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NCAA Tourney Dance Doesn’t Need Cinderella

Sports writers occasionally become so enamored with “the story” that they miss the event they’re covering, and I think the New York Times’ Pete Thamel fell victim to that myopia in his analysis piece on the NCAA basketball tournament.

In a nutshell, Thamel lamented the lack of upsets in the first two rounds and the fact that the 12 top seeds had made it into the Sweet Sixteen, without a Davidson or Valparaiso “for the news media to storm to capture the spirit of a memorable run.”

Well, damn those favorites for crushing the hopes and dreams of the news media.

Ncaa Upsets are swell, but I think Thamel is sitting so close that he missed the whole point of the tournament. The seeding process, after all, is specifically designed to favor the higher seeds — to have them knock off lesser opponents in the early rounds so the games get progressively more competitive and theoretically better played as the teams advance. For the North Dakota States of the world, the opportunity is just being invited to the dance, not necessarily going home with the glass slipper. Besides, what’s the point of doing well during the regular season if it doesn’t improve your chances in the playoffs — the same reason pro teams play for home-court (or field) advantage and (in the NFL’s case) opening-round byes.

As a basketball fan, I want to see Duke vs. Villanova and eventually Pittsburgh vs. Connecticut, and not just because I have that in my office pool. It’s because they’ll be more fun to watch, even if I don’t have a dog (mine, UCLA, went home early) in the fight.

If CBS ends up with marquee matchups in the Final Four, in other words, that only means the tournament selection committee did its job. And if sports writers feel let down about not having a heartwarming story to tell, well boo hoo, dude — skip the hoops and try watching “Oprah.”

Update: Chris Dufresne, who along with Mark Heisler remains the only Los Angeles Times sports columnist that I can tolerate, offers his own column largely making the same points as Thamel. Mostly, Dufresne sounds upset that he only ran 9-7 on his tournament pool scorecard in the second round, meaning he outsmarted himself by trying to pick a bunch of upsets that didn’t pan out. Anyway, not a bad read, if a wrong-headed one.

Oh, and one final note on conspiracy theories: If you’re CBS, the concern is less about the marquee value of the schools than the population centers in which they play. And whatever gripes one can level at the tournament selection committee, let me reiterate that the basketball system — where a champion is settled on the court in a sudden-elimination format — is so vastly superior to the politics that surround the Bowl Championship Series, or just about anything else, that I have a hard time buying criticism of it simply because Cleveland St. didn’t make it out of its bracket.

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