Friday, April 02, 2010

Another reason NCAA tournament expansion sucks: The proposed schedule

Amidst John Feinstein's recap today of the NCAA's hypocrisy in claiming the expansion of the NCAA tournament won't affect the "student-athletes," the thing that bothered me even more was how the NCAA says they plan to schedule the expanded 96-team event. Basically, that schedule will end up ruining the best two days of the NCAA tournament.

My first real vivid memory of the NCAA tournament is March 14, 1981 -- which was basically the birth of the fantastic finishes, buzzer beaters and upsets for which modern-day "March Madness" is known for. I was 10 years old and sitting on the couch, and remember the remarkable succession of events in about a half hour -- U.S. Reed of Arkansas hitting a half-court shot to defeat defending champion Louisville, Rolando Blackman running the last four minutes of the clock off in a tie game (in the pre-shot clock days) and hitting a jumper for Kansas State to upset number one seed Oregon State, and St. Joseph's hitting a late shot to defeat Mark Aguirre and number-one ranked DePaul. I'd never seen anything like it, and it started my love for the NCAA tournament. Imagine if a few minutes after Kansas lost to Northern Iowa this year, Kentucky got beat and then Duke lost on a half-court shot 15 minutes later, and you'd have something like what happened that day.

And over the years, I've always thought that of all the rounds of the NCAA tournament, that first Saturday and Sunday with the round of 32 is the best round of the tournament. You get a quadrupleheader on Saturday and a tripleheader on Sunday, but unlike the quadrupleheaders on Thursday and Friday, the games are tighter, there are fewer blowouts and frequently the top seeeds, even if they prevail, are really tested in a way that their games against 15 and 16 seeds don't provide in the first round. And the best thing about it is it's on the weekend--so you can basically spend a full two days, if you choose, watching the game without pesky obligations like work bogging you down.

But in the new schedule for the 96 team tournament, the round of 32 will be scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week of the tournament! This either means that they'll play all these games in the evening as doubleheaders simultaneously, and thus we'll get to see considerably less of this round on television, or they'll play half of the games during the afternoon (either in the format the first round is now shown on television, with separate doubleheaders at noon and seven or something like a continuous quadrupleheader that starts around 3 p.m.), thus allowing that pesky thing called work and other normal weekday obligations to get in the way of enjoying the most fun round of the tournament.

So for the formerly exciting kickoff of the tournament on Thursday and Friday, we're now going to have no top seeds playing, but just the nine through 24 seeds. Don't know about you, but if the biggest upset possible that day is say, the 24th-seeded tournament champion of the SWAC or Patriot League knocking off the fifth place team in the Big East seeded at number nine, those two days lose a lot of their luster. Then, on the weekend, we'll have the traditional round of 64, which, like this year, does frequently bring us upsets and buzzer beaters, but also a lot of blowouts--like when that SWAC champion plays Duke. It's a great appetizer for the weekend feast of the round of 32--but not the main course that we should be watching on Saturday and Sunday.

But now, those great two days of basketball are going to be diminished by ending up on Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week--where they'll be immediately followed on Thursday and Friday by the Sweet 16 round. This is another mistake because it disturbs the natural rhythm of the tournament. For most teams -- not counting the smaller conferences -- making the round of 32 is nice, but making the round of 16 is the true sense of achievement, a sign that you've had a successful season. No one keeps track of how many years in a row a team reaches the second round, because it's not considered that significant if you're in a major conference. And it's rare that any team makes the Elite Eight more than a couple years in a row. But hitting the Sweet Sixteen six, seven years in a row is an impressive accomplishment. That's why it makes sense that the tournament breaks for a few days in between the second round and the third, allowing us to sit back, take stock of what we've seen in the first four days and analyze what's to come over the following weekend. But in the new schedule, the Sweet 16 starts the next day after the round of 32 ends! It doesn't give us any time to breathe and it's a mistake.

Now, of course, the NCAA could easily fix this if they just moved the round of 96 to Tuesday and Wednesday and played the first three rounds consecutively in the same week. It still wouldn't fix the bigger problem in expanding to 96 (diluting the field), but at least it would leave the tournament viewing experience basically intact and unchanged. That might make more "student-athletes" miss school (cough, cough), but it would be the best thing for the tournament. We can only hope someone will realize that before it's too late.

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