Messing with the NCAA tournament
It’s March, so it’s time for a diversion from talking about urbanism, and on to my second favorite passion – college basketball. As a lifelong Kansas Jayhawk fan, this is always the most fun (and sometimes most excruciating) time of the year. Just for good measure – Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Now that the brackets have come out and our unofficial pastime of gambling on sports has commenced, I thought it’d be fun to imagine how the tournament could work differently. I know, I know, this is already arguably the most exciting event in sports – how could it be any better?
It’s true – the 3 weeks of the NCAA tournament is incredibly fun. Filled with storylines and David vs Goliath matchups, March Madness has a little something for everyone. And, contrary to college football, the champion is settled on the court as teams are forced to play each other in a single-elimination tournament.
But here’s the thing – while it’s tremendous fun for fans, if we’re honest we know that the single-elimination tournament is not the best way to determine a champion. In basketball especially, the format really favors the underdogs, including teams that may only win 1 times out of 10 against a better team. That makes it very exciting to watch, but not a great way to pick a champion. In the NBA by contrast, the best teams play it out in Best of 5 or 7 series in the playoffs.
Single-elimination in football makes more sense to me, as is done in the NFL. Rarely in the NFL do you get the feeling that the team that won the Superbowl didn’t deserve it. As a true team sport played over 3 hours, and without the personal fouls that basketball has, football lends itself to single-elimination.
But basketball is a very different game. Foul problems or an injury to one key player can change an entire game. Played out over a series, that averages out. In a one-game playoff, it can be devastating. A great many years, fans of college basketball are left with the feeling that the NCAA champion really didn’t deserve it, and/or that the Final 4 wasn’t really representative of the best teams.
So what then to do about it? Do I really think we should mess with the most exciting event in sports?
Well, yes, I do. Here’s a thought – combine the best of the early round excitement with a more NBA-like format later on.
Starting with 64 teams (or 68 as is done now), play the first weekend exactly as it’s done now. Single-elimination. Survive and advance. If you’re a top team and you can’t win 2 games against opponents this much below you, you don’t deserve to advance.
Following that, you’re left with the Sweet 16. From that point on, re-seed and have a best 2 out of 3 series for each team until the very end. Each weekend essentially (or a long weekend of 4 days), 2 teams would play each other to elimination with up to 3 games. After one weekend, you’d have 8, the next weekend 4, the next 2 and then the champion.
The whole process would take 2 weeks longer than it does now, and certainly involve many more games. The games could be home-court games, much like the NBA does. Higher-seeded teams would get the advantage of the extra home game.
Yes, this would eliminate the Final 4 weekend. Cry me a river – only the NCAA really likes this, since it makes them a lot of money. The games are all played today in big stadia, so the seats are lousy and the game experience is mediocre at best. Very few fans of the teams really get to participate, because of the time and expense. A couple more home games, though – that’s very do-able for nearly all schools.
Incidentally – I’d eliminate the conference tournaments, too. At least for the big 6 conferences, the games are virtually meaningless year after year. Just crown the regular-season champ as the real champ, and select teams based on that finish. For the small conferences, keep their tourneys – those are fun and meaningful.
So, I’m sure this has some flaws – pick it apart. I absolutely love this time of year, but is it really the best way to select a champion?
Enjoy the games!