10 Things We Love About The NCAA Tourney

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 — 2008).

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 120 opportunities), meaning there’s a 25-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 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 their 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-N.C. 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, N.C. 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.

After
watching 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?