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In the End, What Does the Tournament Tell Us?

March Madness is arguably the single greatest sporting event in existence.  The opportunity for 65 teams to make a 6 game run through three weekends in March and April to the coveted national title game and a chance at history.  Since the NCAA moved to a tournament format, 35 teams have emerged from the varying formats crowned champions.  Of those only 14 can claim multiple crowns.

Take it a step further and only 6 teams have won it multiple times since the field expanded to it's current format of 64.  Kansans, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut and Florida.  No doubt the six game tourney run to win the title is one of the more trying and difficult tasks in college sports. 

In basketball it's made more difficult by the youth movement at most elite programs due to the draw of the NBA for those truly elite level players. 

So if the top schools are getting the top talent, and the top talent isn't sticking around all that often.  What does the tournament tell us?  Is it giving us the BEST team more often than not?  Or, is it giving us a national champion the way fans of college basketball and sports in general want it?

First off a quick rundown of where the tournament has been.  Prior to 1975 the tournament consisted of only one team per conference before it's expansion to the 32 team field which would usher in the inevitable 64 team era just ten years later.

  • 1939–1950: eight teams
  • 1951–1952: 16 teams
  • 1953–1974: varied between 22 and 25 teams
  • 1975–1978: 32 teams
  • 1979: 40 teams
  • 1980–1982: 48 teams
  • 1983: 52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1984: 53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1985–2000: 64 teams
  • 2001—present: 65 teams

In college football the sports world has been clamoring for a better way from nearly the first moments of the BCS.  The mythical national championship that surrounded football wasn't solved it was only fine tuned to select the best teams and give those two the best shot. Whether those are truly the best two teams is always debatable.

The problem is, how can you take a 117 team sport and narrow it to just two that are so deserving of a shot at a national title? 

In basketball obviously the same line of thinking should and does apply.  There just isn't a way to take 300+ teams and say that just two are deserving and hence the 64 team tournament.  Does it maybe go too far though?  Rather than expanding the field and giving parity a chance to further water down a sport where the regular season is becoming increasingly more meaningless, should the field be narrowed giving the best all year long the chance to face off?

It's an interesting thought to look at college basketball through the eyes of a college football system.  Since 1985 and the expansion to 64 teams the team that finished the regular season ranked #1 in the polls has only won the national title THREE times.  From '49-'84 it happened 17 times, that's an average of nearly every other year where the regular season #1 matches up with the eventual national champion.  Since the move to 64 teams that has shifted to 1 out of 8 times the two are one and the same.  Is that the ratio sports fans want?

More teams have the opportunity, better teams have to sustain a high level for a longer period and less talented but possibly more experienced teams have the chance to come in and make waves over a six game stretch without proving it for the previous 4 months. 

All that said it's hard to argue with the fact that 44% of the time the number 1 seed makes it to the Final Four.  As a number one seed you have to feel good about those odds, but should they be better?

How would that number compare if the field were narrowed down to the top 16 or top 32 teams in the country.  If you went with a BCS type formula for basketball rather than a committee selecting based on some unknown criteria? 

No more resume comparisons in March, just a formula that lets you know where you stand from the beginning of January through the conference slate similar to the football formula.  If there's work to be done, you know it.  If you're sitting comfortably or on the fringe, you know it. 

What this amounts to is what we all want to see from college football.  The BCS is a problem, college basketball isn't, but could college basketball be improved with a move to somewhere in the middle? 

If we use Kenpom as our de facto BCS formula and take the top 16 teams, the seeding looks like this.

#1's - Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse

#2's - Ohio State, Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas State

#3's - Wisconsin, BYU, Maryland, Butler

#4's - Georgetown, Xavier, Cal, Purdue

Sweet 16 teams left out: Northern Iowa, Tennessee, Michigan State, Saint Mary's, Washington, Cornell. 

That's a 10/16 success rate.  Acceptable?  Probably not, Michigan State made the Final Four, Tennessee looked the part of a contender but the other four probably didn't stand a realistic shot of making that run through six games anyway.  Still you miss two that could have won the whole thing.

Let's make the jump to 32 teams.

#5's - Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri, Clemson

#6's - Villanova, Temple, Michigan State, Florida State

#7's - Utah St, Georgia Tech, Dayton, Tennessee

#8's - Northern Iowa, Washington, Pittsburgh, Minnesota

In this instance we cover 14 of the Sweet 16 teams leaving out just Cornell and St. Mary's.  Does this skew the curve too much toward the big boys?  Does this take away the opportunity for the little guy to fight his way into the tourney and if it does, do we care?  Could Cornell or St. Mary's realistically ever win the tourney? And if not, does it matter if they are there?  Do we want them taking out legitimate contenders for the sake of a great first weekend, at the expense of a great finish?

Obviously part of what makes March Madness and college basketball so great is the first weekend of the tournament.  The upsets, the buzzer beaters, David taking down Goliath. 

So where does college basketball belong?  Giving full disclosure my opinion lies in this thing remaining right where it's at, 64 teams.  As a Kansas Jayhawk fan I probably benefit more from a smaller field, but that would be a slap in the face to UTEP, Rhode Island and now Northern Iowa all who have upset my own Jayhawks from a spot that would only exist in the field of 64.

As it stands today it appears the one and only option in the minds of the NCAA however is expansion.  Most fans tend to side on the fact that things should remain the same.  But, has anyone asked the question of whether it's gotten too big? 

College basketball fans across the country may have seen what they wanted when Northern Iowa beat Kansas, when Ohio beat Georgetown or when Saint Mary's beat Villanova.  On the other hand did we get what we wanted to see on Saturday with Butler vs. Michigan State or Duke vs. West Virginia?  And do we get to see college basketballs best when Butler faces Duke tonight for the title?

Some argue yes, some would say absolutely not.  In the end we'll judge the quality of the competition by the quality  of the contest.  It still begs the question of whether or not college basketball had better to offer.