—Oliver Twist, noted ragamuffin, literal Dickensian character
In fairness, Oliver Twist never said that. In fact, the namesake of Charles Dickens’ eponymous classic actually proffered his bowl of gruel and made the exact opposite plea: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
However, you can argue that Oliver’s plea was made in order to satiate his appetite, and that is the source of my plea, too. Because I actually do want some less, and I am holding my empty bowl, both arms extended, up to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Please, sir, cut the NCAA men’s basketball tournament down to 32 teams.
Now, you can file this request under “Things That Will Never Happen, But Wouldn’t It Be Nice if They Did?” I understand that. The reason that it will not is because smaller –except for cell phones –is never better in American society. We are a nation that is congenitally averse to shrinkage. Especially when smaller potentially translates to less revenue.
So, having conceded that, hear me out and tell me what you think. Imagine an NCAA tournament with half the original 64 teams (I know, I know, 68; but that latest wrinkle is nothing more than programming for ESPN and you will agree, won’t you, that the tourney does not really begin until that first Thursday…talk about diluting a brand). Allow me to enumerate the advantages:
December, January and February would mean so much more
There’s no argument here: college basketball has no shortage of exciting contests in the dead of winter. Michigan-Wisconsin, for example. And yet the stakes for most of these games are built upon artifice.
On Tuesday Kansas hosted Kansas State. The angle was that the Jayhawks were looking to avoid losing four straight for the first time since the 1988-89 season. But so what if they had? Both the Jayhawks and the Wildcats have already, to use the parlance, punched their ticket to the Big Dance. Now it’s just a matter of seeding, although why anyone really concerns themselves with that when college hoops is so fraught with parity is beyond me.
Imagine, however, if only 32 schools advanced to the tourney. Wouldn’t every “regular-season” contest have that much more tension surrounding it? And shouldn’t schools be more amply rewarded for performing so well month after month after month? Doesn’t Miami, 10-0 in ACC play this season, deserve something better than a more favorable seed than say, North Carolina, which is 6-4 in conference? Especially after it just whipped the Tar Heels by 27?
Thursday and Friday Would Not Change Much
The true opening round of the tournament involves 32 games that are played over two days and is almost impossible to track no matter how many High-Def TVs your favorite sports bar has. It’s chaos, and while there is something glorious about it, it’s a lot like directing a fire hose into the mouth of someone who is dying of thirst.
Imagine a Thursday and Friday in a 32-team field. That’s 16 games. That’s eight games on Thursday and eight games on Friday: four on Thursday afternoon, four on Thursday night, four on Friday afternoon and four on Friday night.
You could actually follow a game with only one other game –as opposed to three—being played concurrently.
Yes, half as many first-round sites, but have you attended games at first-round sites? Have you attended an NCAA Tournament contest that began at 11:25 a.m. local time in Milwaukee? It’s not that special.
As for the television viewer, sure, we’d miss some of those B-list play-by-play and color announcers that CBS trots out for the opening weekend (although it’s always nice to see how the members of Duke’s 1978 Final Four team are aging) each March. However, our hoops consumption would not be compromised at all. Yes, there would be fewer games but we’d have a far better chance of investing ourselves in each of them, as opposed to yelling at the TV set for CBS to provide another live look-in.
Plus, and this should not go unremarked, every single game would be more competitive. While it may be fun to contemplate a No. 16 upsetting a No. 1 (has yet to happen) and while occasionally a No. 15 has knocked off a 2-seed (six times in 112 games), the majority of first-round contests are chalk. Which is as it should be.
We’d Reverse a Dangerous Trend in this Country in Which People are Rewarded for Accomplishing Nothing
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has espoused expanding the tournament to 128 teams. Cynically, I believe Boeheim desires this so that twice as many of his colleagues would be able to boast that they had taken their team to the NCAA tournament, as if this should confer upon them more job security.
Of course, the consequence of making something more accessible to people is that its aura and mystique are compromised.
Joe Lunardi’s Job Would Once Again Have Meaning
ESPN’s bracketologist has the odious task of determining which is the 69th-best Division I hoops team in the nation. Who cares? However, with a 32-team field, Lunardi’s homework would actually matter.
In a 32-team tournament, there would be no automatic qualifiers. A school that stumbled through the slush of January and February only to win its conference tournament would not necessarily usurp the spot of one whose resume was exactly the opposite. It might, but that would be at the committee’s discretion. It would not be a mandate.
The Tournament Selection Committee would choose the 32 most worthy teams. Hopefully, that assortment would include a fair number of mid-majors, at least as much as one-third of the field. I’d hesitate to put any hard limits on how many schools must be mid-majors or not, but I’d like to think that the Committee would have enough wisdom to recognize that it’s not a memorable dance unless Cinderella is invited. And if Cinderella just happens to have Matthew Dellavedova or Doug McDermott on its roster, all the more intriguing.
And, just so you have it, here is my 32-team field for the 2013 NCAA tournament, based upon teams’ records and performances up to today’s date:
- Duke (21-2) vs. 8. Middle Tennessee (22-4)
- Syracuse (20-3) vs. 7. Bucknell (20-4)
- Kansas State (19-4) vs. 6. Creighton (20-5)
- Ohio State (17-6) vs. 5. Pittsburgh (20-5)
- Gonzaga (23-2) vs. 8. Montana (18-4)
- Arizona (20-3) vs. 7. St. Mary’s (21-4)
- Michigan State (20-4) vs. 6. Oklahoma State (17-5)
- Georgetown (17-4) vs. 5. New Mexico (20-4)
- Indiana (21-3) vs. 8. Akron (19-4)
- Michigan (21-3) vs. 7. Wichita State (20-5)
- Butler (20-4) vs. 6. Louisiana Tech (21-3)
- Louisville (19-5) vs. 5. Colorado State (19-4)
- Miami (19-3) vs. 8. Stephen F. Austin (20-2)
- Florida (20-3) vs. 7. Notre Dame (19-5)
- Kansas (19-4) vs. 6. Belmont (20-5)
- Memphis (20-3) vs. 5. Wisconsin (17-7)