Thursday, March 12, 2009

With Madness Comes Sanity

Every NCAA Tournament brings with it wild hope and excitement for all 65 teams. A few elite teams look at their protected seed and see how much resistance they might meet before they get to the supposed sure-fire Elite Eight or Final Four (North Carolina, UConn, Oklahoma, Pitt). A big chunk of teams see tough match ups in the first round and fret over playing a team that they know little about in just four or five days. Others are simply happy to be in the bracket and await their chance to make history by upsetting some power conference stalwart in a 14-over-3 upset. Regardless of a team’s view of their place in Bracketville, the themes are accomplishment, electricity, anticipation, and a chance for glory.

Fans of all stripes will undoubtedly work themselves into a rich lather over what could be in store for their respective teams, but amid all the dreams of unknown splendor reside some constants that never change from year to year. Here lay the old souls of Bracketville that are always sitting at the barber shop or the lunch counter every season drinking coffee and telling all the youngsters about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. They are the cool, sane, steady constants of this once-a-year storm of excitement commonly known as March Madness.

Not many At-Large teams from non-power conferences
Bank on it: the lion’s share (and it’s a big, ferocious, man-eating lion this season) of At-Large bids will go to teams from power/BCS/”major” conferences. In fact, the only teams outside of the Big 6 plus the Mountain West and CUSA (the “power” conferences) that stand much of a chance at an At-Large bid this season are Butler, Xavier, Dayton, Gonzaga, Utah State, Davidson, Temple, Creighton, Rhode Island, and St. Mary’s. That’s it—and that is being quite generous in a few of those cases. If a number of those teams win their conference tourneys and do not need an At-Large bid, it could result in the smallest number of non-power At-Large teams in many years.

Since the RPI formula changed in 2005 to weight road games more heavily, 25 non-power conference teams have been awarded At-Large bids for an average of just over six per year. That means about 28/34 At-large teams come from power conferences. So called “mid-majors” will be fortunate to get that many this year. It does not look likely unless teams like Butler, Xavier, and Utah State lose in their conference tourneys.

Tirades about conference quotas
Teams get bids not conferences. There is no set number of bids for each conference—never has been. Recently, Kyle Whelliston of (and Hoopdom’s Mid-Major Czar) participated in the mock selection committee held for journalists to help the public understand the process. He noted that late in the process, he realized that no one had any idea how many teams were “in” from each conference. The committee looks at team profiles when making decisions. The question, “How many are in from the Big East?” simply does not come up. The ACC, ESPN’s darling conference, sent just three teams in 2000. They have sent as many as seven. It depends on the year and a team’s conference name alone does not help them get into the bracket.

Outrage from media types and fans
It happens every year. Dickie V will pick his case or two. So will Digger Phelps. Billy Packer retired, so hoop nation will be spared his C. Montgomery Burns-like-venom-spewing session directed at the committee chair this season. But many fans will unleash a red-faced, vein-bulging, profanity-laced tirade aimed at their television when their team is left out. The reality is that if a team is left out, they had a fatal flaw of some sort, or else ten experts would have voted them into the bracket. Folks can debate if their #35 or #36 best At-Large team should have gotten in over #34, but at the bottom of the bracket, the argument is almost always about which team is the least flawed and not about how X team “deserves” to get in.

Anointing of a Cinderella
“Cinderella.” Sometimes it fits the bill, like when a team seems coated with pixie dust and gets a lot of lucky breaks helping them to upend a couple of higher seeds. But, more often, it is assigned to teams in an effort to create a nice storyline for the media. Truthfully, if a team won their conference tourney and then makes a run in the national championship bracket, then they are likely a good basketball team. Just because they do not play in a TV conference does not mean they are not good, and just because Joe Fan cannot name any of their players does not mean they could not have competed in one of the power conferences. Appreciate the so-called “Cinderallas” for what they are: good teams that few people knew anything about or possible underachieving teams that put it together late. Was WKU a Cinderalla last year? NO! Anyone who watched WKU over the last 15 games knew this was a top-20 level team. Save the term for when it fits.

Buds of Spring
Finally, the tournament season comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. What begins in tumultuous March weather (I got snowed in on Monday and sunburned on Friday during my 1998 Spring Break in Washington, DC) will end in the warmer April showers of real, live Spring. The NCAA Tournament not only culminates a long winter of over 10,000 DI college basketball games, but launches the sports world into thoughts of days at the diamond-shaped ballpark, the Masters, and the rediscovery of the fresh, greening outdoors. In sports world, we put winter to bed with the most democratic championship in sports.

And that is the madness of March—the cool, constant, soothing, dependable madness. It does not matter if the jersey says North Carolina or Western Carolina, Duke or Drake, Syracuse or Binghamton. If a team wins their conference tourney and wins six games in the NCAA Tourney, they will be the national champion. Just like the discussed points above, it happens every year. Therefore, I have a hard time calling it “March Madness.” In fact, is the sanest championship in sports.