I’m a big fan of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, commonly known as March Madness.1 As a 64-team [*ahem* 68, but who's counting?] single-elimination tournament spread out over roughly three weeks, there’s simply nothing else like it in college or professional sports. The first and second rounds2 alone consist of forty-eight games in four days, reducing the tournament field from 64 to the sweet sixteen. It’s a glorious orgy of athletic competition.
This year, for the first time, I found myself with the free time to (theoretically) watch the entire first round, and in all honesty, I was just a bit disappointed with the experience. You may suggest that I might have felt differently had I shelled out the $4 to be able to watch all the games online instead of being limited to what was airing on CBS (I don’t have cable), or had I been watching the games with a group instead of by myself, but I say that you’re underthinking things, and in the spirit of public improvement, I offer a few suggestions on how the single greatest competition in major American sports can be made even more exciting.
1. More eliminationThe best part of the tournament right now is its one-and-done setup. No dragging things out with a best of five or best of seven series. Win or go home. It doesn’t matter how good of a season you’ve had, once March Madness begins, all that matters is the score at the end of the second half.
Wouldn’t it be even more exciting if the field didn’t just get smaller ever round, but the game itself got smaller? You could start with full-court games in the first round, and then half-court games in the second. The sweet sixteen would be 3-on-3, and the elite eight 1-on-1. The final four would be two games of H-O-R-S-E, and the national championship would be a slam dunk contest. Awesome.
2. More surprisesOther than cheering for one’s alma mater, the most exciting games are the upsets, am I right? 15-seed Lehigh defeating 2-seed Duke. Fellow #2 seed, the mighty Mizzou, predicted by many in the know to play in the final four, eliminated by, um, The Team that Beat Mizzou. Bigger numbers beating smaller numbers! Big schools losing to small schools! Teams you know and hate losing to schools you’ve never heard of and won’t remember in April!
Even so, the South and West divisions still find their #1, 3, and 4 seeds playing in the sweet sixteen, and the East has its #1, 2, and 4 seeds still alive. Eleven of the sixteen teams playing in the third round are exactly who should still be playing based on the initial seeding. Having five upstarts is great, but we can do better.
How? With a secret extra play-in round where 32 teams play for the right to face the sweet sixteen in surprise matchups! Lehigh may have beaten Duke, but can they beat, um, Oakland University? Perennial power North Carolina paired up against the University of Chicago!3
3. Total madnessSick of Charles Barkley in the booth? Put the man on the floor! Each team gets 5 minutes of play each game from randomly-assigned retired professionals. Play-in rounds not to bring new teams into the tournament, but where teams play for the right to use five alumni from a previous national champion team during one tournament game. In the first round, refs aren’t allowed to blow their whistles during the last two minutes of each half. In the second round, refs are required to blow their whistles every fifteen seconds during the last two minutes of each half. In the third round, Rowdy Roddy Piper refs EVERY GAME.
I’m telling you, people, we are limited only by our imaginations.
2. Even though the NCAA officially expanded the play-in game(s) from two teams to sixteen this year, and relabeled those games “the first round,” I refuse to acknowledge such a travesty until a single play-in team wins a single game in the actual tournament. Then I’ll think about it.