Monday, March 27, 2017

Downsize the Final Four, please

The NCAA Tournament Final Four was played in a dome for the first time in 1971 at the Houston Astrodome. And, in 1982 the event returned to a dome (the New Orleans Superdome) and has been in a dome ever since 1997.

Jason Gay, in today's Wall Street Journal, urged the NCAA to go back to an arena setting for these final three games versus dome venues. His rationale is that basketball is meant to be played in an arena - an intimate setting designed for the game versus a stadium designed for Monster Truck pulls.

While I get Gay's point, the economics and logistics of trying to configure an arena for fans, media, sponsors, coaches (the coaches association convention takes place during Final Four weekend) and the general public is impossible given the demand for tickets. You're not going to put that genie back into the bottle. What needs to change isn't the dome locations but rather the configuration of how the dome is used for the Final Four.

The 2009 Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit was the first where the floor was placed in the middle of the stadium, thus providing additional seating. In the process, the number of quality seats declined dramatically and the number of restricted view seats increased even more dramatically.

The solution is to return to the prior dome configuration where the court was situated at one end of the stadium floor and temporary bleachers supplemented the natural arena seating on the other three sides of the playing surface. This approach, which was in place from 1997-2008, required a minimum of 40,000 seats, based upon the NCAA's venue selection criteria at the time. Last year's attendance of 73,340 for the national championship game in NRG Stadium, Houston, means that the NCAA would lose about 40% or so of the seats that it could sell if returning to that configuration.

The downside of this downsizing is that there is obvious demand for tickets and the experience of being "in the building." The upside is that the fan and student-athlete (you see what I did there) experience would more than make up for the lost revenue - those who do have tickets would be more likely to have good sight lines; the players on the floor would have a less cavernous space in which to suddenly adjust with their shots.

It's a conundrum that is a good one to have if you're the NCAA. Having experienced both the smaller set-up in a dome and the larger configuration, there is no comparison as to my preference - my "good" seats as defined by the NCAA in 2012 in New Orleans were horrid in comparison to my same section in 2008 in San Antonio. And, the spectacle would still be a spectacle on TV.

Let's downsize, shall we?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I I hate, this tournament

On Thursday, March 16, I wrote a post in this blog about "choking." And, 10 days later I need to stay off of Twitter as all I read are the plentiful sentiments about Kansas "choking" in the Elite Eight...again.

If fate is a cruel mistress, what does that make the NCAA Tournament?

You know the story line by now - Kansas, a number one seed, playing at "home" (actually, in Kansas City's Sprint Center 45 minutes from campus), with the Player of the Year (Frank Mason) and a once-in-a-generation freshman talent (Josh Jackson), losing to Oregon, a team who hasn't been to the Final Four since 1939 - a year when the NCAA Tournament consisted of all of eight teams.

This is what college basketball has become - a sport where the entire country takes notice for three weekends in March and early April. And, it's about what you do over those three weekends that defines your season for many fans and all but the true experts in the basketball media.

Look, I get it, it is what it is and it reinforces the magnitude of this tournament as a sports phenomenon every year. Even with all of the hubbub about the Super Bowl each year, there is no other annual sporting event that generates casual interest and even changes in work behavior as does March Madness.

It's the fandom generated by March Madness that suddenly becomes the source for opinions about choking, bad coaching and unfair comparisons. It's the reason why an adult fan leans over the railing and chastises Devonte Graham, a kid who went 0-7 from the field in what may be his final game in a Kansas uniform. It's why Landen Lucas, Kansas' big man, felt compelled to post an apology on Twitter for the team's performance last night.

I wish Oregon well in the Final Four. They deserve the berth and their coach, Dana Altman, is suddenly going to get his well-deserved due. But, as Altman would probably tell you, he's not a different coach today than he was yesterday afternoon before the tip of the game with Kansas.

For Oregon, the achievement was making the Final Four. What the Ducks had better prepare for are the future expectations that will build because of their 2017 success. For Kansas, the script is all too familiar - a one seed entering the tournament with a loss before the Final Four, thus piling on to the building narrative of Bill Self as a tournament "choker."

The NCAA Tournament is, indeed, a cruel mistress.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Get ready - in about three hours, you'll have a chance to hear an announcer utter the word "choke" for the first time over the next three weeks of college basketball, a k a March Madness.

"Choke" has become the convenient term to describe what a team, player and/or coach does when said team fritters away a lead or doesn't make the needed play. Some labeled New Orleans' loss to Mt. St. Mary's a "choke" on Tuesday night when coach Mark Slessinger inexplicably did not have his team foul late in the NCAA Tournament game when conventional coaching wisdom dictates that as the strategy.

In reality, the team or player or coach may be "choking up," but they're not choking. (Look it up.) And, this word has been used far too often as the convenient rationale for why a team gave up a lead and lost.

Did the Atlanta Falcons choke in the Super Bowl? Maybe. Or, maybe they just got beat by a super hero quarterback named Brady. Did Providence choke last night in the play-in NCAA Tournament game versus USC? Maybe. But, don't tell Bennie Boatwright as that would diminish his 24 point effort and big-shot making for the Trojans.

If you haven't guessed, I'm tired of the use of the word and as the easy path to explain away a loss by someone who was expected to win. To use it so cavalierly is to diminish the reality and the drama of sports - if everyone who was supposed to win always won, sports would be pretty boring and March Madness wouldn't be March Madness.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Start the madness!

It's pretty delicious, isn't it, this thing called March Madness? Where else in sports can you watch hours upon hours of coverage of pundits debating why a certain 12 seed will beat a 5 seed, or why so-and-so Tech deserves a spot in the field of 68?

We get oodles of coverage, of course, on the Super Bowl and other major sporting events. But nothing matches the over-abundance of debate, hand-wringing and predictions that immediately commence upon the reveal of the bracket on Selection Sunday. The bracket was unveiled yesterday around 4:45 p.m. CDT/5:45 p.m. EDT and the Twitter-sphere immediately went into hyper-drive. ESPN devoted two hours of broadcast coverage AFTER CBS' 90 minute show and that doesn't even count what was going on across other media outlets.

It's the blessing and the curse of college basketball - March makes fans of almost every human being in our country but only a fraction of those actually viewed a game during the regular season.

So, lemming that I am, let me join the chorus of those writing, posting, blogging and weighing in on this year's 2017 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship. (Yes, that's the official name of the tournament.)

Duke did not get screwed. There is one simple criteria that needs to be implemented immediately in the selection process - it's that only regular season conference champions are eligible to be a 1 seed in the tournament. North Carolina won the regular season ACC conference championship. The ACC is arguably the best league in the country. Thus, they deserve the 1 seed - not Duke. Yes, I know that Duke won two of three games this season against the Tarheels...but they did not win the regular season conference crown. Argument over...move on.

Wichita State did get screwed...and so did Kentucky. It's easy to say that Wichita State, and teams of its ilk, should play a tougher regular season non-conference schedule in order to boost their tournament bonafides. But, c'mon, if you're a Power Five conference school, are the Shockers someone that you want to take on? Absolutely not! Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament championships but, to their detriment, lost to tourney teams Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State during the regular season. For that, they're seeded 10th. And, for that, Kentucky can look ahead to a likely second round matchup against - yep - Wichita State.

Pay attention - this may be the best freshman class yet. While Washington's Markelle Fultz, the consensus #1 pick in the June NBA Draft, is not playing in the tournament, there are plenty of impact freshman who are hoping to use the tournament to further showcase their skills. Kentucky's duo of Malik Monk and De'Aron Fox, Josh Jackson (Kansas), Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Jayson Tatum (Duke), Harry Giles (Duke), Jonathan Isaac (Florida State) and Lauri Markkanen all figure to play prominent roles with their team's title hopes. And, all will very likely declare for the NBA Draft once the tournament is over.

Intriguing matchup possibilities? You bet! The tournament never disappoints in the various storylines that develop in the early rounds. Kansas alum Danny Manning will lead his Wake Forest team against former in-state rival Kansas State in a play-in game. Florida State will have its hands full with Dunk City, a k a Florida Gulf Coast University. Former Southwest Conference rivals SMU and Baylor could meet in the round of 32. And, how about intriguing 4 seed versus 5 seed matchup possibilities like West Virginia-Notre Dame and Purdue-Iowa State, both games offering teams with very differing styles of play?

What the heck is a KenPom? Ken Pomeroy brought the world of advanced analytics to college basketball. And, if data is your thing, then take note that Kansas is the lowest KenPom ranked 1 seed at #10, and that teams like West Virginia (4 seed/5 KenPom), Virginia (5 seed/7 KenPom) and Wichita State (10 seed/8 KenPom) are under-seeded.

Who does Vegas like? In the always-interesting 5 versus 12 seed matchups, Vegas has Minnesota versus Middle Tennessee State as a Pick 'Em. For national champion, two different sports books disagree - one has Duke as the favorite and another has North Carolina.

It's March. It's here. Let's start the madness!