Road to Final Four: So Fun and So Fundamentally Flawed

Four years after author's deep-dive study, NCAA basketball is still a sport in crisis. In some way, it's worse.

Let me just say that trying to save college basketball has never been easy.

God knows I've tried.

In March of 2015, working for a newspaper in crisis, your trusted correspondent painstakingly examined a sport in crisis and then laid out a power-point survival plan.

The main problem, then and now, is nobody listens.

My two-part story in the L.A. Times was so big and beefy the editors took Paul Bunyan's ax and split it two, running half on A-1 and the other half in sports.

College basketball was suffering with sagging attendance, lack of star power and slug-like offenses.

Teams weren’t playing games as much as they were fighting in phone booths.

Who would have guessed, four years later, that the newspaper turned things around?

College basketball is still a mess—but it’s a different mess.

The issues I examined four years ago had nothing to do with FBI probes or pending subpoenas that threaten to take down top programs and coaches named Sean.

Back then, mostly, what we wanted from hoops was the same thing we sought from our household toilets: less clogging and more free flow.

My complaints in 2015 seem almost Pollyanna now and did not portend wire taps on LSU coach Will Wade, guilty verdicts for shoe reps and Louisville being tapped this week as “one of the most non-compliant and dirtiest basketball programs in the history of the NCAA.”

And the worst, apparently, is yet to come.

But what about the game itself?

Strides on that front have been made. The one-and-done is still a joke and a menace but appears to be headed for extinction.

Changes were made to improve ebb and flow and the game is definitely, outside the Pac 12, more approachable and watchable.

Take Virginia basketball, led by Coach Tony Bennett, as an example: I used the Cavaliers in 2015 as an example of what was wrong with the sport. One of the country’s top-ranked teams was also more stifling than a summer’s day on Tom Jefferson’s back porch.

Virginia was “succeeding” with a death-grip approach on offense and defense. The Cavs in March of 2015 were averaging 65.3 points per game, No. 221 in the nation, while allowing 50.7.

Flash forward to today: Virginia is No. 2 in both polls while averaging 72.1 points per game!

The Cavs are also allowing 54.1 points, healthier than a glass of prune juice.

Yet, the sport continues to ignore the center core of my biggest 2015 complaint: the NCAA Tournament selection process.

The NCAA continues to have it backward by awarding automatic bids to the conference TOURNAMENT champions.

Schools that sweat and toil for months to win the regular season are once again poised to get bounced by a last-second shot at in a made-for-ESPN event.

TMG colleague Mark Blaudschun noted this week that Liberty (25-6), UC-Irvine (25-5), Belmont and Murray State (25-4), Wofford (26-4) are in jeopardy of making the NCAA tournament if they lose this week.

Does Irvine ring a bell?

In 2013, the Anteaters won the Big West but not the NCAA bid, which went to losing-record Cal Poly.

How can we have raging arguments about the balance of the 68-team field when we let stuff like this happen?

Back when we were still newspaper hacks, before we teamed up for TMG, Blaudschun and I put our heads together and presented a much-fairer way to bracket the field.

The answer was simple: award automatic NCAA bids to the REGULAR season champion and give the tournament champions an auto-bid to the NIT.

Make conference tournaments a heated battle for selected NCAA at-large bids.

Many mid-and low major regular season champions will end up winning the conference tournament, too, right?

Our formula, yes, may eliminate some losing-record Cinderellas with NET rankings in the 200s.

So what?

The glut of conference tournaments mostly exists to satiate ESPN, which overcomes not having rights to the NCAA Tournament by staging its own winner-take all event.

That’s great for ESPN, and promotion for the worst cliché in sports, “Cinderella,” but it does littile for the “integrity” of the bracket.

Blaudschun and I are also in accord in thinking NO team should make the NCAA field if it has a losing record in conference play.

A mediocre team from a major conference should not get an NCAA bid simply on the overall strength of a conference.

These are the kind of issues that keep top low and mid-majors out of the tournament.

Ask yourself: Should the 28-win champion of the Big West regular season be left out this year at the expense of the eighth-place team in the Big 12?

And don’t get me started (again) on why college basketball still plays 40 minutes with two halves?

Four years ago, I promoted the idea of college adopting the NBA model of four quarters and 48 minutes.

What, too radical?

How does 40 minutes for basketball make sense when college football and the NFL both play 60?

Using college hoop’s logic, college baseball should be shortened to a spirited game of “pepper.”

Also, at NCAA track meets, please cut one leg out of the 4-by-100 relay.

Enough already…nobody listens.

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