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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  1. Josh says:

    Again, the mid-major programs can claim unfair treatment because they don’t even have the chance to get an at-large bid if they have a great regular season but lose in their conference tourney. It is ridiculous that a school like Arizona or Maryland gets into the tourney but many excellent mid-major schools don’t get in because the big schools refuse to play them. Here is an interview excerpt with Seth Davis in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about what can be done about it:
    Q. With so few mid-majors getting in, it’s almost like, what’s the point of playing the season? Why is this happening?
    A. “To me, it’s the single most pertinent question in college basketball. You can’t fault the committee, because they can only go by games played. It’s an ongoing struggle for those programs at that level because no one wants to play them at home. That’s the reality of it.”
    Q. What can be done?
    A. “I don’t know what the mid-major programs can do. Maybe it can be a collective effort. They can call out the power conference schools who refuse to play them. Maybe if St. Mary’s wants to play UCLA and UCLA says they don’t want to play at St. Mary’s, (St. Mary’s coach) Randy Bennett makes that known to everyone. But it’s hard, politically and socially, to do that.”
    http://timesfreepress.com/news/2009/mar/18/five-minutes-seth-davis/

  2. Pete Welch says:

    Here’s the thing, if supporters of teams in mid-major conferences or even fans of upsets such as Mr. Thamel want to complain about the results of the tournament thus far, they need not look any further than their own teams when assigning blame. As Brian said in the article, the whole point of seeding is to reward the best teams…they SHOULD be beating the lower teams, otherwise there would be no point in seeding them higher. What many mid-major fans seem to forget is that the NCAA tournament is about crowning a national champion, not providing an opportunity for smaller teams to play powerhouses, and despite what the folks responsible for the BCS may think, the national champion should be the best team. For the mid-majors that got into the tournament only to lose, any discussion of being slighted is moot; if such a team and its supporters feel they should have advanced further, then the remedy is to simply win your games. If North Dakota State can’t beat Kansas during opening weekend, what’s to say they would beat Louisville later on down the road? If your answer is that such considerations are not the point, then as the article suggests you have missed the point. Again, the tournament is to decide the national champion, not provide mid-majors with a few extra exhibition games. As to complaints about mid-majors not making the tournament, again, the fault lies within the teams in question. If you want to get into the tournament, win your conference. When teams like St. Mary’s don’t win their conference, the sure fire way to guarantee admission, they have no grounds for any claims of unfair treatment.

  3. Josh says:

    Here’s the rub: the NCAA tourney is fixed from the get-go. The big conference schools refuse to travel to the mid-major campuses to play them because they are scared of losing. And after my Patriots destroyed UNC, Michigan State and UConn in 2006 I don’t blame them. And don’t forget VCU beating Duke and barely losing to UCLA. And of course Gonzaga’s success. So basically a lot of these mid-major and smaller schools don’t get the chance to prove themselves to the selection committee during the regular season to get an at-large bid if they don’t win their conference tourney. That is why only four mid-major schools were in the tourney this year. It has gone down every year since Mason went the Final Four. We need to get back to the spirit of collegiate athletics and get big money out of it. Pitt-UConn-Lousville-UNC Final Four equals BORING!

  4. Brian Lowry says:

    George Mason? Seriously? That sounds like a soap-opera star, doesn’t it? I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that a school named after a guy is really cut out for big-time sports. Apologies to Robert Morris, too. (Let’s give Duke and Howard a pass, since that’s just one name.)
    Sure, everybody loves to see David knock off Goliath now and then, but the talent disparity is simply too wide for a smaller school to win the whole shebang, so even if they win a couple of games they’re living on borrowed time as soon as the tournament begins. As for fairness, the issue of who gets into the tournament in the first place isn’t the same as who survives into the later rounds. And while I’d have left Arizona at home myself, it’s hard to argue that they don’t belong in hindsight.
    Ultimately, though, the fundamental problem for the lesser conferences is that the NCAA is interested in only one thing, and here’s a hint: Fairne$$ isn’t it.

  5. Josh says:

    Being a George Mason alumni I have to vehemently disagree. And I think the majority of people out there would as well. George Mason’s amazing run to the Final Four or Davidson’s surprise trip to the Sweet 16 is what makes the NCAA tournament so unpredictable and fun to watch. It puts the “madness” in March and lets the small and mid-major school dream of making a run. The big boys duking it every year out is boring. It is big money and big egos. If I wanted to see that I would just watch an NBA game. Watching scrappy teams like George Mason and Davidson knock out the higher-profile programs is what makes the NCAA tourney special.
    Read this column by The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon for a different take:
    Crushing the Glass Slipper
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/03/17/ST2009031703904.html

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