Get ready for intrigue, drama, upsets; it's NCAA tournament time
NCAA tourney is compelling because it's never overhyped, never disappoints
By Sunday, you may be in tears, and not just because your bracket is toast
Why would NCAA tinker with perfection? A 96-team field is a very bad idea
We might not know what to do about health care, and maybe we ignored the risks of derivatives and pretended not to see the housing bubble and told ourselves that Titanic was really the best picture of that year, whatever year it was.
But dammit, we do one thing right in this country: the NCAA tournament. It is, from start to finish, the best sporting event in America.
If you are a sports fan old enough to drink, how can you even argue the point? The NCAA tournament starts around St. Patrick's Day and encourages you to watch a different TV with each eyeball while taking no-look sips from your pint ... wait, that's not what I meant to say. What I meant is that if you're old enough to drink, you have sat through enough lousy Super Bowls and boring World Series games and monotonous NBA Finals to appreciate how reliably awesome the NCAA tournament is.
There are two reasons for this:
1. It's never overhyped.
You can't say that about any other sporting event. Heck, forget sports -- how many things in this world can you say that about? How many restaurants? How many vacation destinations? How many books, bands, beers, nude scenes or technological advances?
The NCAA tournament is never overhyped because from November to March, most of the country doesn't pay attention to college basketball. You might watch your team. You might watch your conference. But the college basketball season starts during the baseball playoffs, stays underwater for the NFL playoffs and finally comes up for air at the end of the regular season. I mean, Baylor, West Virginia and Kansas State are all top-three seeds in this tournament, and I have yet to hear anybody say they have been inundated with Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia basketball talk for four months and they're sick of it.
The tournament is never overhyped because the best part of the tournament is the underdogs, and nobody overhypes underdogs. That's why they're underdogs. And the NCAA has enough underdogs to guarantee that a few of them will pull off a massive upset -- if a huge underdog has a 1-in-10 chance of winning, then put 10 of them in a tournament and one will probably win. And since a) nobody knows which underdogs will win and b) nobody knows how those underdogs will win, you are sure to scream at the TV in amazement this weekend.
By Sunday, a few scenes will bring tears to your eyes, and not just because your bracket got destroyed. This tournament will bring us Syracuse's Kris Joseph against his brother Maurice, who plays for Vermont, in the first round. It brings us a real Sweet 16 threat from the Ivy League in Cornell, and a Georgetown star, Austin Freeman, who recently was diagnosed with diabetes, and a Baylor team that could make the Final Four just a few years after one of the worst scandals in NCAA history.
This is the rare sporting event that is riveting if you know everything there is to know about it or nothing at all. That's the great thing about the seeding system -- it grades everybody's bracket picks on a curve. One of these years, I might just block out all the team names on my bracket and only pick seeds -- two 12s and a 13 to win in the first round, a 10 to beat a two in the second, two 1s, a 2 and a 4 to make the Final Four. And I would have as good a chance as ever to win my pool.
(Of course, I much prefer my current foolproof, knowledge-based system. I don't pick teams that are lousy at free-throw-shooting, or rely too much on frontcourt play, or are bad at shooting threes or defending the three, or only win when they run, or only when win they slow the pace, or have choke-artist coaches or rely too much on freshmen. I eliminated all those teams, and I am proud to present my 2010 NCAA champions: the Lakers.)
Thanks to its universal gambling appeal, the NCAA tournament brings people together. It also hurts worker productivity, but who are we kidding? Employment is so 1990s.
Yes, this tournament rocks. Naturally, the NCAA wants to tinker with it.
The NCAA is thinking of going from 65 to 96 teams. I don't know anybody outside of the coaching profession who likes this idea. For all the Selection Sunday discussion about whether Illinois and Virginia Tech got screwed, even fans of those teams have to admit they had their chances. This isn't like the BCS, where undefeated teams have a reason to complain. If you're on the tournament bubble, you earned your way there -- and you were looking at a short tournament stay anyway.
A lot of coaches want a 96-team tournament because they think it will save coaches' jobs. The idea is that coaches improve their job security if they make the tournament; therefore, if more coaches make the tournament, more coaches have job security. I appreciate the sentiment, but ... really? They should dilute the tournament because it will save coaches' jobs?
Did coaches gain job security when the tournament went to 64 teams? Have all these ridiculous bowls -- the Poinsettia Bowl and GMAC Bowl and This Space For Sale Bowl -- helped the job security of football coaches?
Coaches get fired so quickly for a lot of reasons -- general impatience, gutless school presidents, boosters with too much power, fan bases that use the most successful period in team history as the baseline for future success. Expanding the tournament to more than 65 teams will not change any of those reasons. For every coach that gets a one-year stay of execution for sneaking into a 96-team field, another coach will get whacked after making the tourney because (I can hear the athletic director's press conference already) "we have higher aspirations than just making a 96-team tournament."
No, the 65-team tournament is perfect. Absolutely perfect.
But don't take my word for it. Just watch.
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