The NCAA Tournament is unlike any event that we have in sports. There is a reason we call it “March Madness.” The seemingly never-ending series of games, the pools with family and friends in which an incomprehensible amount of whiteout has been applied while filling out multiple brackets, and the propensity to root like heck for the underdogs are all a part of the Madness. For sports fans, we might equate this experience of sitting on our couches watching basketball on loop for 12 hours with what heaven may consist of. To the players, coaches, and teams, however, it is not the optimal way to determine a champion. This is not to say that the NCAA Tournament setup will change, or even should, but it is worth noting some of the flaws that exist in the tournament, which many consider to be the most riveting in sports.
The first problem with the NCAA Tournament is that it completely devalues the regular season. With 68 teams receiving bids to play in the Big Dance, it doesn’t really matter to a large extent what occurs leading up to the tournament. All of the games that ESPN and other media networks broadcast and spend hundreds and thousands of hours and dollars airing are a futile exercise. All that really matters is that you rack up enough victories and suffer no more than a handful of bad losses. Whether a team is 27-6 or 21-11, in the grand scheme of things means very little except for seeding in the tournament, which is negligible in and of itself. Just in the past three seasons, Syracuse made the Final Four with 14 losses, Kentucky made the title game with 11, and UConn won the whole thing with eight defeats. College football is the exact opposite. Each game in the regular season means so much because your chance of obtaining one of the four playoff positions depends on your team’s performance in each regular season game. In college basketball, a team can go through a stretch in which they lose four out of five games in February and it has very little effect on their hopes of cutting down the nets. The devaluation of the regular season itself is not a flaw in the tournament per se, but it is the root of many.
Ever since the NCAA decided in 2011 that the tournament would expand from 64 teams to 68 teams, they have fumbled on which eight teams should partake in the opening round. Currently, they have two-sets of 16 seeds face off against one another and then they have a pair of 11 and a pair of 12 seeds compete. These four games for the final four spots have been coined as the “play-in games,” as if they were not already in the field. If these are in fact “play-in games” why are they having 11 seeds compete, who in theory are firmly in the tournament? Yes, it’s understood that there are at-large bids, but these 11 and 12 seeds are surely more competent than the other sets of 16 seeds that forgo this game and get to square-off against the Goliaths. A 16 seed has never defeated the top seed. Ever. My suggestion would be to have all of the “play-in games” involve 16 seeds. This would allow all of the 11 seeds, some of whom have the potency to make a deep run in the tournament, to remain alive rather than just self-combusting and eliminating each other. There are certainly far less worthy teams in the tournament simply because they won some measly conference tournament.
Another aspect of the NCAA Tournament that is flawed is that the higher seed does not have some sort of inherent advantage. Yes, they may be “closer” to home and they are in theory playing an “easier” opponent, but it is surely not a home game for them and when you are playing just a single game, you can throw who you’re playing out the window. Anything can happen, and that is what makes this tournament so great. But in all other team sports, the team that is the higher seed has some inherent advantage. Now obviously, given the circumstances of the tournament and the sheer number of teams, it would be impossible to have the higher seed in each game play in their respective arena. But once again, this is just another imperfection of the NCAA Tournament.
This final flaw of the NCAA Tournament has a direct impact on the on-court product. In order to accommodate more fans who want to attend the NCAA Tournament, particularly the Final Four, the location of such games has gradually transitioned away from basketball arenas and into football stadiums. Playing in football stadiums has caused an abundance of issues for the players. Most notably, many have complained about trouble with depth perception when looking at the basket. Obviously, having proper depth perception is crucial when it comes to shooting a basketball. After a game two years ago in the Final Four, when asked about shooting in a football stadium, Duke point guard Tyus Jones said, “It’s just different. You have to adjust your eyes.” Is that really what we, as fans of college basketball, want? Do we want the game to be compromised just so we can fit fans into the stadium that cannot even clearly see the court from their distant seats anyways? Since 2009, each Final Four has taken place in a football stadium and the average three-point field goal percentage in the Final Four over that eight-year span is 32.9 percent. A three-point field goal percentage of 32.9 percent would rank 275th in the nation on average over that same time frame. There becomes a point at which quality of play should hold more weight than the quantity of people that the NCAA can squeeze into a football stadium.
By and large, the NCAA Tournament is everything that a sports fan could ask for. It is entertaining, compelling, mystifying, and always keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. However, there are unquestionably some flaws within the structure and setup of the tournament that need to be called into question. The devaluation of the regular season, the format of the “play-in games,” the lack of some inherent advantage, and having the Final Four take place in oversized stadiums are some of the imperfections of March Madness. No sporting event is entirely perfect, but March Madness could make considerable strides in that direction if they addressed these issues.