The Madness of March Madness

[It’s time for my annual rant about the madness, the lunacy, the stupidity, if you will, of March Madness, in particular, the annual ritual in which a national champion in college basketball is determined on the basis of a single-elimination tournament. Many of you have read it before, so feel free to move on to other things. But if you missed it, you need to read it.]

If you aren’t a fan of college basketball here in the U.S., stop reading and go about your business. But if you enjoy the game as much as I do, read on.

Deciding the national championship of college basketball based on a single elimination tournament is utterly idiotic, insane, ridiculous, and asinine. You heard me correctly. I’m talking about the utter madness, indeed the stupidity, of March Madness.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love March Madness! I love the tournament. It is exciting and mesmerizing and always a blast. But to use this tournament in which a single loss eliminates a team from an opportunity to win the national title is the height of stupidity. I watch the tournament every year. I faithfully and carefully fill out my bracket. I agonize when my favorite teams lose and rejoice when they win. But here’s why the tournament is dumb.

Imagine for just a moment that I had the power and authority to run the National Basketball Association, the professionals of the game. I announce that a change has been made in the post-season schedule. Every team in the NBA will now be entered into the post season and all will play for the championship based on a single elimination tournament. After a few rounds, in which the Warriors are defeated by Oklahoma City and Atlanta falls to Boston, the Thunder and the Celtics play one game for the championship, regardless of what happened during the regular season. Instead of the standard best three of five or best four of seven competition, one game decides it all.

You would rightly accuse me of having taken leave of my senses. “Sam, how can you base the professional championship of basketball on only one game? Don’t you realize that in basketball, perhaps more so than any other sport, a great team can go cold on any particular night and a mediocre team can get red hot? The only way to fairly determine who deserves the title of champion, you need to have them play more than one game.” I couldn’t agree more.

Or imagine that I am now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. I’ve decided to put every team in a single elimination playoff. After all but two teams are eliminated, the Royals and Giants face off in a one game final, winner take all World Series. Stupidity! Insanity! Absurdity!

I began thinking about this after two events in particular. The first was in 1983 when a ten-loss North Carolina State team upset the highly-favored and far superior Houston team that featured Clyde “the Glide” Drexler and others. It was exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But NC State no more deserved to be awarded the national championship than I did.

The second event occurred just a few years ago. It was the incredible upset of number one seed Kansas by Northern Iowa. What a game! Wow! I wanted Kansas to win, but was happy to see a ninth seed pull off the unexpected victory. So there was Kansas, without question the best team in the nation that year, experiencing a very cold night of shooting, while Northern Iowa nailed three-point basket after three-point basket. If these two teams were to have played a best three of five or even just a best two of three, Kansas would almost surely have emerged victorious and advanced in the tournament.

Yes, by all means yes, it was exciting. I loved watching it. But this is a silly and utterly ineffective and completely unfair way of deciding the national championship.

People are talking a lot about expanding the tournament to more than 90 teams next year. Not only is this absurd beyond words, they should actually reduce the tournament to no more than 16 teams. The format would then be expanded to, at minimum, a double elimination tournament, thereby largely ensuring that the most deserving teams in the country will be rewarded with an opportunity to compete for a national title.

My recommendation is that the 16 teams, after seeding, should play the best two of three over the first weekend: the first game on Thursday, the second on Friday, and if necessary, the third on Sunday. The same format would be followed for the Elite Eight and the Final Four. The remaining two teams who survive elimination, would then play a best three of five for the national title.

I can hear your protests. “But what about the 17th team that doesn’t make the tournament? What about all the mid-major conferences? What about the Cinderella that makes March Madness so much fun?” My response is that if you can’t play well enough throughout the course of the regular season to qualify as one of the best 16 teams in the nation, then you don’t deserve a change to play for the national title. Eliminate conference tournaments, eliminate the automatic bid, and simply seed the teams based on a polling system similar to the one in college football.

You can still have a post season tournament with all the teams that don’t qualify to play for the national title, in the same way we have an extensive bowl post season for those teams in college football that don’t qualify to play in the national championship game.

So why will my proposal never see the light of day? Greed. Money. The NCAA stands to make too much cash from an ever-increasing field of teams. It’s not that the NCAA doesn’t respect the integrity of the game. It’s not that they don’t want to see the national title awarded to the most deserving team. It’s just that money matters more.

It’s sad, but such is the simultaneous excitement and madness of March Madness.

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