The Madness of March and More

The cost and benefits of tournament play, and danger in judging trades

On last weekend’s Zone Sports Saturday, with the NCAA Tournament on our minds, Beau Bock and I took some time to discuss the merits of playoff systems in general. To be exact, I was extremely critical of the single-elimination tournament process (as opposed to the NBA’s series-tournament model), and always have been. Sure, the NFL makes it work, but that league has such unique parity from Week 1 to 19 that it’s hard, after the fact, to say any single Super Bowl Champion is undeserving.

I did, however, highlight a few of the major reasons I believe college football would greatly suffer in going to a playoff format, one beyond the four-team format already agreed upon. Simply put, the less exclusive a single-elimination playoff becomes, the more you diminish the importance of that sport’s regular season and any given team’s success within it, and that’s what college football has always managed to avoid. The sport is certainly different, and probably better, for this very reason; champions must play like them for an entire season and, as a result, every game truly counts.

In stark contrast, college basketball opens its postseason up to 64 teams and, in the process, significantly compromises the intrigue and passion surrounding (or, in this case, not surrounding) its regular season. Big picture, I’m obviously not a huge fan of the college basketball model, and hope and pray college football avoids going any further down that path.

BUT, with all that said, the mega-bracket tournament model does make for one obvious thing: a crazy, often jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-couch March. It’s drama on steroids, with some basketball mixed in, here and there. The NCAA Tournament captures the undivided attention of all major sports fans out there, and of every casual onlooker, too. Put it this way, if a person knows what basketball is, they are probably watching it in March. And even though I prefer a contentious regular season followed by a more traditional postseason, like the rest of America I certainly have no problem carving out and occupying a spot on my couch for the next month, throwing every sports-watching atom in my body wholly and completely into the madness that is college basketball in March. I’m excited…can you tell?

Breaking it Down

Speaking of the tournament, this year’s is as wide open and devoid of a dominant team as any in recent memory. Of course, as always, a top-seeded one will still find a way to win this thing. In fact, the long-cherished idea that March Madness is all about the little guy, the Cinderella if you will, is mostly a misconception. Forget winning it all, which since 1985 (when the tournament expanded to 64) has been done by an eight seed once (Villanova in 85), by a six seed once (Kansas in 88), by a four seed once (Arizona in 97) and then by a bunch of ones, twos and threes in every other year. But check out this stat: 224 teams have made the Elite Eight since 1985, and only one of those teams was seeded worse than No. 11. So, while the NFL postseason highlights the sport’s parity, the NCAA Tourney really only further reinforces college basketball’s longstanding hierarchy of the haves and have-nots. 

Anyway, I’m hoping my third-seeded Gators can do it this year, and we have a chance; Florida is the only team in America to finish the season ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. We sure do stink in close games away from home, though (all 7 of Florida’s losses came on the road this year and the Gators are 1-7 in games decided by 11 or less). And in a tournament dominated by favorites, a couple of things always show up. Veteran teams with size and athleticism (Miami) seem to have success, and so do teams led by Tom Izzo (Michigan State), top big men (Indiana and Cody Zeller) and elite perimeter defenders (Aaron Craft and Ohio State).

Philly Fiasco 

Moving on, I couldn’t help but laugh when earlier this week Philadelphia Sixers center Andrew Bynum finally declared himself out for the remainder of the season, failing to play a single game for Philly this year (after summer knee surgery, Bynum has to have it again, this time on both the left and right knees). If you don’t remember, he was a part of the summer trade that sent Dwight Howard to LA, Andre Iguodala to Denver and Moe Harkless/Arron Afflalo/Nikola Vucevic to Orlando.

Anyway, the 7-0 Bynum had major durability problems in LA (he played in more than 60 games just twice in seven seasons) and even the most casual fan had to know something was up when Orlando refused a simple Howard-for-Bynum deal and instead required it to include both Philly and Denver. Of course, with Bynum set to become a free agent this summer and his future health in serious question, he not only killed Philadelphia’s playoff chances this season, but his long-term market value as well. When the trade went down, it was assumed Bynum would either re-sign in Philly for max dollars, or sign somewhere else for similar money. Now, the dude comes with more red flags than ever and will be lucky to get a long-term deal at all.

Mostly, though, the Bynum fiasco serves as yet another lesson in the dangers of judging trades on paper, or simply too soon. At the time it was executed, pretty much regardless of who you asked, LA did well to get Howard, Denver improved with Andre, Philly was set for the future with Bynum, and Orlando was bludgeoned, getting back nothing but a collection of throw-ins. And, while it’s probably still too early to judge the trade with complete confidence, its complexion has certainly changed dramatically over the course of the season.

Denver has found success out West (47-22, 5th in its Conference), but Howard is acting a fool in Laker Land and Philly is out of postseason contention with an increasingly bleaker future by the day, all while Orlando found its center of the future in Vucevic (averaging 12.4 ppg, 11.5 rpg at 22) and a promising perimeter athlete in Harkless. Interestingly, it reminds me a lot of another Lakers trade, one they pulled off in 2008, when trading Memphis the draft rights to rookie Marc Gasol in return for brother Pau Gasol seemed like highway robbery, but instead turned out to be an extremely beneficial move for both parties. I guess, in the end, winning is complicated, life is fluid, and jumping to conclusions is just plain dumb.

That’s all I’ve got for now, folks. Have a great weekend succumbing to the Madness…and some basketball.