Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 16, 2017

As The Madness Begins, Fewer Cinderellas Hold Dance Cards

Shortly after noon Thursday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, where residents were still digging out from a late winter snowstorm, Notre Dame and Princeton tipped off to begin the most frantic long weekend in college sports. The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament now stretches out over three full weeks, from the first two play-in games last Tuesday to the championship final on Monday, April 3rd. Since the field was expanded to sixty-eight teams in 2011, the tournament begins with eight unfortunate squads having to square off against each other in preliminary contests just to earn the right to join the main bracket. Ahead, in the tournament’s second and third weekends, are the regionals, where the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight will do battle, and then the hysteria and hype of the Final Four, this year slated for University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, a venue that has previously hosted the Super Bowl.

But in between the aperitifs of the four play-in games last Tuesday and Wednesday, and the rich deserts of the winnowed field playing before ever larger crowds as the tournament builds to its climax, lies this first weekend when fans gorge on a feast of hardcourt play with forty-eight games over four days. By Sunday evening more than three-quarters of the original field will be gone, dreams of March Madness glory vanquished for another season.

This is the weekend that gives the tournament its nickname. Multiple games running at the same time, now accessible to fans not just by switching back and forth between television channels but also by the click of a mouse to watch live streams or constantly updated play-by-play and analysis on countless websites. But the thrill of the first two rounds is fueled by more than the sheer volume of games. The excitement of these four days is pumped up by the adrenaline rush of possibility. This first weekend is when stunning upsets and wild finishes can tumble over one another, sometimes coming at a breakneck pace. The odds are good that by Sunday evening at least one giant will have been humbled, and in one of the eight arenas hosting this annual onslaught of basketball, an unlikely team will celebrate advancing to the regionals even as fans and pundits alike bestow upon it the honorific of being this year’s Cinderella.

At its core that is the promise of the tournament. When the season began all 351 Division I teams had a route to becoming national champion. That’s because the NCAA guarantees a spot in the tournament for the winners of all thirty-two conference titles. Prevail over the other schools in the Summit League or the Ohio Valley Conference, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the far better known champions of the ACC or Big Ten, a half-dozen wins away from history.

It is that promise that draws fans who don’t watch a single basketball game at any level the rest of the year. It’s what causes otherwise sober and conservative citizens to open their wallets and bet an estimated $10 billion on the tournament (most of it illegally), more than twice what is wagered on the Super Bowl. And of course it is what sends American productivity plunging at the end of the third week in March, as workers everywhere obsess over how their bracket is faring in the $2 office pool.

It is also, at least in the context of the tournament’s ultimate goal of determining the national champion, almost certainly an illusion. Yes it is true that in 2010 and 2011 the Butler Bulldogs, then champions of the Horizon League, made back-to-back improbable runs to the championship game. Coach Brad Stevens’s squad lost to Duke in 2010 and UConn the following year. The surprising efforts earned Stevens a job as head coach of the Boston Celtics and Butler a promotion to the Big East. And it is also true that three years after Connecticut downed Butler while representing the Big East, the Huskies won yet another title, this time as a member of the American Athletic Conference. But UConn has long been a basketball power, and its membership in the American is just a product of the major conference realignments sweeping through college sports in the past few years. When the Catholic universities that formed the core of the Big East took that league’s name and formed a basketball-only power conference the remaining members scattered to the wind.

There have also been occasional trips to the Final Four, if not all the way to the final game, by schools from the so-called midmajor conferences. Wichita State made it to the last weekend three years ago and George Mason did so in 2006. Yet save for UConn with its Big East heritage none of those teams ever wound up cutting down the nets. These infrequent sojourns to the tournament’s final weekend keep the dream alive, but the list of NCAA Division I champions is a stern reminder that in the end a team from one of the power conferences will prevail.

That result is made increasingly likely by the tournament selection committee’s choice of at-large teams. After the thirty-two automatic bids are decided at the conference tournaments, the committee fills out the bracket by choosing the thirty-six best remaining teams. Beginning with the tournament’s expansion to its current size in 2011, teams from midmajor conferences were given seven, eleven, eleven, ten and then again seven at-large bids through 2015. Last season the number slipped to six. This year only four midmajor schools were added to the field as at-large teams. The five power conferences that dominate college football – the Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, plus the Big East, received 89% of the at-large bids.

Analysts agree that the reason for the shift is the committee’s increasing reliance on RPI, the statistical measure of strength of schedule. Because the bulk of every team’s schedule is made up of conference play, even a very good team in a middling or weak conference is going to have an unimpressive RPI. The cycle then turns on itself, as fewer tournament bids mean less exposure, resulting in tougher recruiting and weaker teams outside of the power conferences.

Still on this first weekend fans can hope, but they should do so with a clear head. So it was appropriate that the tournament began with a game between the #5 seed Notre Dame and #12 Princeton. The five versus twelve first round matchup, famous as the source of so many early upsets over the years. After trailing by as many as eleven points, the Ivy League champions rallied late, twice pulling to within a single point. With seven seconds left and the score 59-58, Princeton’s Devin Cannady launched a long three-point jumper that would have given the Tigers the lead. But the shot missed, and Notre Dame survived. A reminder right at the start, that at this tournament Cinderella might dance for a while, but in the end midnight always strikes.

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