November 17, 2010

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

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If you turned on ESPN between the hours of 12:00 a.m. Tuesday morning and 11:00 p.m. the following night, chances are you were witness to one of the greatest spectacles in sports: college basketball. Nowhere else in the world of athletic competition can you find as perfect a blend of passionate players and equally passionate fans. While this certainly draws many fans to college basketball, what truly defines the sport is its postseason experience.

What makes March Madness the perfect sporting event is its lack of perfection. In a perfect world, the four No. 1 seeds would have met in Indianapolis last April and Kansas would have been cutting down the nets in celebration of its fourth national title. But where is the fun in that? If I wanted to watch a sport in which the champion is crowned based on public perception alone I would tune into college football. Instead, the NCAA tournament is fueled by unpredictable upsets, unrivaled drama and the belief that any single team can bring home the ultimate prize.

Yet despite all that there is to praise about college basketball and its postseason, this column will not be a sappy love story about the campus hardwood. Instead, it will be a tale of impending disaster, and like most horror stories of the modern day, this one doesn’t appear to have a happy ending.

After another whirlwind March that saw a No. 1 seed fall in the first weekend of play, a No. 5 seeded mid-major come within a half-court shot of the title and our beloved Cornell basketball team advance to the first-ever Sweet 16 in school history, the NCAA inexplicably entered negotiations with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to give the ultimate sporting event an unnecessary facelift.

The plan was simple: expand the NCAA tournament field. As of last spring, the NCAA tournament was comprised of 65 teams, 63 of which would have an automatic birth into the tournament’s opening round while the final two would be left to battle it out for a No. 16 seed in a play-in game. The system has worked great, generating an ideal mix of upsets and predictable results.

Then what is the motive behind the talks of expansion?

While schools would like to think that the NCAA was acting in compassion for those bubble teams that have failed to qualify over the years and fans try to convince themselves that the NCAA was merely trying to increase the level of competition in postseason play, it is pretty clear the answer to the above question is much more black and white — or in this particular case, green. A larger tournament would lead to more games, which would lead to more televised content, which would lead to … you guessed it, more money. I am not naïve and will rightfully acknowledge that college basketball is as much a business as it is a sport, but why make such drastic changes if business is booming? And at what point does the risk outweigh the reward?

The optimist in me likes to think that these were the questions that the NCAA considered when selecting an expanded 68-team field over the much more detrimental 96-team option. But I have been called a pessimist more than once in my life, and my gut feeling tells me that the NCAA is simply trying to lessen the imminent blow of an even larger expansion waiting on the near horizon.

The pros and cons for a 96-team field are abundant, but are in no way balanced. Yes, it is true that a larger tournament would allow more bubble teams to sneak their way into meaningful postseason competition, but no matter how many are allowed to qualify for March Madness there will still be plenty more left out; unless, of course, the NCAA decides to expand to a 344-team field. Imagine what a cash cow that would be!

It is easier to shed light on the various negative consequences of a 96-team field, with the first example coming months before the first tip-off in March. Long overshadowed by its postseason counterpart, the college basketball regular season has never received the recognition that it deserves. The campus atmosphere, conference rivalries and bracket buster matchups are just a few of the reasons that make every single game in college basketball something special. I worry about what would happen to all of these aspects if the NCAA one day decides to adopt such a large tournament field. Sure, fans would still turn out to games and rivalries would still exist, but would the games still convey the same sense of importance as they do now? In conferences like the Ivy League, where only one team is likely to receive a bid to a 68 or 96-team field, the answer is probably yes. But in the power conferences that can state a case for any team over .500 to receive a bid, this may not be the case.

Consider the resume of the 2010 Illinois Fighting Illini, which found itself on the outside looking in last March. The Illini finished 19-14 on the season and barely missed the field, leaving speculation as to whether more wins — regardless of how easy the opponents might have been — would have helped sneak the team in. It probably would have in a 96-team field, which is an issue that needs to be addressed. With a larger tournament, teams like Illinois would not have nearly as much incentive to schedule difficult non-conference games in order to boost their résumé. Instead they would feast on lower-tier squads in order to push their winning percentage far above .500. This decrease in regular season competition is just one detrimental consequence of an expanded tournament.

Another great component to college basketball that would be impacted is the conference tournament season. Unlikely rallies such as the one constructed by Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara in the 2005-06 Big East tournament would be at jeopardy in a 96-team field, as most teams in the Big Six conference tournaments would probably already have found a way to sneak into March Madness with a sub-par overall record. Once again, the smaller conferences would more than likely remain the same, but the overall college basketball product would take a hit come February.

And lastly, while the NCAA, CBS and Turner all stand to gain considerable revenue as a result of a larger tournament, innocent fans like myself stand to lose considerably more. As if it isn’t hard enough to fill out a 65-team bracket with potentially hundred of dollars at stake, imagine throwing 31 more teams into the mix.

As I conclude what may be my last column of the semester, I would like to regress to an earlier point I made. College basketball is perfect as it stands right now. Perfection is not an easy thing to achieve (just ask the 2007 New England Patriots), but imperfection happens far too often (this time you should refer to the 2008 Lions). While I have been critical of the NCAA thus far, I would like to applaud the organization for creating a perfect product and maintaining it while facing the forces of greed and big business. I would also like to warn the NCAA though, because just as quickly as March Madness comes and goes each year, it can also go from perfect to the opposite in a heartbeat. Until then, however, we can all sit back, relax and enjoy the next five months of college basketball, because it is perfect for now and that is truly something to behold.

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Original Author: Dan Froats