NCAA Basketball Tournament system needs reform


Kyle Arensdorf

Most people watch and love sports for the stories. They love them for the upsets. But for me, there’s no disappointment in sports like having to watch an upset.

We love an underdog story, right? It’s the little guy triumphing over Goliath. It’s Ralph Macchio defeating William Zabka of the Cobra Kai dojo at the end of “The Karate Kid.” But in a movie called “The Karate Kid,” shouldn’t you root for the karate kid, not the kid who just learned karate?

Sure, upsets are fun to watch. But if you’re a true sports fan, seeing a team work all season to get a high seed in a tournament, only to lose to a lesser team that had a great day, is devastating. Even worse, it renders the regular season a forlorn technicality.

And there’s no tournament system that facilitates a perversion of “crowning the best team” like the NCAA Tournament.

Putting college-aged kids on the other side of the country, making them play games at unfamiliar times with unfamiliar referees just breeds upsets. It evens the playing field like no other tournament does.

But fans just can’t get enough.

The first two days of the NCAA Tournament have been coronated as the best two days in sports. Nine seeds knock off eight-seeds, 15-seeds knock off two-seeds and 12s knock off fives. It’s March madness, worshipped for its adrenaline-inducing thrills over its display of basketball skill.

But why, as a culture, do we root for the worse team to beat the team who’s done better all season and placed higher in a tournament?

This may seem like sour grapes after the Cats were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Wisconsin Saturday. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a keen basketball mind who’d say the two best teams in the tournament played in the Championship Monday.

And isn’t that why we watch a championship – to see the best two teams duke it out for supremacy? That’s the point of seeding after all, right?

So how do we correct this fraudulent system? We make the two Final Four games and the Championship game a best-of-three contest.

Adrenaline junkies will still be treated to their precious upsets in the first five rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But when the final four big boys come out to play, cheap thrills will take a back seat to testing the best of the best.

And if the better team really is the lower-seeded team, they’d have no problem winning a best-of-three series. The eight-seeded Golden State Warriors proved it in 2007 when they knocked off the one-seeded Dallas Mavericks in a best-of-seven series. And the eight-seeded Memphis Grizzlies proved it in 2011 when they knocked off the one-seeded San Antonio Spurs in a series of the same length.

Neither the Mavericks nor the Spurs could use the excuse of an off night. They were bested by a superior team playing superior basketball at the time.

Shouldn’t college kids be afforded that same opportunity?