The NCAA Tournament is the best event in sports. Those first two days, when games are on from noon-1 a.m., is adult Christmas. An embarrassment of riches for hardcore basketball fans and recreational gamblers alike.
It is also not the best way to determine a national champion.
The advantage gained by elite teams is too often reduced by a selection committee prone to make head-scratching decisions. One is left to wonder what the point of the conference regular and postseason has been.
Take Michigan State this year. As a reward for winning two Big Ten crowns, they’ve been rewarded with a quick turnaround against Bradley at a venue much closer to the higher-seeded team. Then a potential third-round matchup with Louisville, which beat MSU earlier this year. Then a potential Sweet 16 game against Maryland 11 miles from the Terrapins campus. After all that, a likely date with Duke, the best team in the field.
The Spartans, on paper, would have been better faltering, falling to a No. 3 in a weaker region, and taking their chances.
This isn’t sour grapes. It’s reality. And while it’s healthy to set goals along the way, the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate prize, dwarfing conference titles. But one way to make the months preceding March more meaningful is to make sure the top teams actually get what they’ve earned.
Now, look, the reasonable part of my brain knows that underdogs taking out No. 1s and No. 2s on the first weekend is part of what people love so much about the 68-team playoff. Upsets and Cinderellas are the indelible shining moments.
The analytical part, though, wonders if an approach that blends this with what college football does would be fairer.
Consider this proposal. The top eight teams in the seeding rankings would be given an opening-round bye into the final 32. Then, the top four would be given the four weakest remaining teams in the field due to reseeding.
Completely different, yes, but a more material prize for prolonged regular season excellence. It would also drive interest and open the door for a possible rankings reveal show.
Is this unlikely? Yeah. Would it hurt the tournament? Probably.
At the same time, there’s something deeply unsatisfying that every team is only one bad decision by the selection committee from essentially having their entire body of work altered. Knowing what we know, the entity isn’t going to fix itself.
The NCAA Tournament is what it is because of its volatility and unpredictability. Those things also show how random the whole thing can be. This is not the best way to crown a champion, even if it’s the most fun.