Category Archives: Championship Week

Watching the NCAA tourney’s move to 96 teams…

As the Final Four tips off this weekend with nary a big name playing on the court, the needed distraction to steal some headlines has been created by the NCAA themselves as the confirmation of a move to 96 teams in the NCAA tournament has brought much controversy to Indianapolis.

So what are we to make of the 96-team field?  Is it a money grab as most analysts postulate?  Is it a move to get the tourney in the hands of ESPN?  None of that part of the equation really matters to the average fan.  What does matter is what this beloved tournament will look like in the future, next year by some estimates, 2014 by others.

The 96-team tournament would take the top 32 seeds and give them a bye in what would now be called the “Opening Round.”  If you’re thinking about how that term sounds familiar, you’re right!  That’s what the game played between the two lowest seeded teams is called now.  Only in this year’s tournament, it gave Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop the opportunity to lose to Duke in Round One.

Under this new configuration, the tournament would start on the same day, a Thursday, with Selection Sunday preceding the opening round games on Thursday and Friday. 

(TANGENT: Is anybody else  just a little stunned by how many proper nouns the NCAA tournament throws at us these days?  Selection Sunday, Final Four, March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Dick Vitale.  It’s a veritable nightmare to write about.  Then you have to think about whether you capitalize and how to format things like seeds.  Is it 1st seeded Kansas, first seeded Kansas, first-seeded Kansas, First-Seeded Kansas or Ninth-Seeded Norhtern Iowa?  Clearly, the last one is correct.  But really, after writing a half-dozen or so articles on the tourney this spring, I am dumbfounded by the grammatical issues I encounter weekly.  The NCAA needs to publish a style guide.)

The Opening Round would whittle 64 teams down to 32 and they would then play the teams with byes on Saturday and Sunday to see who advances to Round Two.  Here’s where the tourney gets those days back that most analysts were sure would turn into an extra weekend.  The games for Round Two would be played the next Tuesday and Wednesday, deciding what schools will make up the Sweet Sixteen.

The tournament then plays out the rest of the way as usual.  The second Thursday and Friday would whittle squads down to the Elite Eight, with Final Four teams earning berths on Saturday Sunday.  Then the national semifinals and championship game would be played on Saturday and Monday as they are in the days to come.

In theory, this sounds like it would work.  We’d get teams in that would normally be on the bubble.  The committee would be able to make sure that perennial invitees likes North Carolina and Connecticut would most always be included (they would surely make this year’s field were it 96 teams strong).  Perhaps more mid-major conferences would have multiple teams in the Big Dance (there’s another proper noun…I think).  It gives the network who bids the highest for broadcast rights more games and adds two more nights of primetime sports programming.

But for every positive I can see, there are two negatives that pop up immediately.  The Opening Round would feature 64 teams that are outside of the top 25 at the end of the year.  Those lucky 32 would presumably be the biggest stories of the year in the NCAA and the 64 leftovers would be the way the tourney would kick off.  Those would be the days people call in sick to work or lower productivity if they absolutely have to be at their jobs.  The marquee players from the best teams would have the Opening Round off and that would hurt the tournament as it would lead to match-ups that –while they may be competitive and entertaining– would feature middle of the road teams from big conferences and the second or third entries from mid-majors, without a spotlight game in sight.

Put it this way: if the 96-team tourney were instituted, the ten best teams in action on the first two days of the tournament would be the 9 and 10 seeds.  This year that would have been Northern Iowa, Wake Forest, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Missouri, St. Mary’s and Florida.  It’s hard to imagine CBS riding those big name schools to stellar ratings in the first two days of the tourney.

What of the teams with the byes?  For those schools, they would be inactive for at least five days, and in most cases more.  They would have exactly five days off if their conference played its championship game on Selection Sunday, which only a handful still do, assuming the school got to the final game in their respective tourney.  Most schools would be on their butts for a week or more, leaving them vulnerable.  In the Big East Tournament this year, three of the four schools that had byes fell in the first game they played.  It’s feasible to think that the teams with byes in a 96-school NCAA tournament field would fall to the same misfortune.  If that’s the case, we could see more instances of top-ranked schools (i.e. Kansas) doing nothing to boost ratings and interest deep into the tournament.

Additionally, Championship Week (proper noun alert!) would lose a lot of its meaning.  Teams like Minnesota who made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, would probably enter Championship Week as a lock to be included in the 96-team guest list.  Teams that enter the week with a chance to make a run in big conferences would probably be close to .500, which is just pathetic and nauseating.  I really don’t want to end up talking about a bad Michigan team being on the bubble as the Big Ten tourney begins because they are 14-16.  A few wins puts them over .500 and maybe gets the committee’s attention.  Do we want that?

In terms of actual gameplay, a team that started from the bottom 64 teams without an Opening Round bye, would end up playing three games in six days in order to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  That means a Northern Iowa’s path would be that much harder, effectively stacking the deck against Cinderella.  Those darling teams are what makes this tournament great.  If UNI ended up playing Kansas with an extra game of fatigue on their legs, it’d make the task that much more difficult on them to pull the upset.  If it had happened this year, KU might have had just enough to hold off Ali Farokhmanesh and company.

Finally, let’s look at what college athletics is at its heart.  Student athletes are pupils first and those who matriculate are there to attend an academic institution over a basketball game.  While the tournament itself is a great cultural event and a rallying point on many campuses across the United States, adding games to two-thirds of the tourney field and playing games on Tuesday and Wednesdays in addition to Thursday through Sunday would send the wrong message.  Many of these schools are steeped in academic tradition and may have reservations about allowing their student athletes to participate in the tournament.  Several schools do not hold spring break or have it at varying times, so that fix is not viable. 

On those same lines, imagine the mass exodus of college students who would leave campus to attend the games and the push the schools’ administrations and athletic departments would provide to get butts in seats and have support be thrown toward the pride of their schools.

Furthermore, it would be very shady of the NCAA to add games on those days of play while they are also sticking to their argument that the Bowl Championship Series in college football should not be abandoned for a playoff because of the academic consequences therein.  Pretty hypocritical if you ask me.

TANGENT: Here’s a bonus reason why this move is insane.  Do you really want to see seeds in the twenties?  Do we want to hear Jay Bilas say, “Arizona State was really hoping for a seed in the teens, but instead they will have to settle for a 21 seed and an Opening Round matchup against Notre Dame” or Clark Kellogg break down the upset picks in the 13-20 matchup as opposted to the 5-12.  Ughh.  Kill me now.

I think that ultimately this is a bad thing, but the Big Dance will still be the Big Dance.  It will still have mystique, but it just won’t look the same, kind of like Cindy Crawford.  We will all still love it and we will all run to watch.

When it’s all said and done, college basketball fans need to realize that 96 is coming, whether we like it or not.  It’s a good thing there was something to talk about besides Hoosiers in Indianapolis this week, though.  It may have saved the Final Four.  At least we’re talking about something besides the lack of a first team All-American, the three number one seeds that didn’t make it or the cakewalk most of these schools had in getting to the Final Four.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Basketball, Championship Week, College Basketball, ESPN, Final Four, Journalism, NCAA Tournament

Watching the Pac-10 lose the West…

As the NCAA Selection Committee prepares to finalize their brackets on Sunday night, the scene will shift from the conference tournaments to the Big Dance, but we should all be reminded that this season -above any others in recent memory- has seen a shift in power out West, one that members of the Pacific-10 conference should be mindful.

The Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC) currently stake more claims at NCAA berths than the Pac-10.  Those aren’t combined figures, individually the two conferences have better outlooks on Selection Sunday than the Pac-10. 

The MWC has four teams (New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State) that have legitimate claims at the NCAA tournament.  The WCC will get two in the dance after Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in the conference championship,

The Mountain West begins tournament play in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday.  BYU and New Mexico are locks to make the tourney.  UNLV is close to a lock as long as there aren’t too many bubble busters this year.  If the Rebels can take down Utah in their first round game (something they haven’t done this year, losing in Vegas and in Salt Lake), they should all but punch their ticket.  SDSU probably has some more work to do, but a deep run into the MWC tourney should solidify their resumé for the selection committee.  Four teams in the dance is a real possibility for the Mountain West.

The West Coast Conference also played their tournament in Las Vegas, at The Orleans Arena.  Saint Mary’s blew Gonzaga out of the arena and into The Orleans’ casino, cruising to a 81-62 win.  The Gaels had been 0-2 against Gonzaga this year.  The Zags are sure to get an at-large bid and Saint Mary’s will not have to sweat it out as a bubble team this year, although their resumé would have been pretty impressive.

How about the Pac-10? Most experts believe that the University of California will be in after winning the conference’s regular season title, going 13-5. Washington and Arizona State are firmly on the bubble, making for great drama in the conference tournament this week. The conference had a down year and getting only one team (if Cal wins the Pac-10 tourney) is a real possibility, especially if at-large bids continue to be stolen by schools like Saint Mary’s.

The one thing the Pac-10 has going for it is that their top three teams have ended the regular season on streaks. Cal won seven of their last eight, UW has won four in a row and ASU was victorious in six of their last seven. It’s no secret that the selection committee likes schools that are playing their best ball in March, but the stage has been set to see a power conference get just their tournament champion in the dance like most mid-majors are used to every year.

However, one down year does not a crisis make, right?  Think again.  The MWC in particular has finally begun to steal the western showcase as the premier conference in the last few years.

This year’s edition of the Pac-10 went 4-5 against the MWC and 6-6 against the WCC.  Modest numbers for the lesser conferences and embarrassing for the Pac-10, one of the premier conferences in the country.  Many of these games were in Pac-10 arenas, as big schools continue to be weary when it comes to going into a rabid environment as a favorite against a potential giant killer.

Need more evidence to show that the Pac-10 is no longer the dominant force in Western college basketball?  Check the rankings.  Currently the MWC has two teams ranked: BYU (#15 in the AP Poll/#14 in ESPN’s Coaches Poll) and New Mexico (#8 in both polls).  UNLV is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.  The WCC’s Gonzaga is ranked #18 in the AP Poll and #14 in the Coaches Poll.  Saint Mary’s is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.

The Pac-10?  The conference has zero teams in the top 25 in both polls and only one team (Cal) is receiving votes.  Even the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) has Utah State receiving more votes in both polls than the Pac-10’s Cal Golden Bears.

Clearly, better basketball is being played in the lesser conferences out west than in the Pac-10.  ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi has four MWC teams in the NCAA tournament, two in from the WCC and two in from the Pac-10 with Cal and ASU making the cut, though ASU is listed as one of the last squads in.  Washington is among Lunardi’s first four out of the dance.

The news gets even worse when one starts talking about the Pac-10 and the Mountain West in college football.  In 2009, three MWC teams finished in the top 25 of the AP Poll.  Texas Christian University finished ranked #6, BYU earned a #12 ranking and Utah finished at #18.  The Pac-10 had only two teams in the final poll, with Oregon ranked #11 and USC finishing at #23.

In the last two years, the MWC has done exceptionally in head-to-head matchups against Pac-10 schools.  In 2008, the MWC dominated the Pac-10, going 6-1 in the regular season and losing in the only bowl game the conferences played against one another (an Arizona win over BYU).  In 2009, the MWC went 2-3 against the Pac-10 with both wins coming in bowl games. 

Combine the last two years and the MWC can boast a 8-5 record against the Pac-10 in football, including a 2-1 record in head-to-head matchups in bowl games.

Is it time for the Pac-10 to panic?  Probably not.  It’s unlikely that historically strong basketball programs like UCLA and Arizona won’t recover with strong recruiting and superior coaching.  In football, no one thinks USC will stay down for long and certainly programs like Oregon, Washington and Stanford are strong teams that are on the up-and-up.

However, the success of the Mountain West should not be ignored as the conference is making a bid to be the second major conference from the west.

Is it any wonder that the Pac-10 is talking about expansion?  Furthermore, if the conference does add more schools, some of the teams being mentioned include MWC members Utah, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV.

If you can beat ’em, join ’em (or in this case, invite them to join you).

2 Comments

Filed under Basketball, Championship Week, College Basketball, College Football, Football, Mountain West Conference, MWC, NCAA Tournament, Pac-10, Pacific-10 Conference, West Coast Conference