The New-Look NCAAs: A Pro-and-Pro Discussion

Jeremy: Jimmy, our favorite time of year has arrived. March Madness is here — and it’s got a different look this year.

IoT was on hiatus when the NCAA decided to tinker with the Tournament, so we’ve got a lot to talk about.

Let’s start with something positive: The TV coverage of the Tournament finally enters the 21st century for everyone this year.

With the new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal that CBS and Turner Broadcasting signed with the NCAA, every first- and second-round game will be shown on either CBS or one of three cable stations, TBS, TNT or truTV. Of course, fans who would rather see a competitive game than watch Duke beat up on some hapless 16 seed in the first round have had options for a while now (March Madness On Demand on their computer, the Mega March Madness package on DirecTV, a trip to the local sports bar, etc.). Innovative CBS stations like WRAL in Raleigh have also set up digital cable channels during the Tournament specifically to air out-of-market games. But since I moved to Florida, this is the first time that I’ll be able to flip around on my own TV and decide which game I want to watch without having to pay extra for it.

The CBS-Turner marriage also brings Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith to CBS’s studio show. If CBS turns Chuck loose like TNT does on its NBA broadcasts, that’s going to be highly entertaining.

And then there’s … well … ummm … it’s March Madness, and the NCAA can only do but so much to screw it up.

As you can probably already tell, I’m not a fan of the new “and improved” 68-team field, although it could have been worse (and still might be some day.)

The 64-team, pre-play-in-game(s) Tournament was perfect. Each team had an equal path to the national title — win six games and it’s yours. The old Tournament also felt like it had the appropriate quality of competition. Sure, some decent teams missed out every year, but to me, it should be hard to qualify as an at-large team. Sadly, now we’re stuck with four play-in games and debating whether increasingly mediocre teams should or should not have made it in.

So Jimmy, where do you stand on expansion? Is 68 teams too many or not enough? And now that we’ve got this new format, what do you think of the First Four setup?

Jimmy: Before I respond to your questions, JDA, I’d like to tip out a sip out of my Smirnoff Ice in memory of Sidney Lowe’s tenure at N.C. State.

(Splash)

Onward!

I’ve got mixed feelings about the expansion. On one hand, anything that brings more Barkley to the world is a net good. I’d like to see him analyze pro football, host Bravo’s Real Housewives reunion shows and moderate presidential debates.

On the other hand, the “first four” expansion strikes me as a half-measure. It doesn’t satisfy those who want to see more games (and more money); nor does it serve the traditionalists who think a 64-team tournament is fine (and a 48-team tourney is perfect). And it doesn’t eliminate the snub. It just bumps a couple more teams off the snub list.

I’m still not sure I fully understand why the NCAA chose this particular expansion model. Why only three teams? And why not make them the four bottom seeds? This year’s zero-th round games match four would-be 16s and four would-be 12s. That makes no sense.

I am all in favor of the new TV deal. As you implied, it took far too long for the NCAA to join the rest of the free world in taking advantage of basic cable. I have to admit, though, I will miss the dramatic cutaways that have usually given me my only view of most first- and second-round games. I won’t miss those times when CBS chose not to cut away during a Duke-Southern Illinois blowout.

I’m coming back at you with a big question: What’s the state of the NCAA tournament? One argument against expansion is that it will dilute the pool of teams. I’d argue the pool’s been diluted for the better part of a decade (at least) by the fact that no team can stay together for more than a year.

Answering your own question is rude. All apologies. But back to you.


Jeremy: JPR, I’ll certainly miss Sid’s red blazer.

(And on the Smirnoff note, consider yourself iced.)

I agree with you on the “First Four” being a half measure. It should either be the eight lowest-seeded teams in the Tournament playing each other, or it should be the last eight at-large teams in the field. I’m just split on which it should be.

My initial reaction on the “First Four” was that it should feature the at-large teams only. Despite what the NCAA says, these are play-in games, and the low-major 16 seeds already played their way in by winning their conference tournaments. Unfortunately, while that might make sense for the first round, it doesn’t for the second round because then rested 5 and 6 seeds (like West Virginia and Georgetown this year) get an advantage against tired teams that should go to the top seeds.

I also saw a good point on SI.com about the new setup in the wake of Clemson’s drubbing of UAB:

In the past, the inevitable Sunday night debate over the last few teams selected usually vanished as soon as the first games were played. The First Four, however, could well become a two-day referendum on the committee’s selections — like its controversial choice of UAB.

On Sunday night, Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas and Co. hammered the committee for selecting UAB, and two nights later, the Blazers played right into the backlash. Alabama, Colorado and Virginia Tech fans presumably watched their unraveling with gnashed teeth.

This whole dilemma leads me to one simple solution: go back to 64 teams.

That finally brings me back around to your actual question. The state of the Tournament — like the State of our Union every year — is strong. March Madness has not only survived a never-ending wave of underclassmen leaving early for the NBA, it’s actually gotten more chaotic and exciting. I think the Tournament can take the NCAA tinkering around the edges.

But what happens if (when?) the NCAA stops just tweaking around the edges and adopts the 96-team model that seemed inevitable last year? Where does that leave the Tournament?

Basically, we’d be looking at adding the NIT field. There were certainly good bubble cases to be made for a few of those teams, such as Virginia Tech, Colorado, Alabama and Harvard. But would this year’s Tournament really have been better off with, say, Texas Southern, Bethune-Cookman and McNeese State?

I now yield the floor to the distinguished gentleman from Kinston.

Jimmy: I thank the distinguished gentleman from Edenton by way of West Palm. And I second his motion for an NCAA return to 64. It was good enough for my first computer, and it’s good for college basketball.

But if the tournament must be as it is, here’s my proposal for how to better manage this “First Four” mess. Keep the actual field at 64, but on use the Tuesday and Wednesday before the Madness starts to hold a Bubble Invitational. Fill 60 slots, then have each of the eight competitors for the last four openings play one another in a centrally located neutral site. The winners get the last four slots, with those winning Tuesday playing the Thursday games and the Wednesday winners play on Friday.

That eliminates the farce of an “opening round” staged this past Tuesday and Wednesday. It doesn’t penalize winners of small conference tournaments by making them play their way in for a second time. And it makes the bubble more interesting.

I’m going to close this discussion with one of my favorite sporting exercises: finding storylines juicy enough to interest my wife in watching games with me. This year, I’m trying to sell her on filling out a bracket. That will probably backfire on me.
Here are my NCAA tourney storylines:

Teams she’ll love rooting against:

*Brigham Young: Nothing like a little puritanism to pique the interests. And the dismissal of forward Brandon Davies, who violated the BYU honor code by having sex with his girlfriend, certainly qualifies.

*North Carolina: No explanation needed.

Teams she’ll love rooting for:

*Duke: A childhood relic, and the only close NC team in the tournament that she doesn’t hate.

*Michigan: We watched “The Fab Five” last week, and she loved the Webber-Rose-Howard-Jackson-King style. I think she’d be up for the possible second-round 1992 title game rematch.

Anyone have other suggestions? Leave them in the comments.

Now that the tournament is decidedly in medias res, I’ll bring an end to our preview. We’ll check back in after round two.

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