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What’s one class?

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The feature sports article two days ago in the Wall Street Journal raised the question of whether the NCAA men’s basketball tournament should be expanded from 65 teams to 96. In the article, Darren Everson covered some familiar ground, but he had one quote near the end that was a real jaw dropper. I’ll get to that, but first, if needed, let me review a bit about how the tournament works. You might wish to skip the next few paragraphs.

There was a time when only 8 teams participated in the tournament. The number of participants grew slowly, hitting some peculiar numbers as well as more obvious numbers such as 16, 32, and 64. (The tournament operates on a single-elimination basis: you lose, you’re out. If you want to avoid byes, you need fields whose size is a power of 2.) As the field grew, the governing premise became that the champion of each Division I basketball conference would qualify. In addition, at-large teams would be selected. Most of the at-large slots are filled with teams from the major conferences, even as many as 6 or 8 teams from conferences such as the Big Ten, the Pac 10, and the Big East. Minor conferences may get only one team in the field. To complicate matters, almost all conferences now hold an end-of-season tournament. The regular season league records are used to seed the teams, but the winner of the tournament is the one regarded as league champion and automatic qualifier to the NCAA championships. Thus, an undefeated regular-season leader may have one bad night in the league tournament and fail to get the automatic NCAA bid. If the league is not regarded as a strong one, that team may then fail to get in as an at large-team as well while teams from power conferences with much weaker records qualify. A lot of attention is given to difficulty of schedule, and on this basis it can be argued — and often is — that those power conference teams with weak records really are stronger than the teams from minor conferences with great records.

Why 65 teams? A few years back a new conference was added, meaning a new automatic bid was established. In order not to reduce the number of at-large bids, the field was expanded. And how does a 65-team draw work? Well, in selecting the at-large teams, the responsible committee basically ranks every team in the country, or anyway every team under consideration. Thus, two teams have rankings of 64 and 65. These two meet in the “play-in” game early in the first week of the tournament. Whoever wins joins the other 63 teams in a standard 64-team, single-elimination draw.

Here’s what happens next. The 64 teams are essentially divided into 16 groups of 4. Each group plays a standard single-elimination mini-tournament. The split into two pairs, who play each other. The losers are eliminated, the winners meet, and the winner of that game moves on. This takes place in week one of the tournament, with half the 4-team clusters playing their opening games on Thursday and the final game on Saturday while the other half plays on Friday and Sunday. This arrangement maximizes the number of games available for television. When the dust settles, 16 teams remain.

A week later, the scheme is essentially repeated. These 16 teams are said to have made it to the Sweet 16. They are split into four groups of 4, each group being sent to some major basketball arena in a big city. Two of the four groups play on Thursday and Saturday of week two, the other two on Friday and Sunday. Again, the set-up for each group is that the four are split into two pairs (as determined by the original draw), losers are eliminated, winners meet two days later, and one of the four teams moves on. The winners of the Sweet 16 round enter the Elite 8, meeting in what’s called the regional finals. The winners of the Elite 8 round go to the Final Four.

We’re two weeks into the tournament and four teams are left. They meet a week later, again in some major basketball arena, paired up according to the original draw. The Final Four games are played on Saturday. The winners meet in the championship game on Monday night. There’s no alliterative name for this round. No Terrible Two or Tough Two or whatever.

Let’s summarize. A team that gets to the Tough Two round will have spent a week playing in its conference championship, then a week playing in the rounds of 64 and 32, then a week in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, then a week in the Final Four and Tough Two. That’s four weeks of high-pressure championship basketball.

Why 96 teams? Well, there are those non-power conferences that don’t get a second or a third team into the tournament even though it is deserving. Or the power conferences who get only 5 or 6 or 8 teams in but have more who are worthy. What to do? Add 32 teams. How would it work? You’d seed 32 teams at the top and they would get first-round byes. The other 64 would meet in pairs to determine 32 winners, who would be put into a standard 64-team draw with the 32 bye teams. I don’t know exactly how this would be timed, but it would add a week to the tournament for sure.

Sorry for the long build-up, but let’s now turn to the WSJ article. In it we learn another factor. CBS has exclusive TV rights and is unable to broadcast every game. With more games played, the TV contract could be split, perhaps between CBS and a cable network, with enough games for everyone to be happy. I’ll now quote from the article.

The NCAA has the right to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS at the end of this season, which is the impetus for considering to expand the tournament and perhaps move it to cable. “We have an opt-out provision at the end of this contract year, so we’re simply doing due diligence on all aspects of that contract,” Mr. Shaheen says.

An ESPN spokesman said that if the tournament became available to the cable provider, “we would be interested if it made good business sense.” A CBS spokeswoman declined to comment.

TV experts say that the value in expanding the tournament is mainly in the ability to sell it to more than one network. “They could legitimately bring in two networks, saying it’s too much for one network,” says Rick Gentile, a former executive producer at CBS Sports. “I personally wouldn’t like to see it. There is an issue of diluting it. But if you get two networks involved, they’ll both pay a premium to be a part of it.”

For the smaller schools and conferences, the revenue the tournament can generate for schools is no minor issue—especially as some schools drop expensive sports like football. “It’s not about the rich getting richer,” says Mr. Elgin of the Missouri Valley Conference. “It’s about staying afloat and not dropping baseball programs and wrestling programs.”

There’s even a feeling in some corners that 96 teams isn’t enough. “I think we should expand even more,” says Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament last season and lost to Penn State in the final of the consolation National Invitation Tournament. “Go up to 128. I’ve thought that for several years. There’s that many good teams, and it gives everybody one more game.

“To everyone who says, ‘What about a missed class?’—trust me, those players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in this tournament any day,” Mr. Drew says.

I’m not sure I understood Coach Drew correctly. Let’s read that one more time. “To everyone who says, ‘What about a missed class?’—trust me, those players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in this tournament any day.” Yup. He really said that. Gosh. But, isn’t it true that a player whose team goes deep in the NCAA tournament will have missed a s..tload of classes already? Or am I missing something? Perhaps we should ask what the big deal is about missing a whole semester. It seems that’s pretty much what they’ll be doing anyway if the tournament runs much longer. And for students on the quarter system, the tournament will run from the end of Winter Quarter classes through finals and into the start of Spring Quarter. It does already — if they go to the Final Four. If I understand this correctly, in order to enrich a mainline TV network, a cable sports network, and additional universities (though not the student-athletes, as the NCAA mandates that we call the players), we will make it even more difficult for the athletes to function as students. (Not that it matters for the very best ones, who leave after freshman year anyway.)

Maybe I should be glad that Coach Drew was honest. He’s right, after all. The players would trade a day of class for a chance to play in the tournament.

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