Loving an always changing game

The NCAA tournament is shockingly close to perfect because fairness is sacrificed so ruthlessly and deliberately at the altar of drama. Every March without fail we learn again that literally any team can lose in a single-elimination bracket that requires six or seven wins for a championship. Possibly this isn’t the fairest method for determining a national title. Well, sports aren’t fair. The tournament’s a national treasure.

Incrementally and miraculously, the NCAA tournament evolved over the years into an iconic event worthy of Naismith’s game. The defining features of the tournament are access and single elimination. Limiting access to the top 68 teams in any given rating system would effectively kill the magic. You would still have a compelling win-or-go-home bracket populated by the top teams, it just wouldn’t be March Madness.

If hoops had been around in Talleyrand’s day he would have said smoothing out the randomness by eliminating single elimination would be worse than a crime, it would be a mistake. The randomness that governs which teams lose one time is the point. Then, in the compensatory fashion of any trustworthy dialectic, the teams that emerge without losing even once turn out to be not quite so random after all.

Access and single elimination are the unchanging sinews of a championship event for a changing game. This tournament is irreplaceable, no less so because the evolution of the sport itself has completely changed the content of its championship event.

Since the first NCAA tournament was held 84 years ago, the field expanded beyond eight teams. Goaltending was banned. The number of fouls allowed prior to disqualification was increased to five. The players ceased to be all white. The ban on dunking was eliminated.

Or consider a less distant milestone, NC State’s miracle run to a national title 40 years ago this month. The players, coaches, and fans of 1983 would scarcely recognize the tournament as it’s played today. The Wolfpack of yesteryear had neither a shot clock nor a three-point line in their tournament. Both changes were fiercely opposed. Even reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 in 2015 was fought tooth and nail in some quarters.

Players today can be paid. Those players transfer with far greater mobility than ever before.

Tournament games are now hosted by two venues that a purity-minded NCAA shunned for decades: Madison Square Garden and, as of this year, Las Vegas. Vast sums are wagered on college basketball games legally, including and especially on March Madness. When we watch a game the point spreads of other upcoming contests are shown on the news crawl at the bottom of the screen.

This backdrop of revolutionary change has always coexisted more or less peacefully alongside an equally venerable preservationist impulse. For the past few years that impulse has been in evidence opposing proposals to expand the tournament field. Fellow aficionados of a single-elimination event that requires six or seven wins are by and large against a slightly larger single-elimination event requiring six or seven wins.

Then again preservation isn’t necessarily equivalent to inaction. Access has always been one half of the March miracle. Major conferences have grown far faster than the tournament field. The bracket expanded 13 times in the event’s first 46 years. It has barely changed in the last 38.

Expanding the field would create more opportunities for mid-majors. While major-conference teams would earn some of the additional bids, the 78 percent of Division I represented by mid-majors is well positioned to benefit from any expansion. A larger field would also yield more basketball games involving stronger teams on Tuesday and Wednesday that first week.

Having more mid-majors in the bracket and making Tuesday and Wednesday less sleepy would be regarded in the abstract as positive outcomes. If one nevertheless says no to more mid-majors and to a better Tuesday and Wednesday, there will be an attendant belief that other quite harmful side effects will be brought about by expansion.

As a reader I’m just unclear on what these side effects are believed to be. When my colleagues support the size of the current field, for example, they tend to express concern for the tournament in particular if it expands. The NCAA conversely is more prone to be said to harbor reservations about what expansion might do to the regular season.

When a preference for 68 teams is voiced, it is customary to line bubble teams that didn’t receive bids up against a wall and find them guilty of being uninteresting. If the past month has taught us anything it’s that this is an intrinsically difficult argument to sustain. The teams we thought were interesting two weeks ago are, with but one partial exception, all gone (and even the partial exception lost in its conference tournament semifinals). Meanwhile three teams that the overwhelming majority of observers were glossing over entirely on Selection Monday are playing for a national title.

Moreover, where concerns for the strength of an expanded field are expressed Olsen’s Law is always close at hand counseling us that happily such fears are unlikely to be realized. Besides, these reservations are asynchronous, surely, when we’ve just seen a game won not merely by a No 16 seed but by what on paper was one of the weakest No. 16 seeds in recent memory. We who watch bubbles closely and craft mock brackets meticulously know deep down that we’re working with tweezers and a jeweler’s glass in a room that’s about to be leveled by an earthquake.

For its part the NCAA has semi-officially opined that even a modest expansion could devalue the regular season. This would be far more compelling as forecasting if the size of D-I’s membership were static. Since it’s not, however, we know regular season basketball was in fact excellent back when the tournament welcomed 22.5 percent of D-I into a 64-team bracket. Perhaps the same will be true when 22.0 percent of the current membership populates an 80-team field.

Expansion also holds the not inconsiderable benefit of circumventing the committee entirely right now while it still exists. No expansion should be considered that doesn’t include more mechanisms for pure performance-based and non-discretionary qualifying. This can, as proposed by Mike Krzyzewski in 2010, take the form of bids for outright regular-season champions in select mid-major conferences. Leagues could earn those bids with past tournament performance in any number of ways. The main advantage to be seized would be bypassing the committee while it’s still here.

Will any of this actually occur? Who knows. What we can say in the present tense is the alignment of interested parties this time around is interesting. It’s not every question where you find avaricious major-conference commissioners, the parochial guild-level incentives of the coaching profession, and the reckless flights of fancy of a few bothersome types all pulling in unison. Meanwhile the NCAA and, with only the barest few exceptions, the fourth estate are on the same page.

Strange bedfellows all around. All of the above rightly adore the NCAA tournament.

Enjoy the Madness!

Editor’s note. The first sentence was here before.