Jay Clemons identifies 10 reasons why the NCAA tourney remains the coolest spectacle in sports.
By JAY CLEMONS FS South
There are a million things to like about the NCAA tournament, from the pageantry (and heartache) of Selection Sunday to the misty-eyed viewings of
One Shining Moment after a national champion has been crowned.
But when it comes to things we
love about The Big Dance, we're happy to explore the following obsession points a little deeper.
10 Things We Love About The NCAA Tournament
1. We love ... the genius behind the "pod" system
For the 2001 NCAA Tournament, top-four seeds like
UCLA (Greensboro, N.C.), Indiana (San Diego) and Maryland (Boise) had to travel great distances for first- and second-round games, diminishing the schools' chances of attracting a large contingent of pro-
Bruins/Hoosiers/Terrapins fans to the early venues.
And going back to 1982, top-seeded Georgetown had to trek all the way to Logan, Utah (Utah State campus) ... just to play a single second-round game against nearby Wyoming (the No. 1s had first-round byes back then).
Why it took so long for the NCAA selection committee to approve the pod system — where tourney teams are generally assigned to regionals which minimize travel, and top-four seeds are placed within earshot of their home bases — shall remain a mystery here, but thank goodness the plan was enacted in 2002.
Although, for that season, the pod system took a temporary hit when No. 3 Mississippi State essentially had to play (and eventually lose) a road tilt to 6-seeded Texas in nearby Dallas (Midwest Region). But occasional quirks aside, the amount of travel — and fairness to the higher-seeded clubs — has greatly improved in recent years.
Simply put, the days of a 2-seed like UCLA (1997) schlepping it to snowy Auburn Hills, Mich. (I was a media intern that weekend), just for the honor of beating Charleston Southern and Xavier in the opening two rounds, are long gone.
2. We love ... taking the "First Four" games in Dayton seriously
Some might forget that Virginia Commonwealth's improbable run to the Final Four in 2011 started with a 59-46 victory over USC in the "First Four" round — where eight teams vie for four spots in the 64-team NCAA field, through a two-pack of Tuesday/Wednesday games in Dayton, Ohio.
In essence, First Four naysayers never got a chance to mock the system, since its inception coincided with
VCU's rise to Final Four glory.
Like it or not, America, the First Four has credibility, so much that President Barack Obama took time out of his busy schedule last year to view the Tuesday doubleheader (Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State and BYU-Iona), while introducing the finer points of basketball to Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron.
Sure, it might have been a thinly veiled campaign trip to Ohio — the country's hottest "battleground" state — but it stands to reason:
Would the president have swooped in to Dayton for the First Four in 2012 ... if VCU hadn't made the mini-tourney hip the previous season? After all, POTUS does have a high-profile tourney bracket to protect every March.
3. We love ... poking fun at Multiple Bracket Guy
For those with email and/or Web access, you'll undoubtedly be granted the opportunity to fill out a tourney bracket before the Round of 64 begins Thursday. As part of that, you'll surely encounter a guy (or gal) who feels obligated to fill out multiple bracket sheets, with various scenarios playing out with the Elite Eight, Final Four and title-game contenders.
From a monetary or bravado standpoint, Multiple Bracket Guy (or Gal) is simply adding to the overall pool of winnings by harmlessly touting multiple brackets. They may also be hedging their bets for pick 'em games, as a short-term means of impressing friends, co-workers or significant others with their supposed tourney knowledge.
That aside, feel free to mock the following type of Multiple Bracket Guy (or Gal) — the one who wastes time, energy and money sweating out the results of the 8-9 and 7-10 matchups from opening weekend.
The rationale: If you have the No. 1 and 2 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16, without incident, what's the point of playing both sides of the 8-9 and 7-10 arguments in each region? Minus any seismic upsets early on, you'd only be lamenting the potential loss of a bracket point or two with the previous round.
Let's think about the big picture here: Winning a bracket pool (and the money that usually flows with it) entails getting at least 13 of the Sweet 16 teams and three of the Final Four clubs correct. It also involves getting one of the title-game finalists right, especially when a 3-seed or lower claims the title.
Just don't expect a 7-, 8-, 9- or 10-seed to bring home the championship. We're a long way from 1985 (Villanova over Georgetown).
4. We love ... making celebrities of previously unsung heroes during tourney time
James Forrest. Bryce Drew. U.S. Reed. Ty Rogers. Jermaine Wallace.
The above quintet were hardly household names during their collegiate days, but became cult figures — for a brief period, at least — after hitting iconic buzzer-beaters in the NCAA tournament. Without their memorable contributions to The Big Dance, the aura and intrigue behind the event, collectively, wouldn't be so grand.
Now comes the hard part — ranking the buzzer-beaters amongst
Reed (Arkansas, 1981),
Drew (Valparaiso, 1998),
Wallace (Northwestern State, 2006),
Forrest (Georgia Tech, 2002) and
Rogers (Western Kentucky, 2008).
5. We love ... that one region will be torn asunder by a wave of upsets
It never fails. Despite a phalanx of powerhouse or name-brand programs occupying a particular region, there's always one bracket (or sub-bracket) that gets demolished by a lower-seed uprising.
In 2012, four double-digit seeds advanced to the South region's Round of 32 — highlighted by No. 15 Lehigh's stunning win over No. 2 Duke (in nearby Greensboro).
The previous year (2011), three double-digit seeds (Florida State, VCU and Richmond) reached the Sweet 16 in the Southwest region, along with No. 1
Kansas (which fell to VCU in the regional final).
And in 2010, thanks to a litany of early-round upsets, a No. 5 seed (Michigan State) and No. 6 (Tennessee) squared off in the Midwest final (the
Spartans prevailed, 70-69).
Consider this to be a small sample size of a pervasive trend, where the basketball gods seemingly enjoy bringing havoc to one concentrated area of the tournament field. But it's still worth noting:
The odds of a 12- and 13-seed meeting in the same region — after knocking off the 4 and 5s, respectively — are far greater than all four No. 1 seeds reaching the Final Four (only one such occurrence since the tourney expanded to 64 — 2007).
6. We love ... the romance — and consistency — of the 12-over-5 upset
Of the last 20 tourneys (1993-2012), the No. 12 seed has upended the 5-seed 30 times (out of 80 opportunities), meaning there's a 38-percent chance of at least one 12-5 shakedown every year.
In that span, the 5 seeds have carried the freight in all four regions only twice (2000, 2007). On the flip side, the 12s took three of the four battles twice (2002, 2009).
So, when filling out a sheet this week, you'll need at least one bracket buster at the 5-12 spot, no matter how infallible — or downtrodden — the respective teams may seem on paper.
7. We love ... how tournament viewers want their cake and eat it, too
Remember the delirium that accompanied Northern Iowa's Round of 32 upset of No. 1 Kansas in 2010, thanks to one of the
gutsiest wide-open three-pointers you'll ever see during crunch time — courtesy of UNI's Ali Farokhmanesh?
Well, that shocking result might have captivated a nation for one Saturday in March, but it also cast a strange pall over the rest of the Midwest region from that point forward. The same TV viewers — and ticket-buyers for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight rounds in St. Louis — who celebrated Farokhmanesh's heroics against the
Jayhawks were complaining about the lack of buzz surrounding Northern Iowa's ensuing matchup with Michigan State.
It's an all-too-familiar scenario every March: Tournament fans
live for upsets in the early rounds, but once they've realized that most Cinderella teams are one-trick ponies, they'll soon be clamoring for the "chalk" matchups (between prominent clubs) that never happened.
The best-case scenario for these fans? In 1995, defending champion Arkansas barely survived its 2-15 matchup against Texas Southern in the first round, and then squeaked out an overtime win over Syracuse (remember Lawrence Moten?) two days later.
The following week, the Hogs had gathered enough steam to forge an exhilarating run to the NCAA title game (losing to UCLA in the finale). That is but one perfect example of The Big Dance experiencing the best of both worlds.
8. We love ... feigning surprise when Dereck Whittenburg's 28-foot heave falls short of the rim
This spring marks the 30-year anniversary of North Carolina State's shocking victory over
Houston (aka Phi Slamma Jamma) in the 1983 national title game, a moment that will forever be punctuated by Lorenzo Charles' dunk off Whittenburg's desperation airball before the buzzer ... and coach Jim Valvano charmingly running around the court, in search of someone to hug.
Leading into the title match at The Pit in Albuquerque, Houston-NC State was actually viewed as anti-climactic, with the
real championship game taking place two days earlier (Houston topped Louisville, 94-81, in an up-tempo,
dunk-filled battle for the ages).
Feeling no pressure, the
Wolfpack sprinted to a 33-25 halftime lead over the
Cougars (led by Clyde Drexler and Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, before he added an "H" to his first name) and then endured every second-half Houston rally before arriving to the closing minute
with the ball ... and the game tied at 52.
In this pre-shot-clock era, NC State held the ball for one final shot, but that plan went awry when the Wolfpack stalled too long and Whittenburg was forced to take an off-balance, 28-foot jumper. For his sake, the shot was short and to the right, enabling Charles to cleanly grab and dunk the ball before the buzzer, with Olajuwon standing by, seemingly in shock.
For that Final Four's 30-year tribute, you'll certainly
see this amazing finish roughly 687 times over the next three weeks. But it never gets old.
9. We love ... the coolness of Quadruple-header Saturday during the Round of 32
CBS, Turner, TBS and truTV each have a hand in airing tourney games now, but the NCAA has admirably preserved the four-block marathon that comes with the first Saturday.
For couch potatoes and bar patrons everywhere, there's no sweeter sight than having access to non-stop, high-quality hoops from 12 noon (EST) to 11 p.m. — without the obligation of sitting through a 1-vs.-16 matchup, with no alternative viewing choices.
Which brings us to this ...
10. We love ... the never-ending chase of a No. 16 toppling a 1-seed
In 1985, the first year of an expanded 64-team field (forcing the eventual champion to win six tourney games), top-seeded Michigan trailed No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson by 10 points midway through the second half — without a shot clock — before rallying for a four-point victory.
FDU's near-miss that Friday evening in Dayton, it seemed inevitable that a No. 1 would fall in the Round of 64 sometime that century ... and sooner than later.
Twenty-eight years later, though, the NCAA tournament appears no closer to unprecedented history with its 1-16 matchup. Sure, top dogs like Duke (1986 vs. Mississippi Valley State), Georgetown (1989 vs. Princeton), Oklahoma (1989 vs. East Tennessee State), Michigan State (1990 vs. Murray State), Purdue (1996 vs. Western Carolina) and Kansas (2002 vs. Holy Cross) all encountered legitimate scares, but only one of the six powers required overtime to win (
MSU in '90).
In fact, of the last five tournaments (2008-12), spanning 20 matchups of 1 vs. 16, the average margin of victory is a whopping 26.5 points. That's likely a consequence of three factors:
**In this technologically advanced era, the NCAA selection committee has a better grasp of accurately seeding the four worst teams.
**The No. 1 seeds have better scouting access to the 16s, via TV and the Internet.
**Through social media, the No. 1 seeds feel even
more obligated to take their early-round opponents seriously. No powerhouse wants to make history, in a bad way.
Bottom line: In this parity-driven era of college hoops, where it's commonplace for mid-majors to reach the Final Four (and title game), the 16s have somehow missed their window for pulling off the mother of all upsets.
How else could one explain the 28-year drought, especially since NASA needed
only eight years to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's inauguration promise (circa 1961) of putting a man on the moon?