Canzano: NCAA Tournament is already a wild win
What the rest of college athletics could learn from March Madness.
On his way out of Las Vegas last week, University of Portland athletic director Scott Leykam drifted past the slot machines at Harry Reid International Airport and grabbed a celebratory scotch at the terminal bar.
Here’s to March Madness, folks.
Leykam’s women’s basketball team won the West Coast Conference tournament and automatically qualified for the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday, the Pilots (23-8) were assigned a No. 12 seed by the selection committee. They’ll play No. 5-seed Oklahoma (25-6) on Saturday at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
No other team from the state of Oregon qualified for the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournaments. No Ducks. No Beavers. No Vikings. But UP is in, which means Oregon is among 42 states and the District of Columbia that will be part of the two Division I basketball tournaments.
Think about the television appeal of that. By comparison, the College Football Playoff has awarded a total of 36 berths since its inception nine years ago and only two of those teams — Oregon and Washington — are located west of Texas.
The single-elimination format of the NCAA Tournament is appealing. “Survive and advance” is the mantra. The lights are bright. The upsets are wild. A No. 15-seed, Saint Peter’s, made the Elite Eight last season. But the secret sauce of March Madness is rooted in the college event’s national appeal.
Leykam had tears in his eyes in the final minutes of his program’s tournament-clinching victory over Gonzaga last week in Las Vegas. He was thinking back to three years ago when the Pilots won the WCC’s automatic bid only to have the pandemic shut down the season.
The AD and his coach, Michael Meek, walked into that meeting three years ago and informed the players that the NCAA Tournament wasn’t happening. Leykam said he can still see the faces of players. On Sunday, the program and its stakeholders got to watch the NCAA Tournament “Selection Sunday” show together.
Said Leykam: “You cry for the kids, that they get this opportunity. You cry for the coaches who have worked their whole life to get there. You cry for your ticket manager and your strength and conditioning coach and your athletic trainer and the people who work in silence for 70-80 hours a week.”
The playoff in college football will expand to 12 teams beginning in 2024. I spoke a couple of times with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey about expansion and the ecosystem of college athletics. Sankey’s conference has accounted for 11 of the 36 playoff berths in football. The SEC didn’t need expansion to continue to rake in revenue and win titles, but Sankey understood that shutting out the Pacific Time Zone was troublesome.
“One of the motivating factors from our perspective is the need for football to be relevant on a national basis,” he said. “That’s important for us all… we’ve not had a national perspective for the playoff for some time.”
Sankey is now one of the most outspoken proponents of expanding the NCAA Tournament field in basketball. In a conversation late last year, he referenced the delightful success of the baseball team at Ole Miss.
The Rebels went 14-17 in the SEC and was the last team in for the 2022 NCAA baseball championship tournament. Mississippi (42-23) caught lightning in a bottle, dominated the competition in Omaha, and walked off with the national championship.
Said Sankey: “North Carolina State was generally seen as the first team out in baseball. If the last team in can achieve what Ole Miss achieved, what about the last team that’s left out?”
More madness in basketball?
80 teams in the bracket?
A “first-four” play-in for all four regions?
I’m a purist. I grew up on the 64-team NCAA Tournament format. But I understand the logic of expansion and why the event is certain to grow. Remember, UCLA reached a Final Four after participating in the 2021 “first-four” of the NCAA Tournament. And we’ve seen No. 16 seeds upset No. 1 seeds in both the men’s and women’s tournaments.
Last year’s NCAA Tournament generated $1.14 billion in revenue. Think about what more games and more inventory might do to the tournament’s television value.
“I think it fundamentally is about competition,” Sankey said. “I haven’t even considered or projected whether there’s going to be a ton more revenue. It’s about looking at a team that was the last team in and wins the national championship and asking what’s the right spectrum from a competitive standpoint?”
So yeah, what is right? Would adding more teams to the NCAA Tournament water it down? Or make it even more wild and inclusive?
UP booked a chartered flight. The plane leaves for Southern California on Thursday. If the Pilots beat Oklahoma on Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPNU), they’ll play the winner of UCLA-Sacramento State on Monday.
It’s a compelling story, isn’t it? A mid-major college program gets a second chance to dance. This time against a team that shared the Big 12 Conference regular-season title. The magic of the NCAA Tournament. All that?
There are 42 states that know what I’m talking about.
I appreciate all who read, support, subscribe and share this independent endeavor with friends and families. If you’re not already a “paid” subscriber, please consider a subscription or a gift subscription for someone else:
The NCAA basketball tournaments are so cool on so many levels. I'm a band geek. Each team in the tournament brings their basketball band with them, on the charter, staying in the same hotel, etc. The bands play their team out of the hotel when they leave for the arena, play their team into the arena, and play at the game along with the opposing band. It's a (friendly) battle of the bands at each venue. It's a hoot. These kids work so hard at their craft and make it a real college atmosphere.
On a different note, I appreciate you giving credit where credit is due. University of Portland women in the tourney is great for the state of Oregon. I for one am tired reading about the other two school. Especially the one with all the money. Congrats to all involved at UofP.