Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 19, 2015

Stop Complaining And Bring On The Madness

So it begins, the frantic three weeks plus a day dash from Selection Sunday to the title game that even Americans who think the low post is just a short piece of wood know as March Madness. Yet for all the hype that the NCAA, the Turner cable networks, and especially CBS bring to bear in an effort to turn an entire month into one long celebration of big-time college basketball, close to 85% of the tournament’s games are wedged into this one long four-day weekend. Just last Sunday evening the original field of 68 teams was unveiled; by this coming Sunday night only 16 squads will be left standing.

Of that number less than half will have anything resembling a realistic shot at being crowned champion. As the tournament began the professionals in Las Vegas gave only six teams better than 20-1 odds of cutting down the nets on the night of April 6th. That’s partly because this year Kentucky is such a prohibitive favorite, but also a reflection of the truth that every March most of those who make it to the Big Dance are ultimately just filling the role of backup dancers. Important to the overall choreography of the event for certain, but not the teams that will be remembered. One should never forget that for 67 of the 68 original contestants, March Madness always ends in April Anguish.

Perhaps pundits are in a bad mood because of the horrendous winter that much of the country has endured. After all, Friday’s sixteen games will be played on the day that spring arrives, which happens to be one more day where the weather forecast here in New England calls for snow. Whatever the reason, this year’s tournament has been preceded by a higher than normal volume of complaints and second-guessing.

No sooner had the field been announced than veteran sportswriter John Feinstein was using his Washington Post column to proclaim that the tournament’s biggest problem was the selection committee itself. “Let me put this simply: the NCAA basketball committee needs to be blown up,” wrote Feinstein. In his sharply worded opinion the group deciding who gets into the tournament was woefully short on people with actual experience in the game. Specifically Feinstein faulted the NCAA rule that allows only current Division I athletic directors or conference commissioners to serve. It’s a rule that this year produced a committee on which only Northeastern AD Peter Roby had experience as a basketball coach.

Feinstein went on to opine that the lack of game savvy on the committee results in the members being too dependent on statistics like RPI and SOS. Ratings Percentage Index combines multiple factors including a team’s winning percentage and that of their opponents to rate teams. Strength of Schedule considers not just how well a team’s opponents have fared, but the records of the opponents’ opponents as well. The Washington Post columnist would throw all that out in favor of a group of retired coaches watching the games and using gut instinct to identify the best teams.

Ultimately Feinstein’s real complaint was that the current selection committee picks too many name teams at the expense of the so-called mid-majors, the conferences that are outside of the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. But Marc Tracy, who covers college sports for the New York Times, followed along with a critique that found the entire college game wanting. Warning that fans who tuned in just for the tournament were about to be disappointed, Tracy cited statistics showing a steady decline in scoring and offensive possessions as proof that the game has become ponderous. He pointed to a February game between Utah and Oregon State that was 16-14 at the half as recent evidence of the problem.

Tracy and Feinstein are by no means alone in their complaints. As the regular season wound down earlier this month long-time observer Seth Davis wrote in Sports Illustrated that “college basketball is facing a crisis. It’s time for an extreme makeover.”

The opinions of these writers should not simply be dismissed. Davis in particular has written principally about college basketball for the better part of two decades. In an age in which the public attention span appears to be steadily decreasing to the point that it may soon be measured in milliseconds, many sports are looking for ways to speed up the action. It’s worth noting that the NCAA is experimenting with a shorter shot clock and a bigger defensive arc under the basket (to reduce charging fouls) during this year’s NIT tournament. And certainly finding ways to limit the incessant fouling and timeouts that can turn the final “minute” of a tight game into a quarter-hour slog would be welcome.

But pundits have a tendency to see the world in black and white. What they too readily cast as an irreversible slide into oblivion usually turns out to be a passing trend. They also have an innate capacity to seize upon a single event and give it momentous import; witness the recent columns forecasting the death of the NFL in the wake of one 24-year old linebacker’s decision to retire after a single season because of concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma.

College basketball, like every other sport, will constantly change with the times; and perhaps the immediate times are ones in which greater change is needed. But what these writers fail to grasp is that for the millions of casual fans now tuning in none of that matters. What is important to these fans is that most brackets were thoroughly busted before half a dozen games had been played.

The Blazers from 14th seed UAB, a team that played to small crowds all season because local fans were unhappy that the school had decided to terminate its football program, upended 3rd seed Iowa State. Less than an hour later Georgia State, another 14th seed, dismissed Baylor with a three just before the buzzer. Number 10 Ohio State sent 7th seed VCU home in overtime, and 11th seed UCLA, one of the name schools Feinstein had complained about, stunned 6th seed SMU on, of all things, a goaltending call. Even lowly Northeastern University, one of only three entrants that would allow anyone in New England to have a local team to root for, took ACC champion Notre Dame down to the last possession before falling. All that with half the games to play on just the first day of college basketball’s annual weekend that is equal parts grandeur and chaos.

No doubt the game has its share of problems, and no doubt the veteran pundits who follow the sport closely are sincere in offering their recommended fixes. But for millions of fans across the country, in the midst of the maddest of March weekends, the games they are watching will do just fine.

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