After a one-year absence and another year with only the most spare and (literally) antiseptic iteration in history, March Madness is back this spring in all its pomp and glory. Multiple sites, pep bands, fans, cheerleaders, a Final Four in a full football stadium — 73,000-plus will be shoehorned into the Louisiana Superdome for the final two rounds — one of the biggest events in sports returns to pre-COVID status.
The players are happy; fans are happy; CBS, TNT, TBS, and truTV are happy; sponsors are happy; and, not for nothing, the NCAA is happy — very happy. The three-week-long escape into bracketology and office pools and nonstop chatter about blue bloods and Cinderellas nets college sports’ governing body a cool $1 billion, approximately 90 percent of its annual revenue.
It’s the Golden Goose. It pays a lot of big salaries (NCAA president Mark Emmert took home $2.9 million in 2019, for example) and funds countless ancillary enterprises. Now that over half the country is plugged into online gambling, experts predict 45 million people could wager $3.1 billion on the tournament this year. Amid a year of NCAA tumult — Supreme Court defeats (NCAA v. Alston); name, image, and likeness legislation; conference realignment; transfer portal frenzy — the big basketball tournament that begins in March is a constant, comforting, contented cash cow.
And if they’re smart, that’s how it will remain. Said Mike Brey, Notre Dame men’s basketball coach, last August, as insiders sat down to discuss college sports’ future:
We’re going to have all these new rules and guidelines, but they can’t mess up March Madness. That pays all the bills. That’s the one saving grace.… I don’t see anybody messing with that format. That is just too golden for both parties. The format, and the Delawares getting in, and Cleveland States and VCUs and George Masons — I don’t see them messing with that in the near future.
This year’s version is back to normal in other ways as well. After a couple of years of arrivistes winning (Virginia, Baylor), many of the blue bloods, after a down year or two, have returned to the top of their game — Kansas, Kentucky, and Duke, primarily (all bearing the principal color of blue, weirdly, hence blue bloods?). All are seeded 1 or 2 in their regions.
The No. 1 overall seed, though, is Gonzaga. The Zags, a finesse team, very long on talent, have been bridesmaids twice in the past five years, falling most recently, last year, to Baylor, who out-hustled them from the opening tip of the championship game and won by 16.
Cinderellas are impossible to identify beforehand, but they are the obvious darlings of this event.
This is a single-elimination, knock-out tournament, so, unlike the NBA’s best-of-seven series, the best team cannot recover from a bad game and, ergo, doesn’t always win the tourney. Sometimes, a lower-seeded — sometimes radically lower-seeded — team does.
Cinderellas are impossible to identify beforehand, but they are the obvious darlings of this event. They are the element that separates this tournament from all other big sporting events. Every year boasts a Hickory Huskers (of Hoosiers fame), some of whom, like Hickory, have ridden a wave of unlikelihood right into championship glory — North Carolina State in 1983, Villanova in 1985, Kansas in 1988. Others, only to the Final Four — LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler in 2011, Loyola-Chicago in 2018. But all have stretched their 15 minutes of fame into decades, and into basketball immortality.
I would list players to watch in this year’s tourney, but only die-hard fans of participating teams would recognize their names. And here we run smack into one of the few problems of the college game. Apart from all the timeouts (eight media TOs per game, plus four for each team, making a total of 16) and the tedious official reviews that, when added to the timeouts, expand the last two minutes of play into time enough to fire up the grill and cut half the lawn and still get back to the big screen in time to witness the final seconds, the principal problem the college game faces is the transiency of the “workforce.”
Remember the days when your team unveiled a freshman phenom, and you’d think, “Wow! We have three more years of watching this guy!”? Those days effectively came to an end in 2006, when, concerned that high schoolers making the jump straight to the NBA needed more seasoning and life experience, the league instituted the one-and-done rule. Kids now have to be one year out of high school and 19 years of age to be eligible for the NBA draft. All the top schools grab these young studs, but Kentucky has had 25 such specimens in the past decade; Duke, 19. They are gone before we know their names.
The transfer portal — transfers are no longer required to sit out a year after the move — has replenished plenty of rosters with new bodies as well. Of teams in the field of 68, TCU has eight transfers; Texas has six; Iowa State and Texas Tech have five. Four of the top five minute-getters for Auburn, a No. 2 seed, are transfers; the fifth is a one-and-doner. (READ MORE from Tom Raabe: The Wild West of College Sports)
The combination of one-and-done players and transfers do not guarantee championships, however. Virginia, North Carolina, and Villanova have won three of the last four, all with star upperclassmen, and when a mid-major makes a deep tournament run, it is almost always helmed by players who have been together for years. But if you’re a fan of the perennial powers, you often lose the joy of watching a player, or a group, develop over the course of their eligibility.
In the larger context, these are peccadillos, however. The college game and March Madness, with the fans and the pep bands and the mascots and the school spirit and the office pools and the urgency of a knock-out tournament for all the marbles and players going all-out for 40 minutes, still beat the NBA any day of the week.
As for this edition of the madness, I’m going with finesse. The Zags finally get theirs.