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Pirate Notebook No. 341
Monday, March 31, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Football can't replicate hoops frenzy

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Nothing challenges the emotional pendulum we ride each March. Not the Super Bowl. Not the World Series. Not the Masters. And certainly not college football’s Bowl Championship Series.

In the pantheon of American sports spectacles, the NCAA Basketball Tournament tugs at our heartstrings more than any other athletics competition. We watch it, for the most part, because our expectation is the unexpected, and also because much of our bias is tightly bound to those hair-pulling brackets we studied for hours the night of Selection Sunday.

Unlike most sports, no specific school allegiance is required to emotionally invest in Big Dance drama. That’s been the case since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (now 65), and it will continue to be so as long as the NCAA doesn’t give in to overzealous coaches seeking an expansion to 128.

Seriously, do we need 14 of 16 Big East schools in the Dance? Hardly. That would serve only to water down the field for the sake of a few bubble teams from power conferences whose coaches feel a certain entitlement for inclusion.

It's not even the power programs that capture our hearts. Far from it. Deep runs by Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, and Memphis pale in comparison to George Mason, Western Kentucky and Davidson.
Ditto for the players.

We all knew that Tyler Hansbrough was a relentless competitor and that Kevin Love, despite his flabby physique, was as polished a low post freshman as we've seen in some time. But who knew that lightly-recruited Stephen Curry would emerge as the most dominant offensive force since Danny Manning led the Miracles on a surprising run in 1988?

This three-week mosaic of upsets, buzzer beaters, varied styles, and unheralded, undersized shooting guards annually leads us to a familiar question, one volleyed by both fans and the media. Given the excitement we experience each March, why doesn't major college football attempt to duplicate it?

Because it can't.

The most that a football tournament could conceivably include is 16 teams, and that would lack the charm of four No. 5 versus No. 12 match-ups, which annually produce at least one surprise. It also would be void of eight neutral sites that welcome eight schools for two jam-packed days.

A 16-team football playoff couldn't exist without at least two rounds of games staged at home sites. And as long as the Bowl Championship Series conferences control football's postseason structure, it's unlikely that each league champion would receive an invitation.

The reality of a football playoff would give us a first round match-up of No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 16 Illinois in L.A. And in this scenario, No. 12 taking out a No. 5 is hardly an upset, especially considering it occurs weekly in the Southeastern Conference.

Proponents of a football playoff use many points to argue their case. The identification of a true national champion is the primary one, but the notion that it would be more competitively equitable and that it could rival March Madness are emphasized greatly.

While a playoff would clearly satisfy the majority's craving to crown a champion, it probably wouldn't be staged in a way that is equitable to all schools at the Division I-A level. That eliminates much of the fun.
So does the lack of emphasis on a single player to whom Cinderella can hitch her chariot for a deep tournament run. That just doesn't exist in football.

Return to 64

If the NCAA is at all interested in tweaking the numerical breakdown of the Tournament, expansion should be the furthest thought from its mind.

While Jim Boeheim and Seth Greenberg both would love to see the field expanded to 128, most outside the coaching community would prefer that it drop back to 64.

The annual play-in game is the single worst idea since the Tournament's inception. It's even humorous that the NCAA tries to skirt the true definition of the event by labeling it the "Opening Round" game.

While Greenberg spent most of his time following Selection Sunday on the radio pleading Virginia Tech's case, Mt. Saint Mary's and Coppin State were hopping a plane to Dayton, where both were forced to again prove they belonged in the Big Dance.

And I thought that was the purpose of conference tournaments. All conference champions deserve to experience the full benefits of an NCAA bid.

If the NCAA insists on keeping the field at 65, perhaps it should exile the last two teams selected — which typically reside in power leagues — to Dayton.

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03/31/2008 12:41:50 AM

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