As I was pondering the upcoming NCAA tournament this week, it suddenly hit me how underwhelming and lackluster it is, compared to some of the other championship sports events out there. Sure, it’s got the upset excitement here or there, and a decent story or two every year, but there’s just something about it that doesn’t sit right with me. I will try to explain.
I think there are two core problems with the NCAA tournament. One is the number of participants, the other is the nature of the college game itself. Let’s look at the former problem first. The NCAA tournament currently accepts 68 teams into the field. Granted, the play-in games make the field 64, but 68 teams still get a chance to win a title, and 64 is still too many. Since the 64 team format’s inception in 1985, the lowest seed to actually win the tournament was 8 seeded Villanova in 1985. Realistically, teams seeded lower than that shouldn’t even have the chance to play for a championship. However, with the inclusion of 68 teams, undeserving teams who get hot have a huge impact on the outcome of the tournament.
The most recent example of this is VCU, who scraped their way through the play-in game and into Final Four. The 13 and 14 seeds have made it to the Sweet Sixteen seven times. The 11 and 12 seeds have made it to the Final Four four times. These teams, while they didn’t win, had a huge effect on the eventual winner of the tournament when they really had no business being there to begin with. Imagine if VCU weren’t in the tournament and instead of playing VCU in the Final Four, Butler had to play Kansas instead. It completely changes things. Just because a team in that position is capable of getting hot and winning against a 1 seed doesn’t mean they should be given the opportunity to do so in a one game winner takes all scenario.
The second problem with the NCAA tournament is the nature of the college game itself. The way the rules are now with the NBA, one and dones are prevalent among most of the perennial powerhouses. Coaches aren’t given the time or opportunity needed in order to develop their recruits into champions. The best example of this is perhaps Coach John Calipari’s teams at Memphis and Kentucky. Calipari frequently had 2-3 or more freshman draft picks in his starting lineups from 2006 to the present. Those teams, many of which had arguably the greatest collection of talent in college basketball in their given year, only won a championship once. The reason for this is inexperience. Teams filled with talented freshmen do not have the experience needed to weather the storm when they get hit in the mouth early in the game by a less talented team that gets hot and is loaded with juniors and seniors. Why do you think Butler made it to two championship games? Why did Duke win in 2010 with a relatively low talent level? Why did UConn win in 2011? They got hot at the right time and they were led by seasoned upperclassmen.
Before 2012, the last team to win the tournament who was arguably the best team there was Kansas, and Florida the year before them. Those teams are the exception to the rule, and they had the best of both worlds. Kansas was led by veterans in Mario Chalmers, Russel Robinson, and Brandon Rush, while getting quality contribution from underclassmen Sherron Collins and Darrel Arthur. Similarly, Florida was led by veterans Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Al Horford but got quality contribution from highly touted recruit Maureese Speights.
Now, I realize the current format has produced chaos and excitement for the average fan, but how could we make the tournament better for the real basketball fans and make sure the best team wins more often? I would propose two changes. First, the tournament size should be reduced to 32 teams. 32 is a plenty high enough number, and it will force teams to place more importance on the regular season so they don’t have the option to sneak in on the bubble on a mediocre effort. Second, the rule for players going to the NBA should be changed to replicate the MLB rule. That is, if a player wants to go to the NBA straight out of high school, he should be allowed to do so. However, if he does not go straight out of high school, he will not be allowed in the NBA for three years, effectively eliminating one-and-dones and ensuring college players stay in college through their junior year. That way, players who have the talent and ability can go straight to the NBA if they feel they can, and others cannot leave after one season, leaving a coach having to rebuild seemingly every year.
I don’t think either of these things will happen, for a number of reasons. For these both to happen the NCAA and the NBA would need to make changes to their current rules. The NCAA would have to sacrifice a little money in reducing the field, but with the right marketing campaign they could eventually make the numbers work. But they would rather stick with the status quo and not have to make the effort. The NBA doesn’t care about the NCAA product, so long as they get the best players at the best time. Both would be wise to work together on this though, for the sake of dedicated college basketball fans everywhere.