Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 March Madness Wrap

Calhoun won his 3rd national championship
After one of the better tournaments in recent memory, America was presented last night with what was billed as the most unlikely final game in NCAA Division 1 history. On one hand, we had mid-major darling Butler, an 8-seed, in their second title game in as many years. After losing lottery pick Gordon Hayward to the NBA, most college basketball experts figured Butler would be a long shot to make the NCAA tournament itself, much less a second Final Four. In a tournament where even the best teams fall prey to bad luck, Butler's sheer appearance in the final game was a monumental achievement. On the other side of the court was the University of Connecticut, led by a coach basically the exact opposite of Butler's Brad Stevens--Jim Calhoun, the 68-year-old in his 39th season as a head coach. Calhoun actually was in his fourth season as head coach at Northeastern when Stevens was born.

Unfortunately, after all of that buildup, we were presented with a stinker of a game. Does that mean that Butler and Connecticut weren't deserving of a national title? Of course not--they both beat quality teams on their way to the title game. Butler had a slightly tougher road (having to face Pitt, Wisconsin, and Florida), to be sure, but both teams had the necessary resumes and talent worthy of a title game appearance. The game they played, however, was no more of a national championship game than a season opener in terms of the quality of offensive play. UConn shot a blistering 34.5% from the floor, a full 16% better than the Bulldogs. Pretty, it was not. But what does that mean for the future of the 68-team-tournament? Hit the jump to find out.

After an offseason in 2010 that featured plentiful talk about expanding the 65-team Division I tournament to 96 teams, the committee settled on 68, creating that First Four I detest (though I give Virginia Commonwealth credit, they took advantage of one major part of statistics--variation--and ran with it to the Final Four). If anything, this sort of variation SHOULD limit the amount of expansion. Just because anybody can win the national championship doesn't mean they should. To open up the tournament only furthers to devalue the regular season. How can student sections really get excited for games against lesser competition (or even higher competition), knowing that a win or a loss doesn't really affect the season as much as it used to. Part of what gives the NFL such heightened anticipation for each game is that the fans know every game has the potential to be a season-changer. To include nearly 1/3 of all college basketball teams (and we all know about 1/3 of the other teams are low-majors who will never make it, so it's really about half of any potential teams) means that not only will the best and the very good get in, but also the good and the mediocre, all still with a chance to go on a seven-game win streak and win the "national championship."

Now, just because this season's title game might not have featured Duke, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, or a select few others schools, does not mean that the tournament is already too wide-open. In any given small enough sample size, variation is bound to occur--the top seeds will not always make the final game. The NCAA has found itself in a tough position of needing to balance the grandeur of March Madness and the gem of the college basketball season--if not the gem of all college sports--with practicality and level-headedness and not letting it become a behemoth of a spectacle. I think that 64 was probably the right number, and 68 is pushing it--while Colorado was a pretty good team this year, and were left out, I wonder how many years there will be where a team is left out that had a legitimate chance at a national title. I think, if the NCAA wants to preserve some of the spectacle of college basketball, they'll leave us wondering and keep the tournament at 68 teams. It would be a shame to see the entire college basketball regular season reduced to almost nothing.

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