Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Madness is Upon Us

That's right, it's that time of year again. This has got to be the sixth or even the seventh year that I've been writing here during March Madness. Although these first few days of college basketball's championship tournament will always be magical, this year they will get I think a little bit less magical, for two key reasons, both ultimately tied to money and broadcasting of the games.

When the NCAA went out to bid for their new broadcast contract recently, they managed to sign an all-time record deal, pretty amazing when you consider what the economy has been like for the past few years. How did the ever manage to sign for a new record, even as television ad sales are slumping, thus directly weakening the value of the same NCAA package as previous years when ad sales were more brisk? Simple -- they changed the historical NCAA telecast package. For the first time ever, tv brought four separate television networks together to make the historic rights bid for March Madness, and as a result, you'll get to see games this year for the first time not only on CBS but also on TBS, TNT and even TruTV, which I understand used to be the old CourtTV.

You might not think this will impact you much as you watch the games, but I bet you will notice the difference if you are someone like me who in the past has downloaded the special web viewer for all the games, and who stays up all night these next few nights watching those buzzer beater after buzzer beater moments that only the NCAA tournament can provide. First off, the idea of the four networks wasn't just to spread the huge money around that it costs to purchase the March Madness package from the NCAA -- it's also to spread around where the games are shown. You will have games on all four stations during the prime time hours tonight, simultaneously, which can be a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. Yes, you will technically have individual "freedom" to choose which game you want to watch, and to some people that is a big plus, in particular I guess those people with multiple large-screen tvs in their homes. But for me, I'm going to miss all of the switching windows, getting to just plant myself in front of tube, turn on CBS, and vegetate while CBS's producer determines which games to show me, and ends up supplying me with a buzzer beater here, then a last-second just-miss heave for the win here, followed by a ferocious last-minute comeback by the underdog down here, all one after the other after the other. Don't expect to see that this year anymore, because now it will be on you (not on CBS) to switch from one game to the next. And, you're going to have to know real quickly which station on your cable system is TruTV, and where TNT and TBS are. I have had my new cable system for about six months, and to tell the truth I couldn't tell you where TruTV is (or if I even have it at all), and frankly I don't even know for sure about TNT. TBS I watch The Office on from time to time on Tuesdays, so I know that one, but TNT and certainly TruTV are going to be a real problem for me, and even when I find them, it will take days for me to really memorize where each station is.

Also in the chase for the almighty dollar, the NCAA opted this year with their new tv package to switch around the timing of some of their games, in addition to the distribution channels on the television. For the first time, on each of Thursday and Friday, two games were moved from the mid-afternoon slots to the nighttime slots, which was specifically negotiated as part of the plan to increase the overall revenues from the games that are played, in addition to being able to sell ads throughout each individual game which will now be shown in full on the four different tv networks. Two games may not sound like much, but with their removal on Thursday afternoon and on Friday, combined with the more staggered start times the NCAA came up with to help to spread out the afternoon games a little better, those of you who have made a habit in the past of spending the afternoon watching the first two rounds of the NCAAs will I imagine notice the void this year. There should basically always be a game going on starting from shortly after noon through dinnertime, but an some points it will be just the one game, and at others two or three, but not the four or five we have gotten used to in the past. And this trend of moving the games to the prime time p.m. slots will only get more pronounced as the tournament wears on, as even the third and fourth rounds next week and weekend -- when there are far fewer total games to be played -- have been moved to mostly or all prime time games. Gone will be that second weekend of staying home and watching college basketball from 2pm onward on the East Coast as part of March Madness. Those games will still be played, but you'll be looking at almost exclusively night games in the East as we grind our way down towards the Final Four over the next 11 days.

So the games that make up March Madness will be fewer and farther between this time around, and you'll do a lot more flipping with your own remote while you watch because there is set to be a whole lot less of CBS flipping from game to game to make sure we are catching all the exciting endings to these early-round games. But it is still March Madness, and that will always be awesome, the very thing college football wishes it had but doesn't know how to get to given the way the Bowl Games have infiltrated themselves within the conference leadership's psyche by this point in time. Even with the changes this year, these next four days are about as exciting a time in sports as you'll ever find, and as far as I'm concerned noontime can't get here soon enough.

I thought I would give a few general thoughts on the games, the seedings and the tournament in general here before things get rolling in a few hours:

The best teams? Unlike last year, when I singled Duke out as having no shot at winning it all a couple of weeks before they did just that, this year I think Duke is better than most people think. They lost some big experience from the team since last year's National Championship run, but they got a lot bigger and badder on the inside with some of their new pickups, and this Duke team I think floated under the radar quite a bit this season because the ACC was so woefully weak in 2011. But I look for Duke to make a big run and this may be the first time in ages that I pick them confidently to reach the Final Four. Ohio State and Kansas also seem to me to be singularly more talented than all the other teams in their brackets, and should be odds-on favorites to win their regions and advance to the Final Four. And in the Southeast, I predict a wide-open look as many of the top-seeded teams have not been historically strong performers in the Big Dance. In all, it's a year where I think three or four teams have clearly distanced themselves from the pack, but at the same time, one where any one of probably 10 to 12 teams could pull it together and win it all.

Looking at the regions themselves, the toughest region in my view is the East, where top-seeded Ohio State has to deal with a very talented, albeit erratic, UNC squad, a tired but very accomplished and experienced Syracuse team at the 3 seed, and an underrated Kentucy team for the #4. Any one of those teams could come out of that bracket, and, frankly, any one other than OSU could probably lose in the first two rounds without anyone being all that surprised, but there is a lot of talent at the top in the East, moreso than in any other bracket the way I see it. The West is also a strong bracket, as Duke got a tough road to the championship from the Committee for a change, as even though I think SDSU is terribly weak as a #2 seed coming out of that conference, but with the flaming-hot UConn Huskies as the 3 seed and Texas -- who was ranked #1 for the first part of the season this year -- as the #4. The Southeast and the Southwest are really where I think there is a concentration of beatable teams -- in the Southeast, #1 seed Pittsburgh typically does not fare well come Tournament time, Florida is probably overrated as a 2 seed in what was kind of a down year for Billy Donovan's squad, BYU I think is definitely overrated as a 3 given their #2 player being removed for boinking his girlfriend, and the 4-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in this part of the bracket are just getting over scoring all of 36 points in being ousted from the Big Ten conference tournament by lowly Penn State. And the Southwest may be the weakest of all, as powerhouse Kansas got the easiest pass this year IMO with Notre Dame as the 2-seed -- a good team but nothing Kansas shouldn't be able to handle -- Purdue as their typically overrated selves at #3, and Louisville at #4, behind coach Rick Pitino who hasn't run deep into the NCAAs in several years now.

In terms of early-round upsets, I look again to those two weaker regions to see most of the likely action among the worse-seeded opponents, since so many of the top teams in those brackets are actually weaker than their seed would suggest. In the Southwest, I think Vanderbilt at #5 is probably not long for the tournament, and could fall to #12 Richmond in first-round action; and I think my beloved Georgetown team could be in trouble as a 6-seed against VCU who played their way in as an 11 seed after beating USC on Wednesday night. In the Southwest I think things could get even crazier, as I believe #1 Pitt will have their hands full against the winner of ODU - Butler in the first round, and I think both Wisconsin (#4) and Kansas State (#5) could face tough times in their respective first-round matchups against points-differential leader Belmont and tournament-seasoned Utah State, respectively. I also think St. Johns is likely to take down BYU in the 6-3 game if we get that matchup over the weekend as most people seem to expect, after St. Johns beat so many big teams down the stretch this year in the regular season. On the other side of the bracket, I like Marquette to beat Xavier in a close one, although that game is in Ohio so it's hard to get too excited about Marquette's chances there, and I like Missouri to beat Cincinnati in the 6-11 matchup in the West as well, as far as games where I think we could see a significantly lower seeded team making some noise in the early rounds.

I hope everybody enjoys the games today, and may your team go far as long as they aren't playing the Hoyas.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home