Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 16, 2014

Hype It They Must, But Selection Sunday Is But Prelude

So at last there is great and general rejoicing all across the land. For sports fans everywhere the most eagerly awaited day of the year has arrived. Or so it has if one believes CBS Sports, ESPN, and any number of websites. According to their collective hysteria, what day could possibly be more filled with drama and excitement, joy and anguish, than Selection Sunday?

Once upon a distant time, when telephones had cords instead of IQs, the committee charged with choosing the participants in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament did so if not quite in obscurity, at least in relative peace and quiet. Selection Sunday was just another end to just another late winter weekend. Fans might learn the identities of the four number one seeds before the day was out, but anyone interested in the entire bracket probably had to wait until Monday, and even then likely needed access to a major metropolitan newspaper.

All that began to change a little more than three decades ago when CBS wrested the tournament from NBC by paying what was at the time an astonishing $48 million for three years of broadcast rights, triple the amount of NBC’s expiring contract. Having committed all that money, the network then went to work thinking of ways to broaden the tournament’s appeal. Former CBS executive Len Deluca is generally credited with originating the idea of unveiling the committee’s selections on a live show.

The first of those was in 1982, and in a world in which the only constant is change, it offered a format remarkably similar to the one still in use today. The network scrambled to prepare appropriate graphics after receiving a fax with the committee’s selections less than an hour before airtime, and then host Gary Bender took viewers through the tournament’s 48 teams as a panel of analysts offered commentary. Dave Gavitt, commissioner of the fledgling Big East Conference and chair of the selection committee, agreed to a live interview to explain the committee’s reasoning behind both seedings and snubs. Thirty-two years later it’s Greg Gumbel filling the role of program host, and now instead of the two live reaction shots from West Virginia and Fresno State that were part of the first broadcast there are dozens from campuses all across the country.

While the show’s format may have stayed the same, the number of remote cameras is not the only thing that’s changed as Selection Sunday has grown into a major media event. A decade after CBS went live a publicist at St. Joseph’s University began predicting what by that time were the 64 teams that would be chosen; bracketology was born. Today in addition to his day job at the Jesuit school in Philadelphia, Joe Lunardi has the title of resident bracketologist at ESPN. Last year Lunardi correctly predicted all 68 teams to make the tournament field. This Sunday Lunardi’s final bracket included Southern Methodist, but the selection committee passed over the Mustangs, no doubt influenced by their a pair of defeats to end their regular season followed by an upset loss to Houston in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. Despite that setback, one presumes that Lunardi’s non-credit course “Fundamentals of Bracketology” will remain part of the St. Joe’s curriculum.

The final weekend of conference championships often delivers unexpected results that can give the selection committee headaches, and this year was no exception. Arizona’s status as a number one seed may have wobbled when the Wildcats lost the Pac-12 final to UCLA on Saturday. But a short time later Wisconsin fell to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big 10 tournament. The Badgers were seen as the team most likely to benefit from a stumble by Arizona, so their loss likely cemented the Wildcats’ top ranking in the West. Not so lucky was Michigan, thought by most pundits including Lunardi to have the best shot at the fourth number one seed behind Florida, Arizona and Wichita State. The Wolverines were no match for a hot Michigan State squad in the Big-10 final, and their loss coupled with Virginia’s win over Duke in the ACC championship game led Lunardi to move the Cavaliers up in his final pre-Selection Show bracket. Sure enough, just minutes later CBS revealed that the NCAA committee had agreed with the ESPN analyst.

Since the 32 conference champions all win automatic bids, the final weekend always produces a title game result or two that ripples through the entire bracket. Providence was seen as a bubble team this year, one of the eight or ten schools around the country that truly would not know its fate until the final bracket was announced. But then the Friars upended 14th ranked Creighton in the Big East final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. With a charter member of the old Big East winning the newly remade conference’s automatic bid, the committee still had to find room for Creighton. That almost certainly sent some other bubble team on its way to the NIT; perhaps Florida State, or California, or Wisconsin-Green Bay.

What the hype can’t change is the reality that the one thing Selection Sunday isn’t is a sporting event. Like the NFL and NBA drafts it is an event connected to a sport that has assumed a life of its own thanks to relentless media promotion. Yet in a very short time the wailing about the spurning of Southern Mississippi or the incredulity in response to defending national champion Louisville’s being dropped to a fourth seed will be forgotten.

In the place of made for television drama will come the real drama of sports, played out on television. The frantic dash as the 68 chosen to start dwindle through succeeding rounds to those that are sweet, then elite, and ultimately final. In but three weeks time, after the dreaded 5th versus 12th seed upset specials have all been played, after the usual array of buzzer-beaters have beaten their buzzers and a Cinderella or two has played to the witching hour, the players from the lone survivor will cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium. As always in March, the college hardcourt takes its turn on center stage, as the Madness begins. Now that is a show worth watching.

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