Thursday, March 16, 2006

Method to the Madness

The NCAA Tournament selection committee revealed the pairings for the Championship Tournament that begins with the opening rounds today. But just because the games begin, don't count on the whining to subside. Especially when those teams believed to have received special consideration fall. See, Maryland would have won.

No, they would not have. Here's the thing, people: 64 teams get a ticket to the Big Dance. A number of those bid are automatic meaning that the selection committee has no power over the teams who either win their regular season title, or storm through their respective conference tournaments to win a championship. That's how teams with losing records can actually sneak in.

If you fail to qualify for an automatic bid, the selection committee is going to split hairs and scrutinize the rest of the at large hopefuls. In most cases it's a no brainer. The better a team's national ranking, the more likely it is they'll get in, but the selection committee reviews strength of schedule, power rankings and late season performance. It's possible that the occasional top 20 team who didn't lock up the automatic bid could get snubbed. Even in those rare cases it's hard to feel sorry for the teams on the outside looking in.

Fans are expected to make mountains out of molehills. That's what fans do. They see injustice in every thing that doesn't reflect their opinion that the team they root for is the best. But analysts and coaches should know better. When you have something as hideous as the BCS using a twisted combination of computers and people to select the top two teams in the country next door in football, the NCAA Basketball Tournament should seem like a beacon of unbiased hope.

The problem is the fact that too many of these analysts are former college players and/or coaches who hold strong loyalties to the conferences they were associated with. Sports networks want to improve their perceived credibility by hiring people who actually played the game as though these idiots actually have insight that enhances our appreciation of the game.

The reality is that these ex-jocks and coaches often provide insight into the painfully obvious and present uninspiring information as though it's some sort of an inside secret. When you convert points off of turnovers it puts the pressure on your opponent. Really? Wow. I did not know that. Hey, you know what else puts pressure on your opponent? Stupid analysts who won't stop blathering about the painfully obvious. Jeez, next you'll tell me that the team with more points at the end of the game will be the winner. Is the ball round? Does it bounce, too?

Sadly, these washed up jocks steal career opportunities from qualified mass media students who try to combine their love of sports with an education in broadcasting. They study and practice and work long hours at unpaid internships so they can one day graduate from college and become a hot dog vendor at their local arena because some big dumb athlete blew out his knee and had to get a real job. It's not fair but we can tolerate it as long as these idiots at least pretend to be professional. Crying foul over a two or three debatable selections in a 64 team field is not professional.

The Tournament is great. It's so big and comprehensive that you can't diminish it by whimpering over one or two teams. It's like criticizing a sunset because of a few thin clouds. Over the next few weeks the field of 64 will be whittled down to the Final Four and beyond that a true national champion will emerge. There will be upsets. Big upsets. There always are.

Regular season performance doesn't matter. Anybody can win. Goliath can stumble and David can get on a hot streak. There's no margin for error, no getting back on track after a tough loss. If you don't bring the "A" game every day, you will "B" going home. That's why the fans love it. Every game is game seven.

Some coaches try to downplay the tournament because of that upset factor. It's just one game, they say. Sure. If UConn plays Albany 100 times UConn will win 99 of those games, but that one shot is what makes the Tournament so special. You don't have any margin for error. Win or go home. To me, that's a bigger challenge than winning a regular season title. It's a lot easier to win 25-30 games over the course of a season than it is to win six straight games against top ranked opponents in the national spotlight.

Some say that this makes the tournament a novelty act. The regular season is a grueling test of which team is the best. The tournament is a reward in itself. It's an exhibition for the fans, but it's not the fans I see exalting in their glory when the final horn sounds. It's not the fans I see gleefully cutting down the nets. No. The tournament is the season. Coaches, players and the NCAA want the regular season to matter, but for most fans the regular season is just practice for the Big Dance in March.

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