Tag Archives: March Madness

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.


The beauty of the bracket

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 19, 2015.

On paper it just looks like a series of lines, arranged neatly in rows. Some are even connected. Then we add some words, some names of places, and a few numbers too. Eventually the blank spaces get filled in. The lines remind us who has to go where, and meet up with whom. It’s really just a way to keep an organized schedule of 67 games. But we know better. This isn’t just a list of basketball games, this is the chronicle of an unfolding saga not present in any other sport. This is the evolving account of dreams realized and hopes dashed, of stories that pervade beyond expectations and a few a that end just a bit too soon. This is no ordinary schedule; this is… The Bracket.

It doesn’t matter how you start. Fill out one, or fill out ten. Pick based on seed; pick based on momentum; or pick based on reputation. Watch hours of analysis on TV, or spend a few minutes scribbling names during your lunch break. Bet money, wager bragging rights, or prove once-and-for-all that you know more about sports than your roommate. Chances are the girl next door who picked mascots and team colors did better than both of you. This time of year smart phones are refreshed nearly every minute; office lunch breaks are suspiciously long; and we finally get a legitimate answer to the ever-rhetorical question of why it is actually practical to have multiple TV screens in your living room.

The preceding months have led to this: tip-off tournaments, early-season match-ups, and conference rivalries. 68 of the nation’s best teams now compete for college basketball’s top prize. Arenas across the country play host to any of the 67 games that whittle the field down in every round. Played over the course of 3 short weeks, March Madness sends sports into a flurry of competition and fandom. No waiting long between games; no best-of-7 series. Just win.

The “bracket” becomes one of the most recognizable pictures in March. “Bracketology” sounds like the next thing to major when in college. Joe Lunardi is on TV more than the the President. Cinderellas and “bracket busters” come to life. The bracket spreads to schools, offices, every form of media, and even all the way to the White House. At any point, a team can gain thousands of fans (or opponents, depending on who you picked). This is the bracket: a piece of paper (or picture on a screen) honored as a piece of history. And just like any other form of written information, since the beginning of time, the purpose is just that: to be a part of history. Look at a completed bracket from a previous year’s tournament, and a hundred stories jump to life. Take a look at the 2006 bracket, when all four #1 seeds failed to make the Final Four, and 11-seeded George Mason did. The final line of 2008 reads “Kansas defeats Memphis” although you probably remember Mario Chalmers’s completing the comeback to send game into overtime. That year might conjure up the vision of Davidson in the Elite 8, before a certain guard named Steph Curry was in the NBA. 2010 saw the Butler Bulldogs in their remarkable run to the title game (What if Gordon Hayward’s shot had gone in?), and VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. Every year the tournament etches memories in ink for the bracket, and into to our minds for eternity. If you were watching the games, you can probably still vividly recall the buzzer-beaters that sent 13 and 14 seeded teams beyond the first round, Cornell or Harvard from the Ivy League upsetting favorites from major conferences, or Florida “Dunk City” Gulf Coast winning two games as a a 15-seed in 2013. From an endless array of possibilities, order and chaos seemingly blend with each line filled in. In a season where drama and disbelief are a near certainty, the bracket is our ever-faithful scribe that recounts each moment in time.

So when you fill out your bracket, you’re not in it for the money. It’s not just about the bragging rights or procrastinating at work. You’re recording history. The bracket takes the game from the far corners of the country, and pushes it onto center stage. Every game counts, every game matters. Whether you’ve been a basketball fan for 30 minutes or 30 years, everyone is cheering for someone. Follow your teams through to the end, or just rip it apart, and root for more madness. Everyone claims to predict the future, until we realize once again how futile an endeavor that is. Thousands of moments we don’t want to forget, become etched in history forever. That’s the madness of March. That’s the beauty of the bracket.  AN