March Madness 2010 begins

I have to admit that except for watching North Carolina lose a couple of times and seeing parts of some Big East games, the college basketball season has past me by this year.  Which will not prevent me from filling out my bracket, of course.  But first the news that the NCAA may try to expand the tournament to 96 teams.

Stupid move!  These are supposed to be college students getting a degree not money makers for the NCAA.  Would the idea be to do away with the league tournaments?  Those are exciting and always produce surprise winners.  The NCAA would be better off figuring out how to get the players an allowance in addition to the scholarships – so they have a little pocket money for pizza and to take a girlfriend (or boyfriend) out to a movie like normal college kids. 

George Vecsey wrote recently in the New York Times

It is never a surprise when sports officials act out of greed — the outrageous prices at New York’s two subsidized ballparks, the gouging at the coming World Cup of soccer in South Africa, for example.

Sometimes, I am stunned when people don’t have respect for their own product. I am talking here of the threat to dilute the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament from a compelling 64 in the first round to a ludicrous 96. (The N.C.A.A. counts 65 teams, including the early play-in game, but I prefer to consider that a gimmick.)

This lumbering monstrosity is looming on the horizon because the folks from the N.C.A.A. want to make more television money to not share directly with the players.

The N.C.A.A. is thinking of ruining the tantalizing first days of the tournament, when a great deal of the nation roots for some zippy little No. 16 from a third-tier conference to upset a No. 1 seed. It’s never happened, but we can only hope.

The first Thursday and Friday are so enjoyable that I like the first round better than the Final Four. Coppin State beat South Carolina once upon a time. Hampton beat Iowa State. Santa Clara beat Arizona. Those are epic moments. Why diminish them with some low-rent first round?

Going into this month’s tournament, a No. 15 team has beaten a No. 2 team four times. I caught one on television — in 1991, when Dick Tarrant’s Richmond team beat Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse team. Nothing against Syracuse. Nothing personal, but it was fun to watch.

And the No. 3 versus No. 14 upsets? Fifteen of them. I’ve caught some of them, including Kevin Mackey sidling up to Bob Knight before the Cleveland State-Indiana game in 1986, saying, “Take it easy on me, big guy,” and Knight predictably going off, knowing Cleveland State was loaded and about to beat him.

No. 13 seeds beating No. 4? Twenty-one of them. I’ve seen Pete Carril’s Princeton team stun the defending champion, as I called it, the University of Catatonia at Los Angeles. It was hilarious, watching the champ trying to figure out the back-door offense. That’s what we want in the opening round.

More network money would produce more games involving the seventh or eighth teams from major conferences — teams that couldn’t even reach the semifinals of their own conference tournament.

Part of the fun is debating who from the bubble makes it and who doesn’t.  And winning a bracket means picking those upsets when 13 beats a 4.  Vecsey is right:  The early games can be the most exciting. 

Vecsey ends perfectly.

Sixty-four is perfect. Or 65, depending on how you count. Just don’t get too greedy.

Let the madness begin!  But let it be the games not the NCAA that is mad.

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