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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Impossible Dream? Now’s the Time for It

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It's not a national holiday yet, but for basketball fans it might as well be. The first week of the NCAA Division I tournament, with 48 games Thursday through Sunday, will have millions anchored to their couches rooting their favorites—and their office-pool choices—into the Sweet Sixteen.

In this state, the usual hopes for Marquette and Wisconsin have added intensity. Both teams are in the East regional, and if they win twice they'll travel next week to Syracuse. And if each won again there... well, the next step truly would be March Madness.

Frank: Mark your calendar, buddy! Saturday, March 27, in Syracuse. The biggest college hoops game ever for our state!

Artie: Are we getting a little ahead of ourselves?

Frank: Sure, and why not? On that day, Marquette and Wisconsin will play for a spot in the Final Four!

Artie: Provided they both celebrate Sweet Sixteen with a win next Thursday.

Frank: It's a tall order, considering that MU got buried by Georgetown in the Big East semifinals and the Badgers were "one and done" in the Big Ten tourney.

Artie: But both teams certainly are capable of winning three straight. UW earned a No. 4 seeding and MU a 6—not bad for teams that Sports Illustrated left out of the NCAA field in its season preview.

Frank: First things first. This week in San Jose, Calif., MU has to beat Washington, then presumably No. 3 New Mexico.

Artie: The Pacific 10 was a little weak, but Washington's a good team, with some size and a great guard in Isaiah Thomas. New Mexico was in the Top 10 in the final polls. They can run with MU and may have a little more size.

Frank: Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Fla., the Badgers face Wofford in the first round and, we expect, either Temple or Cornell.

Artie: Don't sell Wofford short. They were a football cupcake for UW last season, but on the court they went 26-8 and won the Southern Conference, both regular-season and tournament.

Frank: So the Badgers aren't a lock.

Artie: And against either No. 5 Temple or Cornell, the Badgers would face a team like themselves—smart and disciplined. Temple, from the tough Atlantic 10 Conference, has two good guards and Cornell has the son of former Indiana star Randy Wittman.

Frank: So we might see Marquette and New Mexico play in the 80s one day and UW might slug it out in the 50s the next.

Artie: Plausible scenarios, and winnable for our teams. In the Sweet Sixteen, UW most likely would face No. 1 Kentucky and Marquette might meet a familiar foe, No. 2 West Virginia.

Frank: And after that…

Artie: Let's take our time and enjoy the best four-day weekend in American sports!

For What It’s Worth

Frank: As published blatherers, we're duty-bound to predict the Sweet Sixteen. In the East, I see Wisconsin getting there but not MU. So I'll say the Badgers, Kentucky, New Mexico and Clemson.

Artie: I agree on Wisconsin, Kentucky and New Mexico, but my fourth is West Virginia.

Frank: In the South, I'm going with Duke, Villanova, Notre Dame and feisty No. 13 Siena.

Artie: I say Duke, Texas A&M, Baylor and feisty No. 7 Richmond.

Frank: In the Midwest, I've got Kansas, Michigan State, Ohio State and Georgetown.

Artie: I agree on Kansas, Georgetown and the Buckeyes, but I also like Maryland.

Frank: In the West, I have Florida State, Vanderbilt, Kansas State and Xavier.

Artie: For me, it's Gonzaga, UTEP, Kansas State and Pittsburgh.

When Bigger Isn’t Better

Frank: So if the 65-team tournament is fantastic, how about a 96-team extravaganza?

Artie: Don't say it. The less people talk about it, maybe the less likely it'll happen.

Frank: But you're such a big fan. Isn't the NCAA thinking of expanding the field to make you happy?

Artie: Wrong. The motive is the same as with any change in big-time football or basketball: money.

Frank: They have the goose that lays the golden egg, and now they want a carton's worth, huh? I heard Tony Kornheiser quote a TV sports executive as saying before an interview, "The answer to all your questions is money." Gee, that just might be true.

Artie: The 96-team talk comes from the fact that this summer the NCAA can opt out of the last three years of its contract with CBS, then shop around.

Frank: If they did spout some noble-sounding reasons for expanding, what would they be?

Artie: Every year there are up to seven, eight teams who deserve to be in the field but get squeezed out because there are only 34 at-large bids. But there's no way that thirty-two teams are getting jobbed.

Frank: Adding enough teams for three or four "play-in" games instead of one, that's fine. But increasing the field by 50% would add a lot of mediocrity.

Artie: None other than Dick Vitale agrees. He nearly went apoplectic Sunday saying what a bad idea it is.

Frank: Wow, for once I'm with Dickie V. Division I teams play through preseason tournaments, conference schedules and made-for-TV conference tournaments. After all that, shouldn't there be consequences for teams that didn't lead the way?

Artie: Apparently not. It's like middle-school soccer; everyone has to get a trophy. Coaches would love a 96-team field because it would help them at contract renewal time.

Frank: Even if their teams were, like, .500 or worse in the conference and lost a dozen games or more overall?

Artie: Why not? What are the conference tournaments for? To give also-rans one last shot at a title they don't deserve, ain’a?

Frank: Players sure wouldn't squawk at a 96-team field.

Artie: That's the feel-good rationale—"It's such a wonderful experience, we should give it to more of our student-athletes."

Frank: How about giving them the experience of going to class more? The NCAA doesn't worry about that as the conference tournaments and Big Dance eat up a lot of March.

Artie: If the NCAA went to 96, the Big East would get maybe 12 teams in, and the Big Ten would have maybe eight out of its 11. Why would there be any importance to the conference season?

Frank: There's not much now. A conference's automatic NCAA bid should go to the team that proves itself over a 16- or 18-game schedule, not the team that perhaps gets lucky and wins the conference tourney.

Artie: You're talking fairness; the NCAA and TV networks are fluent only in cash-speak.

Frank: Seems like the conference tourneys are pretty pointless right now anyway—except for the small leagues that'll get only one bid overall. The top teams all know they're going to the Big Dance no matter what.

Artie: I don't say the players don't give 100%, but subconsciously they know they have a cushion. Plus, the byes can skew who gets hot and cold. All of that would get worse with a 96-team NCAA producing so many more "safe" bids.

Frank: I heard Villanova coach Jay Wright defend expansion by invoking NCAA football. He noted that there are almost 350 Division I basketball programs, almost three times the number of top-level football programs, and that more than half the football schools play in bowl games. He called those games "rewards" for fine seasons. But 44 of the 68 bowl teams this past season had four, five or even six losses. That's rewarding mediocrity.

Artie: The NCAA is catching up with pro sports in devaluating the regular season. The NFL and baseball added wild-card playoff spots long ago, and the NHL and NBA cram at least half their teams into the postseason.

Frank: There's no doubt that wild-card schemes achieve their goals—keep more teams in contention, therefore more fans interested, and therefore more cash flowing. I once heard a pundit declare that the idea of a devalued regular season was therefore "disproved." I'd put it another way: The regular season is devalued; it's just that nobody cares.

Artie: Especially anyone who stands to make some dough.

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