The Broken System

By: Mike Anthony news services

As a kid, I remember the countless hours of classroom and homework time that – come March – was totally abandoned for the sanctity of brackets.

Beginning with the conference tournaments and stretching into the NCAA ‘big dance’, I was constantly overwhelmed and obsessed with drawing out the brackets and playing out all of the scenarios in my head.

Whether it was charting a course to a championship for my favorite teams or trying to figure out where the surprises would spring up, there was something about the mystique of the endless possible outcomes of the bracket that had me in a daze until April.

The annual NCAA tournament still provides thrilling moments and memorable storylines each spring, but the magic seems to be wearing off.

Sure, anyone who makes it into the tournament field still has a chance to cut down the nets, but recent seasons have taken away the one thing that made March Madness a pillar of sports watching – the unknown team that can win.

These unknown teams shouldn’t be confused with the upsets that are also synonymous with the tournament. There will always be lower seeds that notch huge wins against heavily-favored opponents, but those upsets are now just as likely to come from a big-name school in a big conference with a huge budget as opposed to previous years where the tournament was flush with more schools from smaller conferences trying to make their mark.

The latest projections for this season’s NCAA tournament guess that 34 teams – exactly half of the 68-team total for the field – will come from the five richest conferences in Division I.

The NCAA mandates that the winners of all 32 conferences participating in Division I receive a bid to the tournament. That rule gives schools in smaller conferences more of a shot at a national title than non P5 schools will ever have at a national football title, but the bias is still evident.

Doing the quick math, the latest projections see the tournament spots being taken up by the 32 conference champs, along with 29 non-champion schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac 12 and SEC. That leaves a grand total of seven at-large bids to be had by the roughly 250 Division-I schools who aren’t part of those five richest conferences and who won’t win their conference tournaments.

That’s hardly fair.

Yes, most teams from the bigger conferences have better track records and dominate recruiting rankings.

Yes, the teams in smaller conferences who don’t win their tournaments don’t play the same amount of quality teams in their yearly schedule.

And yes, the broadcast might suffer a bit if analysts are forced to talk about a school they’ve barely heard of.

But it’s called March Madness for a reason.

In an NCAA basketball landscape where even middling power conference teams are mostly fueled by one-and-done players, why not reward more smaller schools who have built up a starting lineup full of three and four-year starters?

In a time where most early round games are played in half-empty arenas, why favor schools with nine-figure athletic budgets when they don’t play or draw better than an upstart squad that hasn’t been to the tournament in a decade?

Even the biggest NCAA hoops fans can’t tell you who the sixth and seventh teams from the ACC were in last year’s tournament, but they can tell you all about UMBC, Florida Gulf Coast and countless other ‘nobody’s’ who seized their moment on the big stage.

Odds are that the biggest and richest schools will still be competing once the Final Four comes around. And that’s all the reason needed to include more smaller schools and bring some more madness to March.