Monthly Archives: March 2016

The case for 64

The correct number of teams in the NCAA Tournament is 64. Not 65 teams, which has been at least the number for most of my life. Not 68, which is the number of teams in the current format. Not 72, which might be the case in the future. Not 76, or 96, or even 128. 2000 was the last year that the bracket featured 64 teams, and since then the NCAA has tried and succeeded to sneak a few more games in.

One of the most important aspects of March Madness is that every game is televised, even those happening at the same time. With four channels showing the myriad of games, as long as you have enough screens, you can watch every game of the tournament. Don’t get the cable channels? No problem; all the games are free online or with a mobile app. No subscription necessary. Everyone watches, not just students and alumni, not only those restricted by geography. It’s a national spectacle of which everyone wants to be a part. More games mean more tickets sold. More on-air time offers more commercials and advertising revenue. More teams bring more fans who travel around the country. Simply put: more games, more money.

There is also the notion that expanding the field prevents deserving teams from being left out. Yet in reality, it merely changes the threshold for what merits a bid. Look at what happened in college football. During the BCS era, debate swirled over which two teams were most worthy of competing in the national championship game. Now with four teams in the playoff, teams five through eight are suddenly comparing their schedules. If the playoff expands to eight teams, don’t expect team nine to go quietly. The same is true in March Madness. Regardless of how many teams are included, there will always be a “first team out.” If anything, a larger field magnifies the issue, because there are more teams at the bottom of the field used for comparison to the first teams out.

In 2001, the NCAA tournament added a 65th team, a “play-in game” to determine which small conference school had the chance to lose to a 1 seed. The result was inconsequential, no one waited to see the result before filling out the bracket, and only a minute fraction of fans picked “Play-in Winner” to advance to the round of 32. Sure it was technically part of the tournament, but most viewed the play in game as a preliminary game before the actual tournament started. Now 8 teams compete to be a part of the field of 64: 4 would-be 16 seeds and 4 others that are usually a 10, 11, or 12 seed. This “First Four” has become what amounts to a kick-off to the tournament, on the eve of the first full slate of games on Thursday. I’m sure that was part of the NCAA’s intention, plus to get additional airtime starting on Tuesday. Thankfully, they returned to the original naming convention, referring to the round of 64 as the “first round” (there was a brief interlude of confusion when the First Four was the first round, and most teams started in the “second round”). These games are certainly part of the tournament; teams from these games often win additional games in the rounds of 64 or 32. And if we do consider the First Four to be the opening round of the tournament (whatever the name is), what is the purpose of a four-game opening round? Do we really need this warm-up round before jumping into the real first round for which everyone is waiting? I hardly think so.

The NCAA tournament should not just be about making more money. To be fair, it’s already hugely profitable. And preventing the first teams out from feeling snubbed is not a good reason to expand; there will always be someone on the short end of the draw. March Madness should go back to 64 teams. It’s not the MLB or NFL; we don’t need wild-card games. Besides, a 64-team bracket fits nicely on a sheet of paper. It’s neat; it’s elegant; it’s symmetrical. That way every team has the same number of games to get to the Final Four. The other “perfect bracket” numbers would be 16 or 32 (too few) or 128 (far too many). This is March Madness; it already has all the magic you could possibly expect from a single tournament. We don’t need to change it; in fact we need it to back to 64. 64 is the right number. This is nothing against the teams that play their way into the First Four and continue to win (remember VCU’s Final Four run?). This is nothing against the gift of more free basketball or the players who just want one shot on the biggest stage. And this is certainly nothing against the great fans of Dayton, Ohio who spectacularly host the First Four every year. This is about March Madness. It doesn’t need a hype-up event; it’s ready to jump in full swing on the first day. It doesn’t need play-in games; that’s what conference tournaments are for. It doesn’t need to be bigger; this makes it more meaningful to the teams that get in. But most importantly, it doesn’t need to succumb to the idea that the tournament’s value is tied up in money, numbers, or ratings. March Madness doesn’t need to be molded according to a metric or formula. March Madness is exactly what it is, and it is spectacular. Just let it exist in its purest form; then just appreciate the magic that happens next.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 17, 2016.

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For Peyton, his timing was perfect as always

Imagine grabbing a football with two hands while you coordinate ten other players who cannot move a second too early. If the count is wrong, it’s a penalty. Then take carefully measured steps backwards while watching your teammates run in the opposite direction. Take too many steps, and you’re too far out of the pocket. Take too few, and the linemen overrun you. Look over each receiver running his route. If you look at one for too long, then a linebacker will watch the ball right into his hands. Look at too many receivers, and another defender will hit you from behind. Then throw the ball, in a manner perfected only after countless practice reps that measure exactly where the wide receiver will be at that instant in time. Throw it too early, and the safety is taking the ball the other way. Throw it too late, and the ball goes behind the receiver, and you’re the quarterback that missed the throw. Want to get it exactly right? Timing is everything. Peyton Manning is a master of timing. His snap counts, his mechanics, and his throws were all perfected with the technical and meticulous quality of a symphony conductor. Because of timing, now is exactly the right time for Peyton Manning to retire.

Not because he has won “only” two Super Bowls. Frankly, saying “only” in any sentence referring to the Super Bowl is ridiculous. So many quarterbacks spend an entire career trying to lead their team to one Super Bowl. Peyton plated in four. Plus he just shed the label of having won fewer than his brother Eli. Surely, his critics will certainly be quick to mention Tom Brady’s four victories, but Brady also lost twice in the big game and he was an ill-timed-pass-turned-interception away from being 3-3 (which suddenly doesn’t sound as good). Besides, players don’t win Super Bowls; teams do. Although the quarterback usually has the greatest impact on his team’s success, a Super Bowl record is not the most representative marker of an individual’s career. So lay off Peyton for settling for only 2 championships (else Dan Marino and Jim Kelly have something to say about that).

Not because his statistics leave any doubt. The most prolific passer in the history of the game, Manning’s records for yards, touchdowns, and MVP awards span a career simply unmatched in ability and longevity. Another couple seasons might have put him in striking distance of 600 touchdowns or 80,000 passing yards, two milestones inconceivable at the beginning of a career. But Manning’s accomplishments have already spoken volumes about his career; he certainly doesn’t need a few more numbers to state his case for posterity.

Not because we doubt his resolve. Much was made of his path to recovery following multiple neck surgeries that ultimately ended his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. If he had retired then, we would have said the same great things about his career, just four years earlier. But Manning still wanted to play, and began anew with the Denver Broncos. After an unquestionably demanding and extensive rehab, Manning returned to prove he could once again play at the highest level. A record setting 2013 season capped off an amazing return from injury, even at age 37. Two seasons later he dealt with plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for a few games, but returned late in the season to make just the right plays en route to ensuring a playoff #1 seed, victories over Pittsburgh and New England, and a Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. It took more than talent for this type of comeback. For every play on the field or story in the media, there were hundreds of practice hours, dozens of reps, and all the work behind the scenes that brought Manning back to the pinnacle of football.

Today in sports, we hear about an athlete’s “prime” years: the time when one’s physical capabilities are highest and one can maximize his career potential. It’s a window that seems to get shorter and shorter, with the next generation bursting on the scene earlier than ever. Age and injuries may eventually derail (or at least slow down) most careers; given these physical limitations, conquering the mental game is the true test of competitive greatness. When it comes to the mental game, Peyton has undeniably been the best. His memory for every formation, route, pattern, and play is unbelievable. The mental game is about preparation, about focus, about timing. And Peyton has proven himself the master of timing. Manning, nearing age 40, has already dealt with injuries. No one doubts his toughness, but his body may not be able to withstand the grind and physicality of a long season. So for Peyton, this is his time. Not because he has lost the drive to excel or love for the game. He made it to the top, had to start all over, and then got back there again. And his timing, whether hitting his receiver on a crossing route or bidding farewell as a Super Bowl champion, could not be more perfect.

So why is it the perfect time? Because while every athlete gets older, not everyone achieves the mental fortitude that enables success at the highest level for such a long career: the willingness to perfect every technique, the resolve to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, and the discipline to show up day after day to practice over and over until the game exists as an extension of one’s subconscious. Peyton Manning is nowhere near the physical ability of his early career. However after 18 years, he has definitively proven that he has conquered the mental game, the last and greatest accomplishment of succeeding as a competitive athlete. He has conquered the game, and he has won. He has nothing else to prove. As Peyton said during his retirement press conference, “18 is a good number.” Now it’s clear, 18 years was the right time. Because after 18 years, no one has done it better than number 18.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 12, 2016.

What’s with this crazy college basketball season?

Crazy only scratches the surface. Want proof? Here is a list of all the teams (by week) that were ranked #1 in the Coaches Poll this season:

Preseason: Kentucky/North Carolina

Week 2: North Carolina (lost to Northern Iowa)

Weeks 3-4: Kentucky (lost to UCLA)

Weeks 5-8: Michigan State (lost to Iowa)

Week 9: Oklahoma (lost to Kansas)

Week 10: Kansas (lost to West Virginia)

Week 11: Oklahoma (lost to Iowa State)

Weeks 12-13: North Carolina (lost to Louisville and Notre Dame)

Weeks 14-16: Villanova (lost to Xavier)

Week 17: Kansas

And that was just the battle for the top spot. It doesn’t even come close to fully encompassing the season-long shuffle throughout the Top 25. Ranked teams losing to lesser opponents became a weekly staple. Any team, regardless of record, went on the road and was suddenly vulnerable. The rankings turned over like the dials of slot machine, but probably even harder to bet on. Once conference play began, the game gave way to wild buzzer beaters and wilder student sections; to rematches and rivalries. Upsets shook up the conference standings, with teams jockeying for postseason seeding. Bubble teams would gather some momentum, but then a tough loss would put them on the wrong side looking in.

This season also gave us perhaps the best senior class in recent memory. Although we have become accustomed to seeing bands of former prep stars gallop through the tournament every March, this year we saw the greatness of senior players who returned to give one last great season for their team. You think these seniors realize that makes for a special season? Just watch a few clips of any school’s senior night; you’ll have your answer.

Call it the preseason, the regular season, the warm-up round, or any other name for the games before the madness we call March. This certainly did not feel like a warm-up. With multiple games per week, fortunes can change with the tide. It isn’t like college football, where the limited number games forces committees and computers to predict theoretical matchups. In basketball, everyone plays everyone. To win your conference, you may not have to beat everyone, but you had better prove you’re the best. Every possession matters, there is no easing into the first ten minutes of a game. Make a mistake on the road, and that student section will let you hear about it for the rest of the game. And if you want that signature win, the second-half momentum and raucous home crowd might just be as important as calling the right play.

And did we mention, it’s actually been fun to watch? As anyone who stayed up past midnight to see the third overtime between Kansas and Oklahoma can attest, these players put their best efforts on the court every time for our enjoyment. And entertained we were. Need more proof?

The last remaining Top 25 undefeated team was SMU. They won’t be competing in the NCAA tournament. The top-rated recruit from last-year’s high school class probably won’t be either.

Duke and UNC split their regular season matchups, but both lost at home.

Indiana was written off in December; then they finished atop the Big Ten.

The first team to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was Austin Peay, a team with a 7-9 record (8th seed) in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Texas A&M won a share of the SEC regular season title (in basketball, not football).

Yale is going to the NCAA tournament. Yes, that Yale.

On the eve of the glorious spectacle known as Champ Week, NCAA bids and seeds depend on a line of the bracket and bit of momentum. Every team is playing for one prize; every basket matters. Want to make the Big Dance? Just keep winning. This has been one of the wildest, most exciting, and inevitably unpredictable basketball seasons. This is the type of season when the Cinderellas reemerge. Want to see another run reminiscent of Butler or VCU, Wichita State or George Mason? This is your year. Want to see which superstar will etch his legacy on the final stage? This is the time. Want to see just how many unbelievable moments will be compiled into the beloved “One Shining Moment” classic? There’s certainly going to be more than a few choices.

Maybe you just want more craziness? Look no further, because this has just been the prelude. Now it’s March. Bring on the madness.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 5, 2016.

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College basketball schedule, rankings, news, and results were accessed via ESPN-affiliated websites.