Too Much Madness?

The NCAA tournament is America’s favorite championship because, more than any other sports league, NCAA Division I basketball lets armchair point guards be a part of the action.

Forget that I can’t make a three pointer without a running start.  Being a part of March Madness is as simple as filling out a bracket and spending the first two weekends of the tournament following the action, rooting for underdogs, and enjoying (or bemoaning) the upsets.  Most brackets are destroyed by the time the Sweet Sixteen rolls around, but it never seems to matter.  We still want to participate.

This is the appeal of the NCAA Tournament, and it is exactly why the new 68-team format is so dangerous.

The all-important Tournament Bracket has been the basis for office pools and friendly wagers for years.  For the three days after Selection Sunday leading up to the tournament, NCAA basketball owned the water cooler, and bracket advice ruled ESPN and the sports talk radio airwaves.  Even the addition of the single play-in game for one of the just-happy-to-be-here 16 seeds didn’t affect the format too much.

Creating play-in games for the 16 seeds in each brackets might have been a passable way to get to 68 teams.  The problem comes from where the play-in games are in the bracket, this year deciding two 16 seeds, an 11 seed and a 12 seed.  The 12 seeds are famously ripe ground for upsets, but that depends on the matchup.  By sprinkling the play-ins throughout the seeds, the NCAA made it very difficult to fill out a bracket before Wednesday or Thursday, when the final field of 64 was determined and most brackets were due.

People now have less time to put together a bracket.  More important, there’s less time to organize an office pool, distribute brackets, and harass participants for entry fees.

Cynics will say the NCAA’s Tournament expansion is all about money – charging tickets and television fees for extra games on top of an already lucrative month-long event – as well as bringing more teams into the fold.  Capping the number of teams, even at the comically large number of 64 or 65, would seem to be a purist’s argument about retaining the integrity of competition.

But let’s make it cynical anyway.  If the appeal of March Madness lies in the participation of filling out brackets, why adopt a format which puts up barriers of entry to that?  If a 68-team tournament fails to generate the same appeal as a 64-team tournament, then the extra teams aren’t creating more money after all.  Even in college basketball, there’s a law of diminishing returns.

Honoring the code

My daily drive into Your Nation’s Capital is usually spent listening to sports talk radio, splitting time between the national (ESPN’s Mike and Mike) and the local (106.7’s Sports Junkies).  Today, both dealt with the first bracket-buster of March Madness: the news that Brigham Young University’s Brandon Davies was kicked off the team for having consensual premarital sex.

If you talk to most Division I coaches, their second best player shtupping some coed when the team is on the verge of a national title run might would likely be a fine violation.  In the realm of athletic transgressions, it certainly beats having some booster offer a nuclear surfboard or whatever it is that John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats will get accused of the year after he leaves.  But Davies chose BYU and its strict rules – and when he misstepped, he admitted it and suffered the consequences.

In the interest of giving credit where due, the tone of the coverage has been surprisingly exceptional thus far.  Mike Greenberg in particular lauded BYU for sticking to their guns.  Even commentary that falls short of glowing praise for BYU at least understand that, though the merits of BYU’s code may be debatable, the code itself irrelevant to the discussion.  Davies opted to hold himself to that standard when he chose BYU (and even more so when he honorably chose to fess up).  In fact, BYU alums have pointed out that the honor code is far from fine print.

Davies is an important player, and dropping him from the team will impact BYU’s chances in the NCAA Tournament.  One wonders if other colleges – including religious schools with renowned athletic programs – would do the same.

March Madness, April sanity, and managing expectations

The NCAA college basketball tournament is the biggest sporting event of the year, so no one can blame the NCAA for wanting to cram more teams into their biggest cash cow.  Still, analysts seemed to worry that the 96-team tournament idea that had been floating around for the last month was overkill – even if the decision seemed imminent.

Whether intentional or not, the 96-team idea made yesterday’s announcement that the tournament would add three extra teams much more palatable.

It’s a good lesson in managing expectations; without that original 96-team plan, the move to 68 might have been perceived as the first step toward an ever-expanding format and draw a healthy round of criticism itself.  The alternative to the 68-team tournament that will probably be in effect next year is now the theoretical 96-team format, rather than the 65-team format we’ve enjoyed since 2001.

(None of this, of course, is going to help me pick a bracket that stays in contention in any office pool past the second round.)

I don’t get tourney picks right very often…

While filling out his 2010 March Madness bracket, President Barack Obama made picks for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament as well.

Not to crow about this, but after our President received some mild criticism for ignoring the ladies’ tourney, my exact words were: “I’ll put $5 down that there’s a women’s bracket next year.”  That makes it the first March Madness bet I’ve ever won.