Friday, April 02, 2010

On NCAA Expansion to 96 Teams

Let's review why expanding the NCAA Tournament isn't the end of the world, as so many hysterical college hoops pundits would have you believe:

*The 64-team bracket is "perfect!" Actually, the NCAA Tournament is not beloved for the number of teams included.

It is beloved for its upsets, its buzzer-beaters, its weekday workday diversion in the first round and its promotion of socially acceptable gambling (or the ability to compete with your friends and co-workers).

Expansion doesn't change that. If anything, you will get more of all of them with an extra 32 games.

(And it doesn't preclude major upsets either: Northern Iowa over Kansas will still happen, whether Kansas has played a 1st-round game or not. Speaking of 1-seeds, the idea that the 1-seed ALWAYS beats the 16-seed is a huge flaw in the Tournament's current format. If anything, I think that with an expanded field, you'll see more top seeds lose in their first game than before, because they will be playing a team that just finished up a tense do-or-die play-in game. "Bye" teams in the Top 32 who come out sluggish could find their Tournaments over quickly. As soon as we see a bunch of top teams fall in their 1st game, the critics' wailing will be drowned out by fans' cheering.)

The essential qualities of the NCAA Tournament -- rather than some arbitrary number -- are born out by the fact that the Tournament has expanded from 8 to 16 to 32 to 48 to 64 to 65. And I'm sure the pundits either have -- or would have -- complained all along the way. In vain.

And, by the way: Pundits who fret about how the new bracket will make filling out office-pool sheets more difficult have apparently not tried filling out a bracket online, like 99.9 percent of the world now does. ESPN, and Yahoo will make it VERY easy to fill out the expanded bracket -- even if their columnists rail on about hating the idea -- because they have a vested interest in making it easy to fill it out.

*"It devalues the regular season!" Actually, you'd have to say FURTHER devalues the regular season, because the ascension of the 64-team tournament devalued the regular season a long time ago.

The reality is that most fans don't pay attention to college basketball until March anyway. And, aside from the die-hard fans who make up about 5 percent of the fans who follow March Madness, those that do tune in before March are watching marquee games between powerhouse teams whose inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field isn't in doubt.

If anything, people watch before March to get a sneak peek of teams they should be betting on IN March. And with 32 more teams, that means that fans who want to know the field have to watch that much regular-season basketball. Meanwhile, the chance to earn a bye gets expanded beyond the four 1-seeds to the Top 32 teams in the country -- something worth playing for in January and February.

(And, yes, there will still even be a "Bubble" -- it just slides down the list. It is arguable whether the incessant Bubble talk is even good for the sport. And don't argue about "quality"; the Bubble has never been about "good/bad" -- just "in/out.")

*"The quality of the extra 32 teams they let in will dilute the pool!" Let's see: If Ohio can beat Georgetown, I'd be curious how the 8 teams that finished ahead of Ohio in the MAC might do. Most early-round NCAA games aren't exactly pretty basketball played at high levels; they're street fights. Let's go back to the foundational point: As long as games are close at the finish or won on buzzer-beaters or feature seed upsets or "no-name" schools beating "name" schools, fans will be happy. And that will happen frequently -- perhaps more often, given the general parity between teams ranked between 1 and 100.

*"It's just about money!" (Yeah? And? So is everything else.)

*"But what about the children!?" (Oh please. Any pundit who brings this up is acting as cynically as the NCAA.)

*"Fans hate it!" Well, they hate it when they are asked about it in a poll attached to a pundit's column that says "NCAA SUCKS!!!" It's the hoops-pundit equivalent of shouting "Death panels!"

Pundits ignore the essential elements of the Tournament that fans love -- upsets, buzzer-beaters, gambling, skipping work -- because that relatively superficial reality devalues their own life's passion. There is a fundamental (and not entirely irrational) fear of irrelevancy at work here.

(Don't worry, pundits! Your jobs are totally safe! In fact, you're more necessary than ever if there are more teams in the Tournament! But first you really have to respect the fans more than you do.)

You get the sense that the college hoops pundits freaking out over expansion have one fear that overrides everything else: That they will expand the Tournament and fans will actually LIKE it. Or, at the very least, fans won't care. Fans will still enjoy the Tournament for all the fundamental reasons that make it great. Coincidentally, all the reasons that the pundits overlook or ignore.

Again, what bothers me most is the knee-jerk intractability of the pundits -- they don't even allow for the idea of expansion to make SOME sense or have ANY benefit. It is all doomsday, when -- clearly -- it's not.

They look and sound ridiculous for it -- and will look even more ridiculous a year from now, when everyone is totally satisfied with the new system. And even though I like the 64-team format very much, it takes a fundamental misunderstanding of fans and why the Tournament is so beloved -- ironic, given that these pundits claim to know and love the game -- to rail against expansion in the way they have.

-- D.S.

For some good arguments, read John Gasaway here and an NYT roundtable here.


brad said...

You're so right, Dan. Keep fighting the good fight. More games, more fun.

Eric said...

Perhaps strangely, I have more heartburn with the Conference Championship tournaments than the NCAA tourney. After a season full of play I don't like a conference "champion" being named because a team got hot for a few games.

I'm all about USC and the Pac-10. I'm probably in the ridiculously small minority that still enjoys and lives for conference competition.

The expansion is fine by me. I actually think it makes it even less about the best team and more about the spectacle. The top 32 teams won't be at any more risk and won't even play another game.

I do wonder if the regional 15 vs 19 game in the new first round will really be that much of a money-maker. I assume it will still be profitable for Vegas and the NCAA.