I can't think of anything that captures the essence of modern corporate America better than Selection Sunday. Four and a half months of sweat and blood spilled by on-court workers is distilled into numbers and charts, spreadsheets and presentations. Merits are debated by people in suits in a locked room -- it's the ultimate performance evaluation. It's the day when Hoops Nation takes a back seat to Powerpoint Nation.
Yesterday evening, when this season's final flowchart was made public, there was the same mixture of overjoyed jubilance and crushing heartbreak outside that hotel that we see every year. At our level, seasons with disappointing ends were validated and brought back from the dead: we're literally beside ourselves with glee that South Alabama was deemed worthy despite a semifinal exit, as Team USA generated the first two-bid Sun Belt since 1994. We exchanged happy e-mails (with lots of all-caps and exclamation points) with Saint Mary's fans, who will see their team go on to the Dance in the first-ever three-bid West Coast Conference.
But the side of the bubble wall with broken hearts had more of an emotional impact, it always does. Virginia Commonwealth couldn't follow up a regular-season title with a tourney title, and were punished with cold non-inclusion. And nothing was sadder than reading a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues from Illinois State fans, some of which made me dewy-eyed (in a Real Man way, of course). The Redbird faithful spent an entire week creating logical arguments that their team's credentials were NCAA-worthy for the first time in a long decade marked with mediocrity. If you've been living with this team day in and day out all year, then went through the past seven days inside your own head convincing yourself that Cincinnati was a "good win," today it feels like your pet died.
And this is why I hate Selection Sunday. The system of at-large bids, the cottage industry of at-large prediction, the will-they-won't-they that has less to do with basketball than psychological torture. All over a damned committee meeting.
It wasn't always this way. It used to be a Tournament of Champions. Up until 1975, each league sent champions -- the regular-season survivors, the tourney winners, and only a single team if those were one and the same. Independent invitees like Notre Dame and eventual Big East members padded out the fields before then. (Imagine an era where independent teams actually had a shot!)
The last pure, seedless, 32-team tournament occurred in 1978. Five teams we now call "mid-majors" (San Francisco, Cal State Fullerton, Western Kentucky, Penn and Miami of Ohio) made the Sweet 16, and Fullerton emerged Elite. No more than two schools represented any one conference.
The watershed Tournament of 1979 featured an expansion to 40 teams, due in large part to autobids for new leagues like the Southland and Sun Belt. It was the first event with numbers assigned to teams, and no conference sent more than two representatives. That year was noted for its Bird-Magic final (or, if you prefer, Michigan State-Indiana State), and its mammoth television ratings. You can't swing a cat at the Final Four without hitting somebody who recognizes that 1979 was the true beginning of March Madness, the moment that the NCAA knew that this was the "..." between "basketball" and "profit."
So it got bigger. In 1980, the Tournament was 48 teams large, with five ACC teams, four Big Ten schools and four from the Pac-10. As the Eighties progressed, TV ratings exploded, office pools became widespread, and low-seed upsets dotted the fields every year and captured the public's imagination. David beating Goliath was the metaphor for this nation's birth, declaring our independence from the No. 1-seeded British Empire. The Tournament touched on something tender in our American souls, and it was an unintended effect of the event's massive growth.
Because this was never about Paul Revere, or Cinderella, or picking the 32 most "worthy" teams. It was all about the Benjamins. Expanding the field to 64 created an entire four-day weekend of television, and lots of at-large bids ensured that large alumni bases at gigantic power-conference schools would tune in.
These "at-large" bids belong to them, and always have.
Imagine, for a minute, that Bird-Magic never happened, that the NCAA men's basketball tournament was still as profitable or televisable, as ,say, the men's Division I volleyball tournament. Perhaps the 40-team format would fail -- and it very well could have, the quick travel was a nightmare -- and it would shrink back to 32, staying the same shape and size as new conferences sprung up through the 1980's. Picture a 32-team 2008 field, made up of only tourney champions and a single at-large. Can you see it?
Yep, it looks like BracketBusters or something. There are 31 conferences in Division I, and within those there are eight big-money leagues
. The rest of us -- the "mid-majority," if you will -- make up the bulk of the NCAA's top flight. Twenty-two leagues (and the Atlantic 10) are hardly popular enough, don't have the coast-to-coast coverage, to drive viewers by the tens of thousands to their TV sets. If you recall, the TV ratings for the 2006 Tournament, "the year of the mid-major," saw one of the sharpest year-over-year dropoffs
since they started measuring such things. Cinderella sells, but she has a glass ceiling too.
We root for lower TV ratings. Especially it means a small-college team like Saint Mary's or South Alabama has struck deep into late March. Because it's wonderful when One Of Us breaks through and takes one of those spots that were designed for mega-schools that couldn't play as well as the Gaels and Jaguars did this year. But, at the same time, we recognize that they're taking advantage of a flawed system. Who knows how hard they would have played during Championship Week if they'd known that there were no second chances, that it was life or death.
You can (and will) argue that the at-large bid has been the springboard for mid-majors to great and wonderful things -- George Mason 2006 was a semifinal loser, after all. But who's to say that Virginia Commonwealth 2008 had any less potential? I watch a lot of CAA basketball and know how special that Rams team is, and have said for weeks that they would represent the league honorably. I know what the numbers say, and I know they had the knack of losing at all the wrong times, but I trust my eyes and my instincts. I was more impressed by this year's VCU team was than I was with that Mason team two years ago.
But we'll never know what they could have accomplished, because of our flawed system of gatekeeping.
When it comes down to it, "at-large" is just another word for "loser." Each team that was selected, that didn't prop the door open with a championship trophy and a net-cutting ladder, didn't take care of its business in its league. They may have won regular seasons, but they are not Playoff Survivors. That's a title that's celebrated in nearly every other sport -- look at the 2007-08 New York Football Giants or 2007 No. 3 seed-cum
-NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. And it's every one of the 31 true tourney champions can claim, but Our Game has a system in which it's okay to lose.
At the Atlantic 10 tournament last week, Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli addressed the media after a first-round win, a game that his talented team had to play because it had backed out of a first-round bye with poor performances down the stretch. Instead of critiquing his team, he went big picture.
"They think there is always going to be another game," Martelli said. "It's not just my team. It's all the teams. It's a societal problem... I don't see a lot of teams that play with this all-out, 'let's leave everything out there because there's no tomorrow.' It's sad to say, but winning and losing doesn't burn as much.
"Winning has to become paramount again for the game to advance."
Martelli's team, partially ironically, went on to collect one of those at-large bids. But he's right. The game won't advance as long as the system follows a corporate model instead of a basketball one, and gives gold stars to selected runner-ups.
Shrink the field, don't expand it -- make winning paramount again.