Tomorrow begins the greatest three weeks in all of sports—the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s like an Arizona sunset with Orange Dream eegee’s, the fragrance of flowers, Marvin Gaye singing in the background, all wrapped in bacon.
You’ll pardon my all-over-the-place enthusiasm, but after last year’s tournament was snatched away from us by the onset of the pandemic, I’m going to treasure this year’s Basketball Extravaganza. I hope to watch every single game possible. An added bonus is that with the University of Arizona sitting this one out due to a self-administered slap on the wrist, we don’t have to worry about which underdog team would burst our bubble by upsetting the Wildcats.
The tournament usually starts with two games each on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by wall-to-wall action at various sites Thursday through Sunday of that first week. This year, because of the pandemic, those first four games will be played tomorrow (Thursday), followed by wall-to-wall action Friday through Monday, with all games being played in Indianapolis (akin to the bubble employed by the NBA in their playoffs last Fall in Orlando). Business productivity is going to take a serious hit on Monday.
Then, even stranger, the second weekend (which has always been Thursday through Sunday), will this year be Saturday through Tuesday. The Final Four and Championship game will be Saturday and Monday, as usual.
Besides the UA not making it, perennial powerhouses Kentucky and Duke will also be sitting this one out. Kentucky went a stunning 9-16 this year, its worst winning percentage since (GULP!) 1929! Duke was barely above .500 and wasn’t going to make the NCAAs, even before they ended their season with a positive COVID test.
Just to show you how two bureaucracies can both be completely wrong—but in two totally different directions—one need only look at the NCAA and the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Over the decades, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament expanded from 16 to 64 teams. When they got to 64, they said, “Basta! That’s enough! No more.” Of course, a few years later, they went from 64 to 68. In order to get those four extra games in. (Basically, the teams number 61 through 68 play to get to see which ones are 61 through 64 before the real stuff starts.) Those four games are usually played on Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week, with the winners advancing to the group of 64. Members of the sports media and fans immediately began referring to the contests on Tuesday and Wednesday as “play-in games.”
The NCAA went nuts, claiming that, most certainly, those were NOT play-in games. They were official NCAA Tournament games and must be referred to as such. The NCAA told TV outlets that they had to do so or they would be denied footage of the games for their broadcasts.
Meanwhile, the AIA goes in a diametrically opposite direction. They insist that all state championship playoff brackets consist of no more than 16 teams. EVER! That was a good number of teams 30 or 40 years ago, but with the explosive growth of Arizona, in general, and the absolutely hideous increase in the number of charter schools entering the AIA, some of the Classes (e.g. 4A, 5A) that used to have 40 schools in them now have more than 70.
It’s somewhat standard to take between one-third and one-half of all teams to state. (Seriously, what’s it going to hurt to have a few more people being able to get to age 40 and look back, saying “Yeah, we went to state my senior year?”) In some of Arizona’s classes, it was getting to where only about one-fifth of the teams would advance to state. So the classes voted to expand their playoffs from 16 to 24 teams (which is still barely one-third).
But the AIA did the Dikembe Mutombo finger-wave, saying “Oh no, no! Not in our house!” All of the classes between 2A and 6A still send 24 teams to the playoffs, but the AIA insists that the first round of games (matching up the teams ranked No. 9 through No. 24) be called Play-in Games. Absolutely no one outside the AIA—not players, fans, coaches, the media, or school administrators—use that term. Everybody just talks about teams going to state.
I’m thinking that the AIA might someday change its tune. It’s a minor point, but if everybody is ignoring the ruling body’s lead, it might be time to head in another direction.
The NCAA Championship game will be Monday, April 5. That’s the day after Easter, which means Lent will be over. And that means that during the broadcast of the game, there will be one guaranteed winner: Popeye’s Chicken.
Extra Points: The University of Arizona women’s team will be heading to the NCAA Tournament this week. Coach Adia Barnes’ team was denied a chance last year when the Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic, so the Cats have two years’ worth of fire in their bellies. The women’s tournament still allows top-seeded teams to host the first two rounds of play, which Arizona would have done last year and this were it not for COVID. To cut down on travel and the risk of infection(s), all of the games in the women’s tournament will be contested in the San Antonio area. (Odd fact: The last men’s team to host an NCAA Tournament game was Arizona, back in the mid-1980s. They lost at home to UTEP, which was led by Tim Hardaway.). The UA women are led by Aari McDonald, who was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Arizona is not going into the Tournament on a high, having lost three of their last four games (to Stanford and ASU in the regular season and to UCLA in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. They should still be highly seeded in the first round, although their opponent was announced after our print deadline. One cool thing about the San Antonio site is that instead of the traditional East, West, South, and Midwest regions, they’ll have Alamo, Hemisfair, Mercado, and River Walk regions.