The NCAA men’s basketball tournament isn’t perfect. But it’s pretty damn good.
Yes, there are quite heated arguments annually over who should and shouldn’t get in, but in the end these debates concern the bottom five or 10 teams in the 68-team tournament. And if your beloved team is in that debate, then it’s 99.9999 percent certain your team is not in it to win, but rather to participate, which in the world of college basketball is significant in and of itself.
There are also complaints about seeding and geography placement, but they fade away as the tournament unfolds. These things annually play themselves out and an undisputed champion is crowned on the first Monday in April, or thereabouts.
In other words, there are no Central Florida scenarios, as in college football.
The fact is, teams outside the Power Five can cause damage in the NCAA Tournament. In the last 11 tournaments alone, we have seen five gate-crashers from outside what we call the so-called Power Five, one of them twice, make it to the Final Four, and two played for the national title. Butler, representing the Horizon League, came oh so close to defeating Duke in 2010 before losing to UConn a year later. We also had Final Four participants George Mason in 2006 (Colonial Athletic Association), Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 (Colonial Athletic Association), Wichita State in 2013 (Missouri Valley Conference), and Gonzaga in 2016 (West Coast Conference).
Granted, Butler, since moved on to the Big East, Wichita State, since moved to the American Athletic Conference, Virginia Commonwealth, and Gonzaga are all serious basketball programs. None can be labeled true “mid-majors.” But the Power Five schools still generally have more resources and are the beneficiaries of more TV money. George Mason is the true outlier of the bunch. What Jim Larranaga’s bunch did by stunning UConn and advancing to the 2006 Final Four remains one of the great shockeroos in NCAA Tournament history.
Beyond that, lots of little guys have their shots at glory. A 16-seed has yet to defeat a 1, but 15s have knocked off 2s, 14s have taken down 3s, and 13s beating 4s is not the head-slapper it once was.
College football is a whole other matter. Whereas the basketball tournament has 68 teams, the football tournament has four. The competition is fierce and the truth is it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but assessing all the data, factoring in what I personally consider the all-important “eye test” (scorned by many, I must admit), and then making a truly difficult mental coin flip of a judgment. Someone’s almost always going to feel egregiously wronged. Unlike the situation in basketball, the outrage is over not getting a chance to compete for the big prize, not merely to complete, period. Whoever 69 happens to be did not think for one millisecond it could actually win the six (or seven) games necessary to become national basketball champion. No. 69 just wanted to get into the tournament; no more, no less.
A month ago, the primary issue of college football debate was who would be the fourth team, Alabama or Ohio State. Alabama got the call and not everyone was pleased. Ohio State was very good, but Alabama upheld the judgment of the committee and will play Georgia on Monday night for the championship.
Now there is another issue. Central Florida is stomping its feet. Central Florida is claiming a national championship. Central Florida is even issuing contractually negotiated bonuses to its assistant coaching staff based on its claim of a national championship.
Central Florida had a great season. Scott Frost’s Knights were the only undefeated team in FBS (i.e. big guys) football. The American Athletic Conference champs did so by scoring in excess of 40 points nine times, 50 five times, 60 once, and even 70. They did so despite having an early season severely disrupted by a hurricane. They capped things off by defeating SEC power Auburn, 34-27, in the Peach Bowl. Conquering such a perennial outfit was impressive enough as a stand-alone, but the victory has even more significance since Auburn just happened to have defeated both Alabama and Georgia this season.
All of which has led Central Florida, its school president John C. Hitt, and its director of athletics Danny White to proclaim themselves the “true” (my word) national champion. They cite history, pointing out that until quite recent times there indeed had been major arguments about just who was the national champion, and multiple examples of multiple champions.
By the way, making a similar claim were the 1940 Boston College Eagles, who went 11-0 and defeated Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl when the Vols had already been, as was the custom in those days, named the national championship by the Associated Press before the Sugar Bowl kickoff (BC finished fifth).
Could Central Florida play with Georgia and Alabama? How can we say no, when it just beat the team that beat both of them? Football is a sport where comparative scores are needed tools since there just aren’t enough opportunities to get disputing parties together. Sometimes quality teams don’t even face each other in league play, which happens to be the case this year with Georgia and Alabama.
The obvious problem here is that it isn’t 1940 or even 1997, the last year prior to the formation and implementation of the controversial Bowl Championship Series, which produced a national champ until 2013. Like it or not, we have a system that works for some of us (my hand is up). It’s not perfect, and it would hardly surprise me to see the four become eight before too long. But even that wouldn’t have benefited Central Florida, which was ranked 12th by the Tournament Committee.
Rhetoric being the order of the day, opponents of the current system call it “rigged.” I’d call it “stacked.” The one thing that never changes is that no matter what system is in place, college football is going to produce passionate arguments, because key judgments about tournament participation are going to be subjective. It can’t be helped. Basketball really doesn’t have this problem. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Oh, and Central Florida: stop. Please. Just stop. Who do you think you are? BC?Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.