- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament have been filled, meaning we can forget about the regular season … except it seems to be forgotten nowadays way before Selection Sunday.

Once the bubbles burst and arguments about who did/didn’t get in die down, the tournament itself should be fine. It consistently produces some of the most drama, excitement and raw emotion that sports can offer. But while the final destination remains enjoyable, the road in getting there is a growing concern.

This might be the wrong time to mention college basketball’s problems, such as dwindling attendance, mediocre teams and limited stars. We’re still digesting where teams are headed and their potential matchups en route to New Orleans. We don’t want to hear about “saturation” and “overexposure” right now. At this time of the year, we relish the opportunity to see every game.

Conference tournaments continue to serve as tasty appetizers, giving us flavorful upsets this season in the SEC, Big East, Big 12 and ACC. The nation’s top four teams going in — Kentucky, Syracuse, Kansas and North Carolina — were dumped by Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Baylor and Florida State, respectively. No. 7 Ohio State and No. 8 Michigan State engaged in a delightful, back-and-forth tilt for the Big Ten championship, before the Spartans prevailed to earn the final No. 1 seed.

But even those tourneys seem to have lost some luster in recent years. Barely a handful of teams are capable of playing their way into the main event, while the power-conference heavyweights lose little ground in defeat, as evidenced by Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina earning No. 1 seeds.

The main question in most mid-major conferences is whether the regular-season champ wins the automatic bid and thereby keeps an interloper from knocking out a deserving at-large candidate. And arguing which of a few mid-major leagues might merit multiple bids always makes for a good debate, as does which schools should be forced to play-in to the 64-team field.

Speaking of the “First Four” nonsense, the NCAA should stop making us out for fools. Calling those initial games the “first round” is ludicrous, considering that 60 teams don’t open play until the next round.

The only thing the NCAA has done is make a mess of historical references. When we say Georgetown hasn’t advanced to the NCAA’s second round since 2007, that obscures the fact that the Hoyas lost their first game (in the so-called “second round”) last year against Virginia Commonwealth University.

This year’s VCU is Iona, a school most bracketologists had on the outside. Say what you will about VCU’s stirring run to the Final Four last season, but expanding the field to 68 teams has helped water down the regular season that much more. The bloated brackets last year resulted in the most 11-loss teams, 13-loss teams and 14-loss teams ever; there were five teams in the latter category, one fewer than the total since 1985.

Again, none of this should have much effect once the games get under way. The teams shown during CBS’s selection broadcast still broke into cheers when their names were announced, still demonstrated the unbridled exuberance that makes March Madness so special. With CBS and Turner gearing up to broadcast every game for the second consecutive year, the feast is almost upon us.

We should enjoy it. Forget about the regular-season problems for awhile.

But college football continues to be a jackhammer in basketball, chipping Syracuse off the Big East and Missouri off the Big 12. Many star basketball players continue to stay on campus for the bare minimum, increasing the disconnect with fans. The season’s early months continue to fight for relevancy, which will be near-impossible if, God forbid, the NCAA tournament expands further.

The next three weeks promise to be as entertaining as ever. We’ll worry about the four months leading up to them at a later date.

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