Change is coming to both of the basketball tournaments that always make my March so enjoyable. Both the WIAA state basketball tournament and the NCAA tournament have made significant format changes that will take effect next season. As I’m tired of being dormant for the summer, my thoughts on both are below, starting with the most recent development:
Earlier today the WIAA Board of Control voted unanimously to shift the state basketball tournament from four to five divisions. I’ve been anticipating and dreading this move for a long time. It would be an understatement to say that I’m not a fan of this format change. Mark Miller of Wissports.net nicely hit on some of the flaws of shifting to a five-division format last August when he critiqued an early proposal for such a move. While changes to the proposal since then have made some of his thoughts irrelevant, many of his key points remain spot-on. In fact, below I will say little that he hasn’t already (and will do so in far more words) as I detail the three reasons that I hate the new state tournament format:
1) Five state champions is too many. As the blog post linked above notes, every one of Wisconsin’s neighboring states has four state champions, and most of those states contain more high schools than Wisconsin. While adding a fifth division doesn’t totally strip the meaningfulness of the designation “state champion,” it’s tough to argue that it doesn’t somewhat devalue it. Truth be told, I’d rather go back to the three division format that the WIAA had around twenty years ago. There was something almost inherently logical about having champions of the large schools, medium sized schools and small schools. Now we’re just trying too hard to achieve complete fairness.
2) The plan does not seem to solve any sort of problem. If there truly was any glaring problem with the four-division format of the WIAA state tournament, it was that a small number of private schools have tended to snatch up a disproportionate number of Division 3 state tournament berths and titles. Addressing this problem would be a valid reason for a format change. Indeed, early versions of the proposal to move to five divisions did attempt to create a mechanism for shifting powerful private schools upward in the division structure. But the proposal that passed today does nothing explicitly to address the public-private school issue. And if that’s not the issue that the WIAA is trying to address, then what issue is it trying to fix?
Of course, an argument can be made that the new five-division format was created to give more opportunities to moderately-sized public schools to make it to the state tournament. While that may be true, the new format does so at the expense of larger schools (both public and private), and merely shifts most of the private schools that had been dominant to similar divisions that they were in before. I have no way of knowing how this will play out, but I’ll be watching very eagerly to see if private schools end up dominating the new Division 3, Division 4, or both (the smart money would be on Division 3, which contains most of the same private school powers as the old Division 3). Because it seems pretty likely to me that at least one division will still end up with lots of superior private schools heading to Madison each year.
3) Limiting Division 1 to four teams makes the tournament less exciting. I recognize that many of the great Division 1 schools that I’ve watched at the state tournament will now be heading there in Division 2. I also recognize that the mission of the WIAA is not to ensure the best match-ups or to create the most exciting state tournament possible. But quite simply, having eight Division 1 teams at state was fun. The attraction was twofold. First, and most obviously, you got to see eight of the biggest and most talented schools. Second, you saw a format where a team had to win three games in three days at the state tournament in order to bring home a gold ball. By the time that the state finals came around each year, I found myself caring a lot more about the two Division 1 teams because I’d seen them play for the past two days, as opposed to the smaller division finalists who I’d only seen once at state. More games created more drama. The new system increases the number of small schools in the tournament and takes away the intrigue of one division playing quarterfinals at the Kohl Center. Both are steps backwards, in my opinion.
Thus, in my mind the WIAA just made the state basketball less entertaining and less meaningful, all while either failing to address or poorly addressing the one problem that most needed fixing from its prior format. In the interest of fairness, you can read their explanation here, but I’m fairly unmoved by it. This, quite simply, is a terrible change, and makes me significantly less excited about the prospect of heading to Madison to take in a game or two in March.
(Also of interest, here's a running collection of coach reactions complied by Wissports.net.)
Turning to the NCAA tournament expansion:
As most know by now, the NCAA decided a few months back to expand the field for its basketball tournament from 65 teams to 68 teams. Unlike my general hatred of the WIAA’s changes, I'm sort of torn about how I feel about the NCAA expanding its tournament. On one hand, I’m no fan of how the expansion is likely to be structured. While details are still only speculative about how an extra three teams will be integrated into the tournament, the most likely format would be to give each region a face-off game between its lowest seeds for the right to play its region’s one seed on the first Thursday/Friday of the tournament. Essentially, this would add three more “play-in games” like the ones that have been played by the weakest two teams in the tournament since the expansion to 65 teams a few years ago.
As I’ve made clear over the years, I’m no fan of the “play-in game.” The the term “play-in game” has long been disliked by the NCAA because it so accurately reflects the fact that such games are basically illegitimate as NCAA tournament games. The NCAA has long made the promise that conference champions are guaranteed a berth in the NCAA tournament. To me, the play-in game concept feels like the NCAA creating a loophole to get out of its obligations to champions from conferences that are perceived as small and weak. The play-in game is technically an NCAA tournament game, and the NCAA therefore technically meets its obligation to put all conference champions into the tournament by putting teams in the play-in game. The 65th team gets to put a banner in its gym and everything. However, the loser of the play-in game never gets to experience the rush of playing at a regional site on opening weekend, when the NCAA tournament that everyone knows and cares about happens. Instead, that conference champ ends its season by heading to yet another medium-sized gym and playing in a game that, while televised, is watched primarily by gamblers and social deviants (even I don’t watch the play-in game). And if the most obvious method of expanding the tournament is implemented, we’ll have four of these games instead of one. Not exactly progress if you ask me.
On the other hand, though, the big positive to come out of tournament expansion is the TV deal with CBS and Turner Sports to ensure that every tournament game is nationally televised. This is a huge step forward for fans. Gone will be the days of praying that your local CBS affiliate would be carrying your favorite team's game instead of the other three going on at the same time. Now all of those games will be on either CBS or a Turner cable channel just sitting there waiting for you to watch them. For junkies like me, this seems to mean that we'll no longer have to buy the Directv Mega March Madness plan every March. While an awesome programming package in that it gave access to every game of the NCAA tournament, it grew increasingly difficult for me to justify dropping $70 for a package that's only relevant for six days. And if you dare to work during any of those days, or CBS just happens to be showing all of your favorite games, you can knock down the useful amount of content that you're watching even further. So yes, I’ll be excited to find out exactly where TruTv is on my television package next March so that I can watch the 4th best game without paying anything more than what I regularly do for cable or satellite.
I suppose what the question boils down to, then, is whether the added benefit of widely available, low-cost television access to games is worth the concession of four more meaningless games being added to the NCAA tournament. As a fan, I must begrudgingly admit that it is. I feel sad to admit this, as I’d like to think that I could suck it up and pay $80 for full access to NCAA tournament games to ensure that a bunch of kids from Winthrop get to end their season being throttled by Duke in a huge arena like they so clearly deserve. But alas, I’m simply not that principled. So, bring on the full slate of games on regular cable in 2011. Let’s not get too crazy, though, as I may have to re-think my position if this tournament ever expands to 96 teams. (And of course, all of this analysis changes if the NCAA comes up with a more creative way of expanding than I have.)
I guess we’ll see how this all plays out in 2010-2011. Enjoy tonight’s collection of former NCAA players wearing crazy suits and finding out where they’ll live for the next three years. I’ll hopefully find my way back for some mid-summer thoughts in a few more weeks.