During March Madness, the more the merrier

Richmond fans dressed as Spider-Man take in their team's third-round game against Morehead State on Saturday in Denver.
Richmond fans dressed as Spider-Man take in their team's third-round game against Morehead State on Saturday in Denver.
Posted: March 21, 2011

The NCAA tournament didn't disappoint during the opening weekend. Unless your enjoyment of the event is directly related to how you're doing in your bracket, in which case it probably disappointed you greatly.

Pool sheets aside, the tournament provided all the dramatic and unexpected moments that make March Madness an annual thrill. The first five games of the weekend were decided by just 15 points. From Butler's opening-day buzzer-beater over Old Dominion to Temple's dramatic but heartbreaking, double-overtime loss to San Diego State, the tournament was mesmerizing.

And yet some people are never pleased. ESPN's Doug Gottlieb and Jay Williams spent the first few days complaining about certain teams - such as Alabama-Birmingham - being in the tournament at all. (UAB lost to Clemson, which then lost to West Virginia.)

The Worldwide Leader must be a miserable place to work, because Jay Bilas also was cranky all weekend. Bilas doesn't dig the expanded 68-team field. Makes the tournament weaker, he said. Which is absurd. The tournament needs more teams, not fewer. But we'll get to that soon enough. First, here's one of Bilas' whiny tweets about the good ol' days being long gone:

"1980: L'ville, UCLA, Purdue and Iowa in Final Four. Seeds were 2, 5, 6 and 8. Parity? If we have it now (which we don't), we had it then."

Actually, we didn't have it then, either. We've never had it. Not really. Here's the thing that Bilas and others who complain about the expanded format and the selection committee either don't realize or don't want to admit: 1980 was the anomaly. It was a happy, historic accident, not some regular occurrence. The parity Bilas referenced was never real. It's merely a creation of his failing memory.

Since 1980, there's only been one other year when no No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four. That happened in 2006 when 2, 3, 4, and 11 seeds reached the final weekend. Over that same 30-year span, just 13 schools - barely 10 percent of the Final Four participants during that period - had a No. 6 seed or worse. That's the way it's always been in college basketball. If you have a five seed or better, you have a good chance to reach the Final Four. If you have a No. 6 seed or worse, you don't. You can complain about it, but that won't change the fact that the elite teams have always advanced at a higher rate.

Despite Bilas and others romanticizing an era when the field was equally matched and every school had a shot to reach the Final Four - an era, again, that never truly existed - the madness and the fun of the tournament has never been about a low seed reaching the last weekend (though it's always fun to watch the George Masons and N.C. States make runs). It's really about those low seeds pulling upsets over storied teams during the tournament's always-unpredictable opening weekend.

The tournament is great because of the unexpected moments: No. 13 Morehead State getting past No. 4 Louisville, for example. Which is why - and I've never written this before and likely won't ever write it again - Bob Knight was right. He told the Chicago Tribune last Monday that the NCAA should add more teams - a lot more teams.

"These [three] teams that they added this year, that's a nickel-and-dime operation," said the curmudgeonly Hall of Fame coach, who still refuses to give Mr. Rogers his sweater back after all these years. "I say the heck with it. Play 64 games on Monday and Tuesday evening and then take the 64 winners and seed them just like you do now. In two days you are down to the 64 anyway. That way there are no complaints about teams such as Colorado who should have been in the field but didn't get a spot."

I wonder if he actually said "to heck with it." I suspect the original language was more colorful and someone cleaned it up for the kids. Newspapers are family enterprises and all that.

Word choice aside, Knight made a good point. If the NCAA folded in more teams, the tournament could still be down to the original 64-school format by Thursday of the opening weekend. Only the fringe schools desperate to be included in the postseason bacchanalia would have to play extra games. In exchange, gluttonous hoop heads everywhere would be fed more of a good thing - extra schools to play potential spoilers.

The elite teams almost always make the tournament. This year, of the 10 teams with the most tournament wins ever, only Indiana missed out on the Big Dance. Why not sprinkle in a few - or a lot - more Morehead States and make the top-tier squads sweat it out? Uncomfortable coaches, after all, make for great entertainment. We were reminded of that over the weekend. Rick Pitino looked like he had a better time at that blackmail trial.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/gonzophilly


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