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Gans: Tourney system requires revision (March 19)

Sam Gans | Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It’s hard to believe after a five-month college basketball season that was one of the wildest in years – a six-loss team getting the No. 3 overall seed is just one indication of how crazy things were – but tonight marks the beginning of March Madness.

I’m sure some of you readers did a double-take at that statement, thinking, “the NCAA tournament doesn’t start tonight, it begins Thursday.” That is, after all, when brackets are due and that marks the first of two exciting days of 16 different games running from noon through midnight.

However, the tournament does indeed begin tonight when Liberty tips-off against North Carolina A&T at 6:40 p.m., followed by Middle Tennessee State and Saint Mary’s (the California version). LIU Brooklyn will play James Madison tomorrow, as will Boise State and La Salle.

These contests, all played in Dayton, Ohio, were created in 2011 and pit the last four automatic-qualifying teams and last four at-large teams in the tournament against each other for the right to advance to the Round of 64. They are known simply as the “First Four.”

There is no reason they should even exist.

I am not a fan of the NCAA tournament as a system to determine a champion. A large single-elimination tournament is not the best way in my eyes to find the nation’s best team throughout the season. I think the best would be to take the top-16 teams from the regular season and use best-of-three series to crown a victor.

Despite that, I acknowledge the absolute pandemonium March Madness provides and love to watch it. There are tons of nostalgic moments sports fans will remember forever. Names like Bryce Drew and Mateen Cleaves were immortalized in March. Before 2006, George Mason invoked thoughts of the American patriot, or even a character on the best show on television, not the school. But the basketball team’s improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed changed that forever.

So even though I’m not a fan of the NCAA tournament from a “determining the best team” standpoint, I, like anyone with a pulse, crave it for the entertainment it provides.

But it was at its best before the First Four.

Making the tournament 68 teams instead of 65 (or preferably 64 teams, as was the case from 1985-2000) indirectly creates a sense of awkwardness. Technically, the tournament begins Tuesday, but nobody thinks of it that way. There are no chances of upsets tonight or Wednesday, since the opponents are all equal seedings. There’s a sense of NIT-level excitement and the games are relegated to truTV.

Of course, it’s all about money, and the First Four does provide an increase in revenue. Some would also argue providing four more at-large bids could allow a deserving team to make the field when it otherwise wouldn’t. VCU, after all, went from First Four to Final Four two years ago.

But if you aren’t one of the top 30 at-large teams, do you really have an argument if you’re left out? And if you want more teams to have a shot, then why not just increase the tournament to 96 or 128 teams? At some point, there needs to be a limit.

Further, a bye should be something that is a reward for top teams, not a punishment for bad ones by making only a few play an extra round. In the NFL playoffs, two of the six playoff teams in each conference – less than 50 percent of the teams qualifying for the postseason – earn a bye, and its similar in the NCAA basketball conference tournaments. The First Four essentially gives 60 of the 68 teams a bye, defeating its purpose.

The NCAA tournament was fine at 64 or 65 teams. There was no need to increase the field to 68.

Sometimes, less is more.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu
   

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.