Like a lot of guys, I love ESPN.com. It tells me everything I want to know about everything I want to know about, with no hassle or fuss and a saucy attitude to boot. Kind of like that Robin Williams computer thing from “A.I.,” but without the droopy mustache or the evil.
Recently, however, in preparation for the impending NCAA Basketball Tournament, known colloquially as “March Madness,” the site has been running a lot of articles by someone named Joe Lunardi. Lunardi has been doing a lot of talking about the post-season chances of a number of teams, which would make sense, seeing as how he is an expert in a field called “Bracketology.”
To which the only possible response can be. . .Bracketology?
Did I not get the memo on this one? Did someone forget to e-mail me? At exactly what point in time did “Bracketologist” get put on the list as a respectable profession in this country?
This is what it’s come down to in the good old U. S. of A.: “the powers-that-be in the media have decided that predictions about who will get into the field of 65 for the NCAA Tournament are too important to ignore, and must have year-round coverage and attention. These are clearly the same people responsible for the national embarrassment that is Mel Kiper’s hairdo.
First of all, just look at what the job actually entails. Nearly half (31 of 65) of the slots are taken up by automatic qualifiers: the winners of the conference tournaments, competitions whose outcomes are so hard to predict that nobody (Bracketologist or layperson alike) even bothers anymore. That leaves 34 contestable slots up for discussion. Now consider that a great number of the Top 25 aren’t counted in that automatic 31. History shows that a team’s NCAA fate has relatively little to do with its conference tournament success, so teams towards the top of the heap tend to tank in these games, so as to save themselves the effort of a couple more games. Kansas, Maryland and Wisconsin all took this route this season, opening the door for teams seeded below them to make the jump upwards, and thus including themselves among the 34 at-large selections. Factor in the rest of the Top 25 who lose as well, and that flood of slots has turned into a trickle.
Only an extreme optimist would say any more than 10 positions are really being debated by the selection committee, and the true figure may be well below that. To push home that point, Mr. Lunardi eschews any comprehensive overview of the slots up for grabs, rather assembling his choices for the “Last Four In” and “Last Four Out,” ensuring that the hottest teams of the moment are in the inside of the bubble, and the losers of the moment are not. This is not rocket science, or even fourth grade baking soda volcanoes.
For that matter, it would be hard to find anything less scientific than the procedure of the selection committee itself. Few things in this world are more frustrating than the rampaging of a bloated bureaucracy, and the NCAA never fails to satisfy in this department, overly relying upon the highly suspect RPI index, and regularly producing obtuse decisions that no rational body would come up with, and no sane person could predict. This isn’t limited to the highest echelons of the NCAA, either – anyone around here remember Cazenovia?
But it isn’t even the fact that “Bracketology” is a scam that really gets me. This type of media hype, this rabid over-promotion and over-exposure for popular occasions or proceedings – it’s becoming pervasive in our society, and is threatening to ruin what is usually one of the most entertaining sporting contests in this nation. Outlets like ESPN and MTV, obsessed with getting “content” for their busy schedules, have moved on from actually covering what were once wild, unpredictable events and now actively attempting to manufacture cache. The NCAA tournament was once a pleasant respite from a dull February sporting schedule, with office betting pools and upsets contributing to a genuine spirit of “March Madness.” Now we have Dick Vitale and Billy Packer manning the proverbial ramparts, armed with bullhorns and unceasingly yapping about how great the tournament is, and talking heads filling the ether with endless promotions for “The Big Dance.” We have John Cougar Mellencamp, and “One Shining Moment,” and Jim Nantz screaming like a rabid WWF announcer. (“Oh my lord, I think that’s. . .yes, that’s Bobby Knight’s music!!)
MTV has been busy recently biting the hand that feeds it, too. For years, the MTV Movie Awards and Video Music Awards were genuinely superior programs, spontaneous and wacky shows that always upstaged the Oscars and were generally regarded as “can’t miss.” Then, they began running all sorts of “Behind the Scenes” programs about their own awards shows, running tell-all interviews with disinterested producers, hyping and promoting their programs to all sorts of ludicrous extents and going so far as to actually promise “to have spontaneity” on future versions. Predictably, the over-exposure resulted in a backlash against the awards shows, which now come across as vapid and forced.
E.B. White once compared the dissection of humor to that of a frog – it can be done, but the subject tends to die in the process. The premise remains the same for talking about the NCAA Tournament, because the last thing I want to see is for it to fall into the MTV trap. What Vitale et al. need to realize is that the product is good enough on its lonesome – there’s plenty of action and tension and drama in The Big Dance already, and all this hype that they’re piling on the top of it all is nothing more than overkill. ESPN and CBS made the NCAA tourney what it is today, but unless they back off a bit, they risk serious over-exposure – maybe something not even a Bracketologist could cure.