- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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The NCAA tournament is the best three-plus weeks of hoops, maybe of anything, on the planet. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. It isn't.
So I offer the NCAA 15 suggestions to improve March Madness. NCAA president Myles Brand can thank me later.
1: Quit trying to fake us out with the so-called "opening round game"
It's not an opening round game; it's a play-in game. Not only that, but it's a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio. I mean, haven't the kids suffered enough?
Nothing against Dayton, but if the NCAA is going to treat the 65th and 64th teams in the tournament like nasal drip, then the least it can do is schedule the game somewhere below the Rust Belt. I hear Orlando, Fla., is nice.
Or better yet, do away with the humiliating play-in game altogether. Or if the NCAA insists on keeping it (and it will), expand the tournament field to 68 teams and have four play-in games, all on the same day. Turn it into an event, rather than a stigmatizing, oh-by-the-way prelude to the real thing -- which is what you get with one lonely, obligatory play-in.
2: Be more like Switzerland
I'm all for rewarding No. 1 regional seeds with a tournament perk, such as giving them a slight geographic advantage. But the NCAA needs to be more sensitive about just how much of an edge it's giving these teams.
There's an advantage, and then there's a quasi-home-court advantage. If North Carolina is a No. 1, it could play in nearby Raleigh and then Charlotte. If UCLA is a No. 1, it could play just down the 5 in Anaheim (the Bruins have reached the Final Four the past two years without ever leaving the state of California for the regionals). Sorry, but that's tilting the court a little too much in favor of the No. 1s.
Neutrality good. De facto home games bad.
3: Mr. Brand, tear down that wall!
We have embedded journalists with U.S. forces in Iraq, but the closest we can get to the men's basketball selection committee is a lame-o "war room" cam?
I know the NCAA has tried, really tried, to open up and explain the selection process the past few years. And we appreciate it. But relatively speaking, the NCAA is giving us basic cable when we want the premium sports package.
Put a pool reporter or CBS' Clark Kellogg in the room during crunch time, come up with some reporting guidelines everyone can live with, then go at it. We're adults here. I think we can handle the horrifying truth of why and how some bubble teams get in while others are sent to swim with the at-large fishes. I'm sure Kentucky, Florida, Virginia Tech and, say, Arizona would appreciate an explanation, to say nothing of us watching on TV.
Then we would have the best of both worlds: more Selection Sunday transparency and Billy Packer, playing the role of Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., mercilessly grilling the selection committee chairman.
4: Enough already with the "student-athlete" designation
Because some over-starched NCAA administrator thought it was the right thing to do, or maybe because it just sounded good, tournament news conference moderators always are instructed to refer to the players as "student-athletes." Like we don't know Indiana's Eric Gordon is one and done after his freshman season.
I love watching Gordon play, but the truth is he didn't choose IU because he planned on staying four, three or even two years at Bloomington. He's more athlete-student than student-athlete -- and I don't mean that in a negative way.
I'm just using Gordon as an example. But the whole insistence on calling the players "student-athletes" always has sounded forced. Not because they don't study, but because the NCAA feels the need to remind us that they are students. I mean, isn't that supposed to be a given?
So can we just refer to them as players or by their first names? It's not like they're members of parliament or they're all reading Chaucer during their downtime.
5: The .500 Rule
If you don't have at least a .500 conference record or win your conference tournament, you're not eligible for the Big Dance. That's it, fellas. Take care, and drive home safely.
I don't care how difficult your league is, if you can't win at least half your conference games, you're not one of the most deserving 34 at-large teams. Instituting the .500 Rule would increase the value of the regular season and provide more opportunities for mid-major programs that sometimes get stiffed by the Rating Percentage Index. The RPI, which is used as a tool by the selection committee, isn't always the mid-majors' best friend.
6: There is no "I" in team
Officiating crews work as teams. But come tournament time, the NCAA starts with a pool of its 96 best officials and almost always advances them individually rather than as entire crews.
It might not seem like much, but, for continuity's sake, maybe it makes more sense to keep the best crews intact during the tournament.
"It's a legitimate point," says Hank Nichols, the NCAA's national coordinator of men's basketball officiating.
Nichols says the NCAA has the option of advancing entire crews and did so on a regular basis during the mid-1980s, but concerns about officiating neutrality crept in. For example, what if a crew included a Chapel Hill resident and had to ref a Carolina game? Or what if a crew that did lots of SEC games suddenly found itself officiating a Final Four game with, say, Tennessee in it?
Plus, Nichols says the NCAA does take into account how to mix and match the individual officials during the tournament.
Fair enough, but with so many officials doing regular-season games in multiple conferences, the neutrality issue seems less of a worry. So I say, when in doubt, advance the entire crew.
7: Trophy envy
Three really ugly things: the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, leech pudding, the standard NCAA championship trophy.
The country's best tournament deserves better than the forgettable plank of cherry wood with crystal and aluminum accents presented by the NCAA to the winning team.
Seriously, the thing looks like it was bought at a garage sale or extracted with a mechanical claw from a Chuck E. Cheese gift cage.
Time to step up your postseason swag.
8: Monday Night Madness
Tip off for the title game isn't until 9:21 p.m. ET. By the time the game gets over, CBS' One Shining Moment crew will need one pillow and a wake-up call.
Not even the Super Bowl or the World Series starts that late. Or as ESPN colleague Pat "The Tree" Forde says: "My kids spend all winter watching college hoops, then they have to go to bed without seeing all of the title game? Bogus."
The NCAA has two words for you and your kids, Pat: Red Bull.
9: Profit sharing
The NCAA has a $6 billion contract with CBS for tournament broadcast rights. And according to a recent USA Today item, the research firm TNS Media Intelligence projects the tournament will generate $545 million in advertising dollars (only the NFL postseason does more business).
Meanwhile, the players get next to zilch, and their immediate families have to foot the travel bills to see the kids play.
How about freeing up some of that CBS money to help defray those travel costs? After all, it's those players who are leaving sweat on the court.
10: More flashbacks
Every CBS broadcast during the tournament must include at least one vintage clip of the late, great Al McGuire saying or doing something during or after a game. I'll take the 1996 McGuire Postgame Dance with Syracuse.
And wouldn't it be nice if the NCAA could bring back assorted championship teams from the old days? Give those guys some face time, and give us some basketball history lessons.
This is a longtime Packer initiative. It made sense then; it makes sense now.
It's simple: If needed, re-seed the Final Four teams. All you do is improve your chances of getting three better games. What's the downside?
12: Go small
It will never happen, but a Final Four in an actual arena, not a glorified airline hangar, would be an old-school change of pace. I'm not saying to do it every year, but maybe every six or seven years.
I understand the financial benefits of a huge venue (the selection committee has a mininum 40,000-seat standard for Final Fours), but going nondome every so often isn't going to bankrupt the NCAA. I nominate Rupp Arena, Conseco Fieldhouse, Staples Center, Hinkle Fieldhouse (too small, I know, but what the hell) and Madison Square Garden.
13: More Kevin Harlan
You know when those little kids wipe up the sweat beads in the foul lane during TV timeouts? CBS' Harlan could make that sound exciting. The guy is a human amphetamine.
14: Less coaches
Seriously, I don't need to see another close-up of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on the sideline. I don't need to see another close-up of any coach on the sideline. If they begin weeping or start singing show tunes, then, yeah, feel free to aim the camera their way.
Otherwise, I prefer to watch the actual game. I can see Krzyzewski during a State Farm commercial.
15: Don't forget the little people
The San Antonio Alamodome is configured for a Final Four seating capacity of 44,536. You know how many tickets were available to the general public through the ticket lottery system? About 4,600, according to the NCAA.com Web site.
Altogether, including the lottery, hospitality packages, etc., an NCAA spokesperson says there were about 10,000 tickets made available to the general public, with a "substantial" increase expected for next year at Detroit's Ford Field.
Bottom line: What's the point of having the Final Four in a dome if you're going to squeeze out Mr. and Mrs. Joe Hoops?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The best three weeks in sports would be off-the-charts good with these 15 NCAA tournament improvements.