Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Getting to the Big Dance

There are really only two plays: Romeo and Juliet, and put the darn ball in the basket. ~ Abe Lemons

The NCAA basketball tournaments (men's and women's, although you have to search a little sometimes to find the women's games) are in full swing. Unlike the fiasco that is the BCS Championship, the basketball players, like all other NCAA sports settle the matter by playing it out.

Of course, each year there is a debate about who didn't make the tournament and about some who did make it who might not have deserved to be there. I don't get too worked up about it one way or the other, because the borderline teams aren't going to be around at the end in all liklihood anyway. But, on the other hand, it's a thrill for those same sorts of teams to make the "big dance", as it's called by all the sports afficiandos. And, once in a blue moon, one of these teams makes a lot of noise and upsets some applecarts.

This year's brouhaha revolved around Syracuse, Air Force, and Drexel, for the most part, featuring Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim crying huge crocodile tears about the injustice of having to go to the NIT instead of playing for the big prize.

You remember the National Invitational Tournament, don't you? Years ago, it was the premier tournament, bigger than the NCAA championship. Now it stands for the "Not Invited (to the big dance) Tournament".

A few people fumed about the absence of Drexel, with loud cries against ACC-favoritism and major grumbles about Stanford making the show. Well, Drexel played pretty poorly in their opening (and finishing) NIT game, losing to -- guess who? -- the ACC's North Carolina State. Once Drexel went down, a lot of the griping ended, and the general consensus seems to be that the Tournament Selection Committee did a pretty good job.

Well, maybe.

Just prior to the tournament, I heard some discussion about the old question of whether a 16-seed would ever beat a 1-seed, which has not happened since the current seeding system went into effect. The point was made that the margins of victory in these opening round games have steadily decreased, reaching an average about 14 points last year. This year, though, the average margin was 31.25 points. In fact, the 2 vs 15 seed games, all won by the 2 seeds, were won by an average 18.75.

So did the committee do well or poorly?

On the one hand, if a seeded competition was set up perfectly, the number 1 seeds would all make it to the finals. This would indicate that the organizers really knew their stuff, and that the teams played up to their normal standards throughout the contests. Well, this year, as we enter the round of sixteen, the lowest seed is a 7, UNLV, which would mean that the seeding has held true, so the committee must have done a bang-up job.

People who fill out bracket sheets are also ecstatic, because they tend to play favorites, so they are still in the hunt. CBS is overjoyed, because when people's brackets are busted, they lose interest, and viewership drops off. It's a sad commentary on sports in this country that gambling interest outweighs interest in the games themselves.

On the other hand, people love Cinderella stories. Last year, George Mason (an 11-seed, I think) made it to the Final Four. A lot of folks were rooting for them, although most of these appeared to be people who didn't bet much. At any rate, each year as the tournament unfolds, a lot of folks look for an underdog who might make a lot of noise because, frankly, it's fun to see a David knock off a Goliath.

But this year, there were no Davids. And it seems some people are happy about that. "Everyone can stop looking for the next George Mason and enjoy watching heavyweights," says CBS Sports. Me, I like overachievers; I like them less when they knock off my teams, but I still appreciate the kind of effort it takes to succeed against the big programs.

So how did the committee do? Well, in my mind, not so good. It's tough, I realize to pick the best sixty-five teams in the country. But when league tournament winners like Belmont and Niagra get waxed, while North Carolina St. or Air Force are playing in the NIT, it brings into doubt some of the methods for picking teams.

I don't think the at-large picks are all that bad (okay, Stanford may have been a weak choice, but they didn't embarrass themselves), but this business of the Mideast North Central Western Conference tourney winner being guaranteed a spot means that there are some pitifully weak teams getting an automatic pass into the big show.

League tournaments are big money and aren't going anywhere, which is fine. Some of them are really exciting, but giving them an automatic tournament bid just isn't right. Let's get the 64 best teams (and dump that stupid play-in game) and have at it.

If the number 1 seeds are that good, let them earn their way to the Final Four.

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