For college hoops fans, this evening is much anticipated. On CBS we will hear that all-too-familiar chime signaling the beginning of March Madness. The NCAA committee will announce which 64 (65? 68? 84?) teams are going to the Big Dance. And through it all, we'll wonder whatever happened to the ACC?
Washington Post sports columnist and bestselling author John Feinstein discussed the strange demise of the Atlantic Coast Conference in his column last week. Having witnessed the nightmarish end of the UVA-Miami first round game of the ACC tournament, Feinstein asks,
That's the National Invitation Tournament, which once upon a time was referred to mockingly by ACC people as the Not Invited Tournament. These days, a lot of ACC teams call it home.
Ouch. And Feinstein is a graduate of an ACC school (Duke), no less. Still, he calls it the way he sees it:
Apart from the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, the choices are hardly exciting. Florida State is almost certain to be in the NCAA tournament for a third straight season, but does anyone remember the last time the Seminoles won an NCAA tournament game? Try 1998. Clemson? A year earlier. Virginia has won one NCAA tournament game since firing Jeff Jones in 1998. Virginia Tech won a first-round game in 2007 - that's it in this century so far. North Carolina State reached the Sweet 16 in 2005 and went to five straight NCAA tournaments from 2002 to 2006. Wolfpack fans were so happy that they practically ran Coach Herb Sendek out of town. Now, Sidney Lowe is almost certainly going to be sent packing after five years without an NCAA tournament bid.... The Demon Deacons wrapped up a humiliating 8-24 season Thursday with their first-round ACC tournament loss to Boston College and will now go down in history as arguably the worst ACC team since Georgia Tech went 0-14 in 1981, the year before Bobby Cremins arrived to resurrect the program.
Had enough? Wasn't the expansion of the conference in 2003 supposed to make things better (at least for football)? Wasn't the Big East supposed to be doomed as a result? And exactly how good is Duke, considering the teams it faced during the season and otherwise getting throttled by the Big East's resurgent St. John's? I, for one, don't have the Blue Devils going very far. (Yes, sadly, I do have them going further than my beloved but depleted Georgetown Hoyas—I'll be delighted if they get past the first round.) Will Kansas disappoint us again? And is Kemba Walker really a Cyberdine Systems cyborg?
Happy Bracket Filling.
UPDATE 1:30pm: Speaking of bracket filling, in today's Washington Post, sportswriter Eric Prisbell addresses the growing alarm over the newly expanded field of 68 teams—what critics describe as a shameless ploy to increase ad revenue by offering up more games. Since 2001, NCAA pool participants have had to deal with the odd 65-team bracket—a Tuesday play-in game featuring small schools like Winthrop, which would then have the honor of playing a 1 seed like Ohio State two days later. Pool managers could either decide to force a Tuesday tip-off deadline, meaning players would have less than 48 hours to figure out the field, offer a bonus for getting brackets completed early, or simply ignore the play-in game and enforce the traditional Thursday noon tip-off deadline. The latter also allows for second-guessing to get the better of us: San Diego State is my overall winner? What was I thinking? Duke out in the second round? Wishful thinking!
But as the Post points out, things are more complicated this time:
This year, the three additional teams means there will now be four games playing into the main 64-team bracket. And while two of them can be ignored as competitively insignificant because the winners almost certainly will be pummeled in the next round, the other two will pit higher-caliber teams, such as Michigan State or Villanova, against each other for spots in the main bracket as Nos. 11 or 12 seeds.
So what are the professionals doing?
Turner Sports, which now has the television rights to the tournament along with CBS, declared Monday to be National Bracket Day and is urging everyone to complete brackets before the play-in games. But ESPN.com, which has staged a bracket contest on its Web site since 1998, established a Thursday deadline for all entries, as has The Washington Post for its Bracket Challenge.
As for those individuals not involved in March Madness who are wondering who cares about any of this: Studies have shown productivity comes to a near halt during these next two weeks, whether you are in it or not. "Office pools, despite the warnings of law enforcement officials," writes Prisbell, "are among the country's most popular illegal activities. The FBI estimates that roughly $2.5 billion is gambled on the NCAA tournament, and only $80 million is bet legally through Nevada sports books. A good portion of the rest takes the form of $5 or $10 entry fees to participate in a bracket-pick NCAA tournament pool."
Now enjoy the madness.