What an absolutely amazing opening weekend. There were a record number of upsets. A 15 beat a 2. There were overtime games, huge shots, blue bloods getting blown out, Alabama pouring in points as if from a fire house, and Ohio State losing. All of these things were inarguably great and largely out of the NCAAs hands. The basketball tournament remains the best thing the NCAA has and, for the most part, they don’t mess it up too much.
This season they were forced to do things differently due to the global pandemic you may have heard mentioned. In their scramble to make sure the tournament happened and they didn’t have to figure out how to make college football solvent, the powers that be hit upon two ideas that would be excellent if they carried them forward.
Every play in game on one day
The best part of Opening Weekend is grabbing some couch space, some food composed mostly of trans fats, a copy of your bracket, and not moving until nature calls or your stomach dips below uncomfortably full. (Sidebar: if you eat more on Thanksgiving than on tournament weekend, you’re doing it wrong). The play in games stand as something of an odd standalone to this. There are the occasional great matchups like UCLA-MSU, but that games like that are often preceded by a matchup between two directionals who are fighting for the chance to lose by 40 to a one seed. There is no sense of occasion.
This season the NCAA did what tournament basketball does best. It tipped four straight games off with a matchup at 5pm and went wall to wall basketball until after midnight. No break until a mediocre matchup in prime time the next night, no sense of these games being truly separate from the tournament like they usually are, no Dayton. Instead this season’s play in games felt far more like an appetizer than games battling with the NIT for eyeballs.
Running all four play in games back to back (and using two venues to do it) made the games that were played on Thursday night feel like a genuine prelude to the Madness starting the next day. In a normal year these games happen on Wednesday and then feed right into first round action tipping off less than 12 hours later. The teams that won head into their respective matchups just as rested as they would be via the old system. The teams waiting for them still get just as much time to prepare.
This is easily possible if they...
Play the tournament in one city
This may be a bit harder sell. What Indianapolis and the outlying area has demonstrated is that the entire tournament can happen in one metropolitan area without great difficulty. In an average year this would mean that for the first four days there would an absolute hotbed of college basketball action. Fans, teams, media, and traveling parties would all be in one enormous basketball centered free for all. It would essentially be media week at the Super Bowl or the run in to college football’s championship game. For programs it would be the equivalent of baseball’s winter meetings. Put everyone there and let March Madness be the party it should be.
The drawbacks are minimal. College basketball fans will travel so, as long as this Mecca isn’t on either coast, there will be partisan support. Revenue generated by selling tickets to sessions at different gyms won’t be any different if those gyms are in the same city or separated by four states. The benefit to the fan is enormous. Catch your favorite team in a pod in one place in the morning, grab tickets to a different pod 45 minutes away the next evening.
There are myriad cities that could host, as well. Eliminate the coastal hang up and New York and LA are obvious choices. Dallas could do it with no problem, as could Cleveland, Indianapolis, Atlanta, or many other midwestern cities. This eliminates schools having to do things like fly to a first round location, fly home, fly to a Sweet 16 location, and so on. Teams that are successful would end up on the road for three weeks, but maybe the NCAA could be convinced to provide them with warm meals with some of the billion dollars that would be brought in.
Obviously the first of these ideas is more likely and, frankly, more practically useful. What the NCAA has demonstrated this weekend is that, for all the rightful hate they take, they can put on a basketball tournament that never fails to be excellent.