flawed but occasionally overachieving teams.
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