Last week, I was up on the campus of Northeastern University in Boston for a Baseball Prospectus 2008 event. Steven Goldman and I were talking to a crowd, mostly students, a mix of others, at one of the best-attended and best-organized signings I’ve seen on this year’s tour. The only catch was that the way the hand-held microphones were rigged, only one could be on at a time, and there was a small delay after you turned yours on before it would work.
So Steven would speak, turn his mike off, I would turn mine on, wait three seconds and start talking.
It occurred to me, while doing this, that this would be a terrific feature to have in real life, a forced three-second delay before you could actually speak. I probably lost a handful of good lines to the process, but many more bad jokes. The net effect in that room was small; the net effect outside of the room would be massive. How many times have you said something in haste and immediately wanted it back? Exactly.
This story has a point. Last night, as the brackets were being announced, I was filled with rage at the way the non-majors were being pitted against one another. Butler vs. South Alabama. UNLV vs. Kent State. Gonzaga vs. Davidson. By the time Drake vs. Western Kentucky was announced, I was seething.
This has come up in past years as well. With so many BCS schools taking up spots in the bracket, you would think it would be hard to make matchups that excluded them. But every year, small schools from small conferences are shoved into death matches with each other that could easily be avoided and seem, over a period of years, to be the result of a strategy. Butler vs. Old Dominion last year; Southern Illinois vs. Holy Cross; Nevada vs. Creighton in the same 2007 tournament. In ’06, admittedly not a bad year for this, it was George Washington vs. UNC-Wilmington and Nevada vs. Montana. In ’05, it was Southern Illinois vs. St. Mary’s, Gonzaga vs. Winthrop. It’s as if the committee is trying to re-create BracketBusters matchups.
At 7 p.m. last night, I was prepared to excoriate the committee for its protection of the BCS schools, setting up the bracket in a way to ensure that the smaller schools would be playing off for a limited number of chances at the big boys, and ensuring that CBS wouldn’t potentially be forced into another Wichita State/George Mason regional semifinal. That’s what this bracket looks like; a conscious attempt to limit the number of low-profile schools that can potentially reach the later rounds of the tournament.
Look at the numbers. The committee has the most, really its only, discretion when it comes to seed lines 5-12. The 13-16 lines are occupied, this year entirely so, by automatic qualifiers, a group that oddly includes an SEC team in 2008. The committee isn’t really creating matchups in that range, and whatever happens in there can be largely excused.
In the middle of the bracket, there’s more discretion, more moving teams for practical reasons, more seed-line changing to create balance. It’s in that area that the committee has done a spectacular job this year of protecting the BCS schools from the threat of playing non-BCS schools on neutral courts. Among the 32 teams in the middle of the bracket, 19 are from BCS school, four are from the conferences between the BCS and the rest (traditionally the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Conference USA and WAC), and nine are from minor conferences.
Of the nine minor-conference teams, six have been matched against one another, and a seventh is playing one of the tweeners (that’s the Kent State/UNLV game). Of the 19 BCS schools, 14 have been matched against one another. Let’s pull the nut sentence out and put it in bold for everyone to see:
Of the nine minor-conference schools in the middle of the bracket, just two are matched up against BCS schools.
Now, 18 or so hours ago, I was convinced that this was a conspiracy, and intentional attempt by the committee, spurred by CBS, to ensure a majority of BCS schools in the later rounds of the event. Call it the Packer Ultimatum. Today—and this is where the parable of the goofy microphones comes in—I’m not making that argument. It has been stated over and over again that the committee doesn’t have time to worry about matchups in the room, that the time crunch in just picking the teams leaves bracketing them almost an afterthought. In a year like this one, with the turmoil in the SEC pushing the process to its limits, I’m unable to credibly argue that the committee intentional structured this bracket to cut down the number of minor schools that would advance. This is especially true when you see some of the geographic strangeness that occurred, where teams on the same seed line are sent to locations that could have easily been flipped.
My question today is different, though. It’s clear that the committee doesn’t structure the tournament one way or another, and I’ll concede that this godforsaken bracket is the result of good faith. But…shouldn’t they make more of an effort? This is supposed to be a room full of really smart guys, people who know the game. They have to be aware that one of the critical problems in the college game, one that makes the committee’s life so difficult, is the struggle good teams in the middle tier of conferences have getting games, and certainly home games, against the top tier. We go through this every March, where no one can really compare an Illinois State or a VCU to an Oregon or a Villanova because there’s no common ground. The tournament is supposed to be that common ground, where the smaller schools get their chance against the power schools. This bracket has taken that element out of play, by effectively playing off the schools from outside the power structure for the right to take on the BCS side of the bracket.
I’d add that this bracket makes for a lousy first two days as well. If fans want to see Kent State/Nevada, or Gonzaga/Davidson, they can get those matchups in November, or even in BracketBusters. For that matter, they can get Marquette/Kentucky and West Virginia/Arizona as well. Part of what makes the tournament great is when the mid-level BCS schools have to play the games they don’t during the season. The tournament should provide those to us, that proving ground. When it doesn’t, we’re cheated.
The argument within the game, expressed something short of eloquently by the rightsholders’ analysts, is that the power conferences middle tiers are simply better than the top teams at the next level, and that argument is supported largely by…words. We have no way of knowing whether this is true because the power conference teams don’t play road games at the latter. Home-court advantage in college basketball is huge, so whatever statistics about nonconference performance you care to provide are skewed by the lack of high-caliber home games that teams the Colonial, Missouri Valley, West Coast, Mid-American and other conferences get to play.
The tournament should level the playing field, should serve the game itself by putting those arguments to the test. This bracket doesn’t do that. This bracket breaks Cinderella’s left arm and right leg and sends her off to the dance in an off-the-rack beige irregular from Mervyn’s.
We deserve better. The game deserves better. The teams that are forced to choose between playing home games or good games absolutely deserve better. The committee failed to serve the game this year, and while this year’s tournament will be dramatic and exciting and all the things the players make it, it will not be great. Committee members, do a better job next year.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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