Watching a 7-seed and an 8-seed battle it out for a title in Arlington, Tex. felt wrong last night, no matter what names were on the front of the jerseys. Those names (Connecticut and Kentucky, respectively) certainly didn't help matters for Syracuse fans, but for the most part, that's inconsequential. What matters here, to me and I'd think to a lot of other college basketball fans, is that the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's been compromised. Maybe it's because of the new 68-team format. Maybe it's parity. Maybe it's a combination of both. But the country's best postseason certainly doesn't look like it used to. And that's a bad thing.
Following 8-seed Villanova's magical run to a National Championship in the 1985 NCAA Tournament, just two other teams above a 3-seed (No. 6 Kansas in 1988 and No. 4 Arizona in 1997) won a title in the 64- and 65-team format. On top of that, just five more above a 3-seed -- No. 6 Michigan in 1992, No. 4 Syracuse in 1996, No. 5 Florida in 2000, No. 5 Indiana in 2002 and No. 5 Butler in 2010 -- made the National Championship Game at all. And just eight more seeded higher than a 4 made the Final Four at all.
This sounds very "status quo," but shouldn't it? The point of the NCAA Tournament has always been to crown the nation's best program after a full season. Not the best program after a six-game run through a bracket of random teams (who may or may not pose a challenge at all, depending on a multitude of variables). While this could've gotten lost in the 64- and 65-team formats, it largely stayed intact, as pointed out above. Upsets were fun in the early rounds and happened a bunch. But then things would shake out the way they were "supposed to." It didn't mean top seeds always won. It just meant that if you were one of the top 16 teams (and in many cases 12 teams) on the S-curve, you were a favorite to win the title.
Since the tournament expanded to include 68 teams in 2011, we've seen a pretty grand shift in the way things work. Take a look at the Final Fours over the last four seasons:
2011: #3 Connecticut, # 4 Kentucky, #8 Butler, #11 VCU
2012: #1 Kentucky, #2 Kansas, #2 Ohio State, #4 Louisville
2013: #1 Louisville, #4 Michigan, #4 Syracuse, #9 Wichita State
2014: #1 Florida, #2 Wisconsin, #7 Connecticut, #8 Kentucky
The sample size is obviously pretty small here, but in just four seasons, we've already seen as many teams ranked seventh or higher make the Final Four (five) as we did in the previous 25. In just four years, we've seen two of the only three National Championship Game matchups since 1985 that don't feature at least one 1- or 2-seed. Last night's game was also the first not to feature at least one 1-, 2- or 3-seed. The combined seeding of Kentucky and Connecticut (15) was the largest number for any championship game by a full four seeds (2011's game between Connecticut and Butler combined for 11, total).
So I guess my question now is: What's the point anymore?
Look, this may come off bitter seeing as the Huskies are a former rival of Syracuse's, but when a team like UConn puts in two underwhelming seasons in four years and both times gets hot and wins a title by some awful miracle, there's a problem with the system. While I surely would not be complaining as loudly if the Orange were the recipients of said luck, they were not. So I can bitch and moan as I please here without sounding like too much of a hypocrite.
The current format of the NCAA Tournament has ruined everything the thing was supposed to do in the first place.
And the worst part is, there's no way it's ever going back to the way it was. If anything, it may end up getting bigger, as our own head basketball coach would prefer. I know I'm not alone when I hope it remains this size, if not downsizes back to 64 or 65 -- a number that's already pretty unwieldy, but managed to churn out the results it was supposed to.
Parity may be good for the game. It's worked pretty well for the NFL year-in and year-out, and the illusion of parity is what's made the NCAA Tournament such a financial success. But on the other end of the spectrum -- a lack of parity -- you'll find just as much success. In college football, 60 percent of the last 78 National Championships have been won by just seven different programs. And that's the second-most popular sport in America. Over in the NBA, 63 percent of that league's 62 titles have been won by just THREE franchises. And that league is gaining steam as arguably the second-most popular in the world, only behind the Barclays Premier League.
Point is, a lack of parity doesn't have to be bad. And in fact, for a lot of sporting bodies, it's been a very good thing. I'm not saying the "fun" of the tournament needs to die. Just saying that that March Madness needs to find its way back to its original purpose: crowning a true champ. If it sounds like sour grapes because of the team that took advantage of this flaw, so be it. But if any other team had won it (Syracuse included), it wouldn't have changed my point much.