Becoming all too predictable, NCAA basketball tournament should go seedless
I wouldn’t say the NCAA tournament is getting boring, just predictable.
I’m sorry, Cinderellas, but fairy godmothers apparently no longer exist. Or if they do, they must have lost most of their powers. The fairies might get you into the dance, Robert Morris, but only your wicked stepsisters, the high seeds, are going to be occupying the dance floor after the first song or two.
This year is a prime example. If the results went exactly as predicted by the seedings, the four remaining teams from each region — collectively known as the Sweet 16 — would consist entirely of 1, 2, 3, and 4 seeds. That’s exactly what’s happened in two of the four regions (East and South). Only two teams have “crashed” the Sweet 16 this year: Arizona, a No. 12 seed, and Purdue, a 5.
But this is just a continuation of a sad trend. Here are the seeds of the teams that made it to last year’s Final Four:
1, 1, 1 and 1.
In 2007 it was 1, 2, 2 and 1.
In 2006, things were a little more interesting: 4, 2, 3 and 11 (bless you, George Mason).
The NCAA tournament can still be fun even if there are no Cinderellas in the Final Four. Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly rare for low seeds to make any noise past the first round.
Let’s look at just one region, the East, over time.
This year’s East finalists are Pittsburgh (1), Duke (2), Villanova (3) and Xavier (4). Last year they were North Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Louisville (3) and Washington State (4).
But let’s travel back in time to the better old days. Ten years ago, 1999, the East finalists were Duke (1), Southwest Missouri State (12), Temple (6) and Purdue (10).
Twenty years ago, 1989, they were Georgetown (1), North Carolina State (5), Minnesota (11) and Duke (2).
Thirty years ago, 1979, they were St. John’s (10), Rutgers (6), Penn (9) and Syracuse (4).
Lots of people like to see the top-ranked teams go deep in the tournament — unimaginative NCAA-tourney-pool players, for instance – but not me. And I would argue that predictability has hurt the tournament.
Two of the best-remembered NCAA championships were those won by relatively low seeds that went all the way. I’m talking about Villanova, an eight seed, beating Georgetown, a one, in 1985, and two years earlier, 1983, when sixth-seeded North Carolina State upset No. 1 Houston on a last second-shot. The world will little note nor long remember North Carolina or UConn winning the title this year.
How can we reverse the predictability trend? If top high school prospects didn’t continually flock to teams in the Big East, ACC and other power conferences we might see more parity. But there’s no way to force the talent to disperse.
There is one way to break up the current monotony: dump the seeding system.
Theoretically, the best team should be able to beat any other team in the field. So why set it up so the top-ranked teams face only teams that are, on paper, inferior to them?
In the Kentucky Derby, the shortest path around the track, the pole position, doesn’t automatically go to the highest ranked horse or the betting favorite. The starting positions are pulled from a hat. Why not do the same thing with the 64 teams in the NCAA tourney field? It would not only be more interesting, it would be more fair.
Right now the first-round match-ups are like the sacrificial-lamb games we see early in the NCAA football season, a Nebraska bludgeoning an Akron. Seeding teams forces the lowest-ranked teams, the 16 seeds, to pull an almost unimaginable upset against the strongest, the No. 1s. Conversely, the top-ranked teams are given what amounts to a near free pass to Round 2. No 1-seed has ever fallen to a 16.
Seeding is a form of pre-programming, an attempt to create a title-game match-up of the theoretically strongest teams. The selection committee is getting better at this every year — to the detriment of the tournament. If you want to restore some of the fun and unpredictability of the tournament, cease trying to shape the outcome.