There are two NCAA Tournaments every year. One takes place over the opening weekend, the two-round, 48-game feast. This is the one usually rife with upsets and dramatic buzzer-beaters, and when it isn’t it gets labeled “boring” by the media and the fans. The other tournament, starting with Thursday’s Sweet 16, is a playground for the big boys, with matchups between power programs stocked with NBA-ready prospects. History has shown that, despite the occasional exception like George Mason in 2006 or Davidson last year, the underdog from the first tournament doesn’t fare well in the second.
Still, fans like to see a Cinderella or two show up at the ball, and this year’s tournament has disappointed in that regard. For the first time ever, the top three seeds in each region advanced, and only one double-digit seed—No. 12 Arizona—made it through. How come this year has produced such seemingly dull results?
One answer is that actually, it hasn’t been that dull. There were some excellent games the first weekend, although the best ones took place late at night, after a wearying day chock full of TV timeouts, reminders that President Obama would be interviewed on 60 Minutes, and Bill Raftery screaming “Onions!” after every big shot. The Siena-Ohio State and UCLA-VCU contests were particularly thrilling, but both ended close to midnight ET, well after the casual bracket-filler-outer had called it a day. Ronald Moore of Siena probably wanted to call it a day against the Buckeyes after missing nine of the 11 shots he had taken, including all four 3-pointers. But Moore then drilled a game-tying 3 at the end of overtime, and another with 3.9 seconds left to win the game in double OT. How’s that not exciting?
It is true, though, that several low-seeded teams came tantalizingly close to knocking off a big guy then fell frustratingly short after letting late leads slip away. No. 16 seed East Tennessee State scored five points in eight seconds to close within two of top-seeded Pitt on Friday, resulting in fist-pumping players drunk on the idea of an upset. Then Kevin Tiggs overeagerly drove the lane into three defenders and turned it over. Pitt responded coolly, feeding star big man DeJuan Blair for a 3-point play, and Pitt was able to avoid becoming the first No. 1 ever to fall to a No. 16.
Siena, a team good enough to qualify as this season’s Davidson or George Mason, followed its dramatic win over Ohio State with a 12-0 run late in the second half Sunday to take a shocking lead over No. 1 Louisville. Rick Pitino called timeout, the Dayton crowd was going bananas—the scene had all the makings of a historic upset. But over the next couple of minutes, Edwin Ubiles and Clarence Jackson of Siena missed hasty 3-pointers (Jackson’s miss was particularly painful, coming on a fast break seconds after a steal), Friday’s hero Moore missed a couple of tough jump shots, and battle-tested Big East power Louisville reeled off nine straight points and won the game.
So was it just bad luck that the little guys fell shy of knocking off Goliath this year? Or is there something different about this year’s tournament that made an upset less likely? Watching the Siena and East Tennessee games, it was hard not to wonder whether the endlessly hyped mythology of the Cinderella has started to affect the players as well as the fans. Today’s players know that draining a 3-pointer to drop a top seed, a la Bryce Drew, will be better remembered than nearly anything in college basketball except winning it all—a goal realistic for only a handful of teams each year. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when faced with a moment that has the potential for repeated replays every March, some kids ditch the disciplined play that brought them to the brink of upset. Had one or two of the teams just kept their focus late in the game, no one would be labeling this tournament “boring.”
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.