Wake Me When It's Over
Is this the most boring NCAA Tournament ever?
Of course, what was a gutsy, conscience-free shot by Ronald Moore on Friday was a hasty, forced shot on Sunday—the difference being that one went in and the other didn't. It's impossible to quantify the effect of previous upsets on this year's close calls. We can assess the NCAA's growing talent gap with more certainty. When the rule stating that players were not draft eligible until their high school graduating class had been out of school for a year took effect in 2006, it appeared to level the NCAA playing field. Experienced teams would seemingly have an edge over squads that are continually replacing "one and done" studs. But as 2008 finalists and '09 Sweet 16 teams Kansas and Memphis demonstrate, the powerhouse programs have thus far had no trouble reloading with premium athletes and have offset any lack of team chemistry with raw talent.
The mid-majors are also getting squeezed by the selection committee. This year, only four of the 34 at-large berths were given to schools outside the power conferences. Those slots are vitally important for the little guys, as they have an outsize effect on recruiting better players—witness Gonzaga's transition from cuddly mid-major to annual high seed. The big-conference stranglehold on the tournament further stratifies the haves and have-nots for the future. Things might only get even boringer.
What's more, season-long bracketology has resulted in a selection committee that may be too accurate for its own good. Yesterday's upset-laden tourneys may have been more about too-highly seeded clubs regressing to the mean or unfairly low-seeded teams performing to their actual ability. This year's avalanche of high seeds in the Sweet 16 is further evidence that Mike Slive and his committee might need to shake things up next time or risk putting fans to sleep. Perhaps the time allotted to choose the brackets should be reduced from several days to 45 minutes. Lightning round!
Another radical thought—with the Madness draining from March, perhaps it's time to contract the tourney. Until the mid-1970s, only the conference tournament winners made the "Big Dance," which then consisted of no more than 25 teams. What if tournament berths went to the regular-season champions of each conference? That would eliminate the mediocre teams that get hot for a weekend at the conference tournament and then gum up the works in the big show. There are 31 conferences, so the selection committee could halve their annual duty and pick only 17 more, for a total of 48. They could also bring back the first-round bye for the top 16 seeds—not that big a deal when you consider the top four seeds have lost only five games in the first round since 2006.
This way, the various Middle Valley State Techs that make the first rounds so compelling will have more of a fighting chance at upsets, as the lowest seed would face the fifth-best team in the region, rather than the best, in the first rounds. They then would have a game under their belts when it came time to play the elites, who took the first round off. Tightening the field would also eliminate many of the average teams who make the dance from the power conferences. That would help level the monetary playing field among the conferences, spreading out the payoffs for winning tourney games around the country. So maybe the same dozen schools wouldn't comprise the Final Four year in and year out. There's nothing as boring as that.